Tensions are rising in the Black Sea between NATO and Russia, over the aggressive response to the transit of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender.
Why though have these tensions grown, what is behind them, and what happens next?
In June this year, HMS Defender was conducting a freedom of navigation exercise, sailing to Ukraine through coastal waters off the Crimean Peninsula. Although Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, the UK and other nations do not recognise their claim to sovereignty. As such, the Royal Navy sailed to Ukraine, via what it regards as Ukrainian territorial waters.
The Russians did not respond well to this, reacting aggressively to the presence of HMS Defender, including with Russian patrol vessels trying to escort the ship, fighter jets flying provocatively close by, and reportedly a live-fire exercise was carried out nearby.
Although initially reported in the media that Russia had fired warning shots at HMS Defender, it appears that this was not the case, and the ship completed her passage safely and without further incident.
This is not the first time that Russia has reacted strongly to the presence of foreign vessels in the Black Sea. In 2017, HMS Dragon had a similar experience when overflown by multiple Russian fighter aircraft while steaming in the region.
Russia then clearly takes a very assertive presence when it comes to defending its interests in this region – but why is this the case?
Historically, the Black Sea has been an area of significant importance for Russian strategic interests. Geographically it functions as the gateway to the Mediterranean. The nations surrounding its waters are, historically, areas where Russia has been keen to maintain interests and influence, and ensure it can protect its territory.
During the Cold War, the Black Sea functioned almost as a Soviet Lake, with all the countries surrounding it members of the Warsaw Pact, bar NATO member Turkey. This meant that Russian interests were more secure, although heavily constrained by the fact that any ships sailing from the Black Sea were slowed down by the need to transit via the Straits of the Bosphorus – which Turkey controlled.
This essentially ‘bottled up’ Russian warships, preventing them from breaking out into the Mediterranean in times of war.
The end of the Cold War meant that the strategic picture changed significantly, with many former Warsaw Pact members becoming NATO members instead. The dynamic in the Black Sea is now very different, with countries like Romania and Bulgaria now firmly aligned to NATO. With Russian territory reduced, and its influence over former parts of the USSR, such as Ukraine, diminished, the Black Sea is an area of increasing strategic competition.
Russia has sought to maintain influence and access in the region by mounting a series of aggressive actions against Ukraine, including the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which it has claimed in its own name. At the same time there is nervousness among many Black Sea nations about Russian plans, and the threat it poses to their own security.
Some of these countries have small defence budgets and limited defence capabilities, so standing up to Russia poses a real challenge for them. To help deal with this, other NATO nations have been providing practical support to their defences.
For example, the Royal Air Force has deployed Typhoon fighter jets to Romania to provide ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ (QRA) capability to monitor and respond to unexpected Russian aircraft activity in the local area.
In addition to the RAF presence in Romania, the British Army and Royal Marines have spent time in Ukraine, helping provide advisory training to the Ukrainian armed forces. This presence, matched by other NATO partners, has played a vital role in helping to increase the skills and efficiency of their military to help deter unwarranted aggression.
As part of this commitment, the Royal Navy and other NATO navies have spent more time than ever before sailing and operating in the Black Sea. Over the last few years, there has been a steady increase in visits, with ships entering the region to go to Ukraine, Georgia and other friendly states that border Russia.
To say that Russia has responded badly to these visits would be a mild understatement.
The Russian military has taken a variety of extremely provocative and aggressive steps to respond to NATO warships sailing in the region, which has at times been both dangerous and unsafe.
The responses from Russia vary, but generally consist of a combination of large numbers of military aircraft flying in close proximity to warships, or close in escorting by patrol vessels and demands to observe Russian laws when NATO vessels are near to Crimea.
The response by NATO has been to not acknowledge or respond to these requests, knowing that to do so is to not only set a precedent but also helps suggest that NATO nations recognise the Russian takeover of Crimea. Instead, ships will continue to sail as planned, and not stop or recognise Russian demands.
Even if NATO continue to ignore these demands, the Russians are likely to continue this pattern of activity – not only in an attempt to assert their position but also due to the potential intelligence collection value offered by these transits.
When warships are tracking multiple threats, they will need to make full use of their electronic sensors to monitor the situation – this means having air surveillance radars tracking jets, or fire control radars potentially active to, in a worst-case, be used to target incoming jets or missiles.
If these systems can be tracked, and their emissions monitored, it can be a huge intelligence boon for a hostile power.
It indicates, for example, ranges of radars, or the different ways that they can be operated.
