Reflecting over the incident that took place last week in the Black Sea involving the HMS Defender, Green Peer Natalie Bennett asks: was this Johnson’s dangerous attempt to look big on the world stage?
At one level, the incident last week in the Black Sea involving the destroyer HMS Defender is just the normal argy bargy of international relations, the kind of games being played since Viscount Nelson was a lad.
But it is also deadly serious, and dangerous, as was highlighted, in comments surprisingly little reported, by General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff.
He said in apparently unscripted remarks in responding to a question about the incident, the risk of an “unwarranted escalation” involving Britain was ‘the thing that keeps me awake in bed at night’. He added: “The sort of thing we saw in the Black Sea on Wednesday is…the type of thing one needs to think quite hard about.”
The top line of the incident is that HMS Defender was carrying out what’s known in the jargon as an “innocent passage” through waters that Russia claims as its own, since its illegal annexation of the Crimea. This is, in the government terminology, “Global Britain” helping the world by ensuring freedom of the seas. There’s an entirely reasonable point there about the actions of Russia and the need to maintain international law.
But then the questions start up, even before getting to General Carter’s comments.
First there’s the question of how accurate the Ministry of Defence account of events was. You can follow the vessel on Twitter, so you can see its side of the story there, while the BBC reports its correspondent ‘saw more than 20 aircraft overhead and two Russian coastguard boats which at times were just 100m away. This is at odds with statements from both the British prime minister’s office and defence ministry, which denied any confrontation.’ There’s video footage showing just that.
A sharply worded Chatham House commentary says: “The credibility of the UK’s armed forces relies on honest and truthful reporting of their activities; pretending nothing is happening when it plainly is, is a habit that its defence ministry really should leave to the Russians.”
What is crystal clear is that the UK didn’t stumble into this incident. The Times reports: “Boris Johnson allegedly took the final decision to go ahead with the route personally and instructions were passed to the ship on Monday.” That reflects a reported – since denied – disagreement between Dominic Raab and Defence Minister Ben Wallace about whether to go ahead with the passage.