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Russia-UK Standoff Shows the New War at Sea Has Gone Global

Russia-UK Standoff Shows the New War at Sea Has Gone Global

Saturday, 3 July, 2021 - 05:15

The last time Russia and the UK were at odds in the Black Sea was during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century. Most famous for the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” immortalized by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the three-year conflict also introduced the use in combat of the telegraph, railway transportation of troops, and highly explosive naval shells.

The sorts of territorial disputes that drove the Crimean War are back in the news, with the two nations facing off in the contested waters around Ukraine last week, in ways that are still only becoming clear.

The Defender, one of the most modern destroyers in the British Navy, was transiting between two Black Sea ports on June 23. Its route was through waters claimed as territorial seas by the Russian Federation, based on the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Russia claimed that one of its warships fired warning shots, and that Russian aircraft dropped bombs near the British vessel. Both claims were subsequently denied by the UK. It occurred near Sevastopol, a port and naval base I visited several times as military commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The incident was all the more notable given the conflicting accounts. The Russians provided detail: Four bombs dropped ahead of the Defender by an Su-24 warplane. If true, it is striking that Russia was willing to fire shots and drop ordnance in the vicinity of a NATO member’s warship.

The British seemed to shrug it off, with Defense Minister Ben Wallace saying simply that Defender “carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea.” However, according to British press reports, the UK government knew the Defender’s mission from the Ukrainian port would be a provocation to Russia, and the foray had been personally approved by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The root of the Black Sea dispute is that the UK (and the rest of NATO) support Ukraine’s position that the 2014 invasion by Russia and subsequent annexation of Crimea was a violation of international law. Britain continues to recognize the territorial seas off Crimea as belonging to Ukraine, and was exercising the well-recognized right of innocent passage for warships under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, to which Russia, the UK and Ukraine are all signatories.

This is at the heart of an emerging “great game” at sea — a modern version of the short-of-war gamesmanship between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century — with authoritarian states disputing warship transits allowed under international law.

Indeed, what matters is not the Black Sea setting but the larger principle of freedom of the high seas. I asked several senior naval officers (both US and British) about this incident and similar US actions in the South China Sea around the militarized artificial islands Beijing has built. The consensus was that we are going to see a great deal more such challenges between the Western allies and the growing authoritarian alignment of China and Russia. One British officer sent me a headline from the Daily Telegraph that read, “Britain is still the world’s second naval power and it is up to us to uphold the law.”

The UK is also sending a powerful carrier strike group, centered on the 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth, to the western Pacific. There she will join warships from the US, France, Australia and Germany, among others, in participating in such freedom-of-navigation patrols. It is likely that the Quad — an alignment of Australia, India, Japan and the US — will consider similar missions. There may also be joint operations by the US and allies around islands claimed by Iran in the Arabian Gulf, and perhaps near islands disputed by Japan and China in the East China Sea.

While the US has foolishly remained out of the law of the sea treaty (based on ersatz arguments about international authority over seabed mining), it still adheres to essentially all the provisions. It is a powerful and comprehensive document, exhaustively negotiated in the early 1980s, that ensures the high-seas freedoms on which the global economy depends. Defending it, in the Black Sea or the South China Sea or anywhere else, is good for the global order.

The Defender is a well-named warship indeed, on an important mission defending maritime freedom in the new great game at sea.


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