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HMS Defender: what this episode tells us about British naval power in the ‘Global Britain’ era

Members of public wave as the British destroyer HMS Defender leaves Portsmouth Harbour, May 2021
HMS Defender: 21st-century British sea power. Kevin Shipp via Shutterstock

The naval incident in the sea off the Crimean peninsula on June 23 highlights the resurgence of British sea power. Accounts of what actually happened differ. Russia’s defence ministry claimed that warning shots were fired at the British destroyer HMS Defender within their territorial waters off Sevastopol. The UK Ministry of Defence denied that this happened and added that: “The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) guarantees the right of “innocent passage through the territorial sea”, which coastal states shall not hamper. The practice of innocent passage is standard among world’s navies, allied or not. Russian warships transit through the English Channel en route to the Mediterranean.

It is also normal practice for the coastal state to escort any warships while they are transiting through their territorial waters in a show of sovereignty. For example, in January 2017 a Royal Navy frigate escorted the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov carrier task group through the channel.

What is different with Crimea is that neither the UN General Assembly nor the UK have recognised the legality of the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and thus the legal status of the waters around the peninsula is highly contested.

Relations between the UK and Russia have been increasingly antagonistic for almost two decades. The Integrated Review 2021, which describes the UK government’s vision for the nation’s role in the world over the next decade, states that “Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK”. This accounts for diplomatic, intelligence and (conventional and hybrid) military threats.

Accordingly, the UK is routinely involved in confidence-building activities in the Black Sea region with Nato allies in support of Ukraine in the context of its protracted conflict with Russia. This includes the signing (incidentally on board HMS Defender on June 21) of an agreement to support the enhancement of Ukrainian naval capabilities. This includes “the development and joint production of eight fast missile warships and the creation of a new naval base”.

In this context, the transit of a British destroyer (presented as one of “the most advanced warship ever built)” in the waters close to the strategically and historically important Russian naval base of Sevastopol was always going to engender a Russian response of some sort.

So given the recurring tensions between the two countries, this claimed incident is at first sight somewhat mundane and predictable. But the relative gravity of Russia’s claims and the high-level reactions to the event in the UK – by the defence secretary, the prime minister’s spokesperson, the foreign minister, then even Boris Johnson himself – might well suggest otherwise.

The incident further highlights the crucial role that the Royal Navy is going to play in the “Global Britain” era.

Prestige and ‘Global Britain’

The Royal Navy is an instrument for both the projection of military power and prestige. As a symbol of the nation, the Royal Navy is central to Britain’s prestige. It is represented and often perceived as a cornerstone of British power in the world. As such, the navy contributes to the standing of the UK in the global pecking order of states.

This means that the UK government is likely to increasingly use the navy as an instrument of Britain’s global power in the years to come, as hinted by Boris Johnson in autumn 2020 and confirmed in his foreword to the Integrated Review 2021 in April 2021.

The recent incident off Crimea epitomises this approach: a “Global Britain”, whose international standing in the modern era is based on the proactive defence of progressive forces within the global liberal world order, taking on a resurgent Russia that aggressively asserts its exclusive rights in its strategic backyard.

But the UK also engages with allies and faces competitors on a global scale. This includes the Indo-Pacific region, towards which the carrier strike group led by Britain’s new flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is currently heading. This no doubt aims to send a strong message to China – not unlike the one sent to Russia by HMS Defender.

Theatres of operations

I recently gave evidence to the defence committee of the House of Commons as part of an inquiry into the navy’s purpose and procurement. As I wrote:

Decision-makers have a choice to make about the hierarchy of theatres of operations for the navy. It might not be possible to operate at the same level of intensity and in a sustainable way in both Europe and Asia.

Given resource constraints, the government will have to prioritise theatres of operations so that the ambitions stated in the Integrated Review 2021 around the concept of a “Global Britain” that proactively defends progressive values around the world can be sustained over several decades.

For the Royal Navy and relevant decision-makers, it means that naval missions and the strategic importance given to Europe, the Middle East and Asia should be proportionate to Britain’s core national interest. The incident off Crimea suggests that the Royal Navy might logically prioritise the Euro-Atlantic theatre.

But in practice, this is not how sea power works. The Royal Navy is a global instrument whose power and prestige derives from the unbound nature of the maritime domain. And the pursuit of Britain’s interests requires that it should operate across the global grid, so it needs to strike the correct balance.

At any rate, beyond the ongoing diplomatic row between Britain and Russia that this claimed incident has created, it appears that the navy is back as Britain’s key defence, security and foreign policy instrument in the post-Brexit and post-pandemic era.

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