Eager to soften up British public opinion for a future war against the Russian Federation, the government has decided to use the British navy for a calculated act of piracy off the Crimean coast, sending a British destroyer, HMS Defender, to violate Russian waters.
The transparent purpose of this ill-fated exercise was to challenge Crimea’s status as a Russian province, and, by extension, Crimea’s coastal waters as Russian waters. Ignoring the overwhelming Crimean referendum decision that decided in favour of federation with Russia back in 2014, Britain prefers to endorse the view of the Kiev junta that Crimea is in ‘temporary occupation’ by Russia.
Legally, the British position has not a leg to stand on. Even were one to discount the clearly expressed will of the Crimean people to separate from a Ukraine that had become a playground for ultra-nationalist Russophobes and a launchpad for aggressive threats against Russia, and even if one were to accept that Russia is in so-called ‘temporary occupation’ of Crimea, the naval adventure would still be completely illegal.
As a supposed ‘occupier’, Russia would be duty-bound under international law to take measures to ensure public order and safety in the ‘occupied’ country’s territorial waters.
Propaganda stunt backfires
Sending a British gunboat, supposedly ‘invited’ by Ukraine, into Crimean waters, was maybe intended by Whitehall as a piece of cost-free propaganda theatre: ‘plucky Brits singeing Russian beards’ and so forth.
Be that as it may, Moscow did the Whitehall armchair warriors the disservice of taking them seriously, correctly identifying the infringement of Russian territorial waters as an intolerable military threat and responding accordingly, firing warning shots and buzzing the warship with a Su-24M attack aircraft.
Laughably, the government began by trying to deny that any shots had been fired, or to claim that Russia just happened to be in the middle of a gunnery exercise when the incident occurred. This version of events ran into problems when Russia offered video footage of the encounter.
Worse, the BBC then offered corroborating evidence backing up Russia’s version, forcing an admission that shots had indeed been fired. Russia pointed out that the defence ministry, the BBC and the British embassy in Moscow all offered differing and contradictory accounts of the event.
The presence of a BBC correspondent at the scene, reportedly ‘embedded’ with the destroyer, underlines both how much of a publicity stunt the affair was intended to be and just how badly it misfired. Right from the outset, there were disagreements at the highest level of government.
Splits amongst the ruling class
According to the Telegraph, defence secretary Ben Wallace and foreign secretary Dominic Raab were at loggerheads over the planned adventure, with Wallace eager for the fray and Raab preaching caution and fearful of consequences. Reportedly, it was Boris Johnson who personally gave the provocation the green light, endangering the lives of all naval personnel on board the ship.
The tensions within the Cabinet over this dangerous stunt reflect deeper contradictions within imperialist policy towards Russia (and China). There can be no doubt that war is the direction of travel for imperialism, but there is a clear lack of consensus as to timescale and readiness.
The discovery of a 50-page classified dossier seemingly ‘abandoned’ at a bus stop in Kent – a dossier that details in advance the various possible outcomes of the planned naval adventure – is an almost too perfect metaphor for the weakness and indecision infecting British imperialism.
The Times reported: “A senior civil servant responsible for the breach has been identified and could be charged under the Official Secrets Act, Whitehall sources said yesterday. Ministry of Defence police have been called in. They will establish who was behind the breach, why the documents left the ministry building and any motives behind the dump …
“In the 50-page memo found at the bus stop, MoD officials war-gamed three Russian responses to the decision to sail HMS Defender 12 miles off the coast of Crimea. They ranged from ‘safe and professional’ to ‘neither safe nor professional’ …
“The documents exposed in the security breach also revealed the MoD discussed an alternative route for the warship that would avoid provoking Russia. This option was seen as cowardly by officials. They said it would portray the UK as ‘being scared/running away’ and enabling Russia to claim that Britain had accepted President Putin’s claim to Crimean territorial waters.” (Secret files left at bus stop reveal Crimean threat by Matt Dathan and Larisa Brown, The Times, 28 June 2021)
Whether the security breach turns out to be the work of a spy, a whistleblower, the result of a departmental spat or, as one source told the Times, “just a stupid civil servant who forgot to zip up his bag”, it offers the public a rare insight into the amateurishness and bungling of our ruling class and the lengths they will go to to take Britain on the road to war.
To dispel any illusions that this is all shadow boxing with no consequences in the real world, the head of the Russian delegation to the Vienna talks on arms control, Konstantin Gavrilov, warned Britain that if they tried a repeat performance in the Black Sea, the bombs “will be dropped on target and not in a ship’s path”.