EDWARD LUCAS: These events off the coast of Crimea are part of a pattern of Vladimir Putin being deliberately unpredictable… We are paying the price for years of blind complacency
Vladimir Putin‘s regime feeds on conflict. It systematically bullies its neighbours, while hypocritically denouncing anyone who resists it as an aggressor. More than anything, it knows how to wield the element of surprise.
In 2006, the West was caught off-guard when Kremlin-appointed thugs murdered the fugitive dissident Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in central London.
War in Georgia came as another shock in 2008, just as we were stunned when Russian troops half-wittedly shot down a passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014 or when Russian thugs used a lethal nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018.
That is why yesterday’s events off the coast of Crimea must be seen in context: as part of a pattern of Putin being deliberately unpredictable – attempting to wrong-foot us.
The West is scrambling to reassert its presence in the Black Sea, a vital crossroads for our interests in trade, energy, counter-terrorism and fighting organised crime.
Russia – which still regards its former empire with proprietorial arrogance – is furious about this.
It is no coincidence that yesterday’s events took place days before the start of Sea Breeze, a major naval exercise led by America to try to bolster Nato’s fraying presence in the region.
What incenses Putin is that a key participant in the drills will be Ukraine. Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 was followed by a separatist war in the east of the country. The fighting continues – and has killed thousands.
Britain does not recognise Russia’s seizure of Crimea, which is why the Ministry of Defence pointedly said HMS Defender was travelling through ‘Ukrainian territorial waters’ yesterday.
Boosting Ukraine’s sovereignty and security is a key part of attempts by Britain and the West to constrain the bullying, thieving regime in Russia. Only two days ago, Britain signed a defence deal with Ukraine at a ceremony on board HMS Defender, and hours before the incident, Ukrainian special forces were conducting exercises with the British warship.
The west was blindsided again when Russian thugs used a lethal nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018.
The feints and wargames could yet escalate into a terrifying east-west confrontation. Will that happen? Much depends on how Joe Biden responds to Putin.
Washington has been increasingly disappointed with its bickering and feckless European allies: France and Germany have just announced plans to restart EU-Russia summits, jeopardising the united front embodied in Nato.
Some wonder if America really has the stomach for any kind of confrontation with Russia. But make no mistake: to ignore Putin and his sabre-rattling would spell disaster for Britain and her allies, particularly the brave frontline states in eastern Europe that have entrusted their future to us and Nato.
The credibility of Western military defence on the continent is threadbare. Decades of underspending in countries such as Germany have taken a grievous toll. Stocks of fuel, ammunition and spare parts are perilously low, while plans for defending Europe exist mainly on paper and are rarely rehearsed.
What many do not (or will not) see is that Russia is boosting its arsenal of modern, high-tech weapons. Most worryingly, it expertly plays divide and rule, exploiting the complacent, greedy and spineless mentality of decision-makers in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and – I am sorry to say – London.
At best we pay lip-service to the threat from Russia. But we are not willing to pay the military, financial and diplomatic price of dealing with it. The bill for years of neglect of our defence and security is coming due.
The daunting task for Britain is to rally our allies to stand firm in the face of Russian intimidation, without allowing the roiling Black Sea to boil over into war.