A photo provided by Russian state media shows how close a Russian vessel came to HMS Defender on June 23.

A photo provided by Russian state media shows how close a Russian vessel came to HMS Defender on June 23. Russian Federal Security Service\TASS via Getty Images

Black Sea Incident Shows Russia's Determination to Claim Waters Illegally

The British warship was conducting a freedom-of-navigation exercise when it was harassed by Russian forces.

Amid the confusion about just what happened when Russian forces fired near a Royal Navy destroyer in the Black Sea on Wednesday, it’s important to remember just what the British ship was doing there in the first place: pushing back on Moscow’s efforts to call those international waters their own.

“This was really [an] important step in communicating to the Kremlin that their claims to Crimea are in fact illegal,” said Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army Europe until 2018. “And that nobody in the world recognizes those claims, and therefore, these waters are Ukrainian waters, exactly as the Royal Navy said yesterday.” 

Hodges said Russian leaders have faced inadequate consequences for annexing the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014 and for forcefully exerting influence in other countries on the Black Sea, as in its 2008 war with Georgia. Three NATO countries—Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey—also have a coast on the Black Sea.

Although the sea is international waters, only warships from the countries along its coastline can stay more than three weeks under the Montreux Convention of 1936. Hodges said this means the United States has to figure out how to support local allies to counter Russia.

Russia’s military first claimed on Wednesday that it had to fire warning shots on the HMS Defender and drop bombs in its path in order to push it out of what they claimed is their territorial waters south of Sevastopol, near Cape Fiolent on the Crimean Peninsula.

The United Kingdom pushed back, stating that the destroyer had not been fired upon and they were transiting through Ukrainian waters under innocent passage. A BBC Correspondent on the Defender said the ship was followed by more than 20 Russian aircraft and two coast guard ships.

“We don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, it was illegal. These are Ukrainian waters, and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday.

Hodges called Russia’s response to the destroyer’s transit a “massive overreaction.” The Russian military has conducted dangerous and unprofessional behavior with ships and aircraft in the Black Sea in the past, including their military aircraft not transmitting its transponder code, but this was different because it involved the British Royal Navy, a NATO ally. Freedom of navigation operations are ways to help stop Russia’s behavior in the region, he said, but they are not common in the Black Sea.

Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Comer, a spokesman for U.S. Sixth Fleet, would not comment on the incident. Regarding the rules and norms of warships sailing in the Black Sea, Comer said in an email that the “U.S. Navy always operates in accordance with international law and customs and expects others to operate in the same manner.”

The incident happened just days before the start of the annual Sea Breeze 2021 maritime exercise in the Black Sea, co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine. The exercise is meant to improve interoperability and capability among the 32 participating countries, including several Black Sea states, according to a Navy statement. It’s also about deterrence, Hodges said.

“The whole point is to not only improve capability but to demonstrate that the Black Sea is international water. It is not Russia's lake, it’s nobody's lake, it's international water. But you have to enforce that,” he said.

Russia will most likely send vessels and aircraft to approach or shadow the exercising forces, Hodges said, but he does not expect them to fire warning shots because there will be European nations participating that they would rather not antagonize.

Yet Wednesday’s incident might not be the end of the summer’s aggressive Russian behavior. The troops, ships, and equipment that they had near the Ukrainian border in April are still in the region, Hodges said, and they may be look for an opening to provoke Ukraine.

“I think that their reaction yesterday demonstrates a willingness to escalate more quickly than is necessary,” he said. “The Russians will stop only when they are stopped…They only respect strength and they despise weakness.”