Putin’s provocations of Britain will backfire disastrously
CON COUGHLIN. DEFENCE EDITOR. June 24. 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys poking fun at what he regards as Britain’s diminishing status as a world power, once famously dismissing the country, during a row with David Cameron, as “a small island that nobody listens to”. On another occasion, the Russian leader lambasted Britain’s “colonial thinking” when the UK government demanded that the Kremlin hand over the Russian businessman accused of murdering dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Yet, if Mr Putin believes Britain is a nation in terminal decline, why is he investing so much time and effort in directing Russia’s formidable military, security and disinformation forces against the UK?
Incursions by Russian warplanes and warships into British airspace and territorial waters are a regular occurrence, prompting Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to warn in a recent interview with The Telegraph that Russia was the UK’s “number one adversary threat”. In addition, Britain is a primary target for Russian hackers, with evidence emerging last year that the Kremlin had sought to interfere in the 2019 general election in Jeremy Corbyn’s favour.
Mr Putin’s almost obsessive fixation with disparaging Britain at any and every opportunity can now be seen in the deeply provocative claims made by the Russian Defence Ministry yesterday about the country’s forces firing on a British warship as it sailed through the Black Sea.
Moscow claimed a Russian border patrol boat had fired warning shots at HMS Defender, a Royal Navy Type-45 destroyer, after it entered Russian territorial waters in the Black Sea. It was also claimed that a Su-24M warplane dropped four bombs close to the vessel. The UK Government was quick to dismiss the Russian statement as “incorrect”, insisting that the shots were fired as part of a Russian gunnery exercise about which the warship had been forewarned.
This is not the first time Moscow has made alarming statements about harassing British warships. Last year Moscow made a similarly incendiary claim that Russia’s navy and air force had succeeded in expelling HMS Dragon, another of the Navy’s Type-45 destroyers, from the Crimean coast.
While on one level it might be considered flattering that Moscow is so concerned about the Royal Navy’s Black Sea activities that it needs to propagate such outrageous falsehoods, on another it is deeply irresponsible. For, had Russian forces actually targeted a British warship while operating in international waters, it would constitute a grave violation of maritime law, with potentially disastrous consequences for Moscow.
Mr Putin’s wilful disregard for the norms of international conduct are well-documented in his unrelenting quest to destabilise his adversaries, but his behaviour brings with it the risk of fatal miscalculation. Moscow’s attempt, for example, to conceal the extent of its support for Ukrainian rebels was a key factor in the disastrous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian anti-aircraft missile over eastern Ukraine in 2014, with the loss of 298 lives.
Mr Putin also came to regret Russian involvement in the 2018 Salisbury poisoning, which resulted in the destruction of Moscow’s global espionage infrastructure after Britain succeeded in persuading allies around the globe to expel more than 150 Russian spies.
The fact, though, that Moscow is still prepared to act recklessly suggests that, far from seeing Britain as a declining power, there is concern within the Kremlin about Britain’s prominent role in persuading other major powers to take a firmer line against Russia. This was clearly evident at the G7 summit in Cornwall, where Britain and the US led the call for other world powers to adopt a tougher line against Russian meddling.
Indeed, Mr Putin’s obsession with doing down Britain may well stem from his disdain for the transatlantic partnership. The Russians believe that, given the closeness of the US/UK military and intelligence establishments, any weakness they identify in Britain’s defences can be exploited to target the US.
Britain’s role as the preeminent European power in the Nato alliance will also be a matter of concern for Moscow, with British forces currently leading the multinational Nato battlegroup established in 2016 to protect the Baltic states from Russian aggression. Britain’s commitment to deterring further acts of Russian adventurism is also evident in Ukraine, where British forces have been training the Ukrainian military to provide a more effective response to the Russian threat.
Britain’s willingness to support Ukraine, as well as other countries like Georgia that are the victims of Russian intimidation, explains HMS Defender’s presence in the region, which has clearly been a source of great agitation in Moscow. The warship was making its passage from Ukraine to Georgia in international waters at the time the Russians said their military intervention took place.
Given London’s vehement denials, it is clear no such action took place. So, instead of belittling Britain’s military prowess, Moscow has succeeded in making itself a global laughing stock.