Russia-UK clash highlights reality of new cold war


When two nuclear powers flex their military muscles at a historical conflict fault line, the world should sit up and pay attention. Different narratives have been circulating as to what happened off the Crimean Peninsula last week, but what is clear is that Russian forces tried to intimidate the British warship HMS Defender.
The official Russian narrative is that naval patrol boats fired shots at the Type 45 destroyer, while planes dropped bombs in its path, all as a warning. The UK position is that none of this happened and the ship was on a course between Odessa and Georgia on a recognized shipping lane, albeit through the territorial waters of occupied Crimea. The Royal Navy knew that a Russian military exercise was in progress. A BBC reporter on board the Defender reported Russian planes flying nearby and distant explosions, but no warning shots.
The truth of this June 23 encounter may never be known. Was this a deliberate British provocation done with prior US knowledge? Did the British ship change course? If the Russian version has some truth to it, why aren’t videos of the incident being aired on one of Moscow’s myriad propaganda outlets?
All of this can only be understood with a thorough understanding of both Russia’s history and its perceived geostrategic interests. This explains why Crimea will remain a source of tensions with NATO, which refuses to cave in to President Vladimir Putin and considers Russia’s March 2014 annexation of the Black Sea peninsula as illegal.
Why does Crimea matter so much? For Putin and many Russians, it is part of Russia. It means far more to Russians than, say, Syria. About 60 percent of Crimea’s population speaks Russian. When Russia seized Crimea, Putin said he did so to defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Many Russians cannot forgive Nikita Khrushchev for giving the peninsula away to Ukraine in 1954 or Boris Yeltsin for confirming this following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is not just Putin who saw this loss as a national humiliation.
Russia has wanted to dominate the area ever since it became a Black Sea power at the tail end of the 18th century. To this end, it fought numerous wars with the Ottoman Empire, notably the Crimean War of 1853-56. What alarms Putin and other Russian nationalists is that, of the six Black Sea littoral states, three are now members of NATO. Ukraine would like to become the fourth, having applied to join in 2017. For Putin, this is NATO playing dirty tricks in Russia’s backyard. It also explains why it would be a huge strategic victory if Putin’s cozying up to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were to peel Turkey away from the alliance.
Russia’s entry into the First World War was, in part, designed to seize the Turkish straits. These were closed to Russian shipping in the war, imposing a crippling blockade. Moscow wanted to control the Bosphorus but lost out as Turkey secured full rights in the 1936 Montreux Convention. This means Turkey can close this strait and, while Russian ships can transit, they can do so only in small numbers. Russian aircraft carriers were only allowed through from 1976.
All of this only serves to highlight Russian vulnerabilities. Putin is well aware that Crimea’s Sevastopol serves as Russia’s only warm water port. It is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. All its other ports are blocked by ice for large parts of the year. This is despite having 37,000 km of coastline. In fact, Russia’s expansion of its Tartus naval base has been one of the few gains for Putin in his war in Syria, but that port is too small to act as a substitute for the facilities at Sevastopol. Russian ships can only transit the Bosphorus with a NATO member’s permission and can only exit the Mediterranean, which hosts eight NATO powers, either via the choke points of the Suez Canal or the Strait of Gibraltar. The ships of its Baltic Fleet have to traverse the narrow Skagerrak strait that runs between Norway and Denmark. Therefore, Russian leaders have always felt penned in.
Russia has, since the annexation of Crimea, worked overtime to shore up its military and naval presence there. It is not impossible that Putin will transfer nuclear weapons to the peninsula, Ukraine having given up its arsenal in 1994. A show of force against the much-hated UK works well for Putin domestically, particularly if he can portray the Brits as running scared.
The question remains: If NATO powers try this again, what will Russia’s reaction be? They might assert the right to peaceful transit in what they maintain are Ukrainian territorial waters. It is welcome that NATO powers are standing up for an important issue of international law, even if they are being very selective. Palestinians might wonder why the Royal Navy has not anchored off the coast of Gaza to deliver vital aid. The occupation of Palestinian lands is just accepted, whereas the Russian occupation is not.
Moscow has, since the annexation of Crimea, worked overtime to shore up its military and naval presence there.
Testing times are ahead. Ukraine is co-hosting with the US Sixth Fleet the major naval exercise Sea Breeze, which involves 32 nations, including NATO allies, in the Black Sea from now until July 4. Moscow strongly objects, but it is a timely opportunity to demonstrate that Ukraine has allies and will not be intimidated by Russian bullying.
The world’s diplomats need to work overtime on this issue, but Western nations remain divided as to how to proceed. The EU had a bitter summit last week, at which a French and German attempt to push for a Brussels-hosted summit with Russia were voted down. US President Joe Biden’s summit with Putin appeared to go well, but it is early days and the real tests of their relationship are yet to come. –AN