By repeatedly putting NATO ships under pressure, Russia is able to gain a great deal of raw data that can help inform them about how these systems work, and potentially ways to interrupt or jam them. It also places NATO commanders in something of a bind – if they do not use their sensors fully, then they may not spot an incoming threat until too late.
Of course, this works both ways, and in the aftermath of the HMS Defender incident, the Russians claimed that US intelligence-gathering aircraft had been monitoring the standoff precisely to collect information on Russian signals.
There is a real risk though of miscalculation during these incidents. All it takes is one poorly judged manoeuvre and suddenly what has been an aggressive but safe response turns into an international crisis.
During the Cold War, there were a number of incidents involving collisions between NATO and Soviet warships – for example in the 1970s, a Kotlin class destroyer collided with HMS Ark Royal in the Med, which resulted in several Soviet sailors being thrown overboard and being rescued by the Royal Navy.
More widely, there were other incidents where Soviet vessels ‘bumped’ western warships, usually colliding with them and causing some damage – for example in 1988, the US Navy cruiser Yorktown was sailing through Soviet territorial waters in the Black Sea when it was ‘bumped’ by a Soviet Krivak class frigate in an attempt to force it back into international waters. This was unsuccessful but did cause a minor incident at the time as a result of the Soviet activities.
The risk now is that a Russian miscalculation today causes a similar incident, which results in the loss of life and a rapid escalation of tensions between NATO and Russia.
Any incident where ships are damaged or aircraft crash could quickly spiral out of control.
Similarly, there is a risk that during incidents like this, there could be a fundamental misunderstanding about each other’s intentions. By not knowing each others rules of engagement (the circumstances when someone is legally permitted to open fire), or each other's intentions, then one side may misinterpret the other's actions.
For example, if Russian jets keep approaching a NATO escort on an attack pattern, with their fire control radars active and looking as if they are about to fire, then at what point does the warship Commanding Officer know that the Russians will not open fire on him?
This risk becomes more pronounced when you consider that President Putin has used increasingly fiery language to talk about how to respond to these transits. If you are a warship's CO, how do you know that the Russians will turn away at the last minute, and how do you distinguish between pressure being put on you to leave the area, versus an imminent attack?
It is this risk of miscalculation that makes the situation of such concern because it is not clear how the Russians will react in future to similar transits.
Again, during the Cold War, it was the case that occasionally Western submarines would find themselves under depth charge fire from Soviet ships, or get caught up in a live-firing exercise. But these submarines were on intelligence collection missions and ‘weren’t really supposed to be there', which means that any incidents were usually kept quiet by both sides.
In the Black Sea, it is much more difficult to know how to respond to similar acts. How would the West respond if Russia opened fire? Trying to determine the point that each side can be pushed before its patience snaps is difficult, and the potential for things to go wrong is high.
In particular, Russia has a long habit of testing boundaries and seeing what it can get away with, for example, its occupation of Crimea.
The risk is that they may try to open fire to see how the West responds, knowing that if there is not an immediate escalation, they may calculate that they can get away with this again in the future.
For the Royal Navy, in particular, this will be an issue of concern because it is likely that they will be spending a lot more time in the region. As part of wider defence cooperation agreements with Ukraine, it has been agreed that the UK will sell two Sandown class Minehunters, and then help build a large number of fast patrol craft for the Ukrainian Navy.
This means that the Royal Navy will be heavily involved in the training of Ukrainians, which could include visits to key bases, or through chokepoints like the Kerch strait, which Russia claims as territorial waters.
There has been significant growth in the number of Royal Navy warships visiting the Black Sea recently, with Type 45s entering more regularly, while the River-class patrol ship HMS Trent, normally based in Gibraltar, is making routine patrols in the region.
The UK is stepping up its operational presence in the area.
Russia may not respond well to the news of both the increased capability of the Ukrainian Navy and also the more regular visits by the Royal Navy to the region as a result. As such there could well be a rise in aggressive Russian responses to the British presence and a growth in anti-British rhetoric designed to push the Russian position.
What is the likely outcome here, amidst the growth in tensions?
For NATO, a good outcome will be the maintenance of the status quo. The ability to continue to access the Black Sea and provide reassurance to friends and allies and prevent Russia from dominating the region will be central to NATO policy.
This means there will continue to be a steady trickle of NATO warships entering the Black Sea, working with partners and continuing to exercise their rights to innocent passage under international law. There are likely to continue to be major exercises in the region - for example in 2021, Exercise Sea Breeze saw more than 2,000 personnel and 30 ships working together in the Black Sea.
This significant commitment by NATO will continue to generate concern in Russia, where Moscow will be concerned at the growing Western presence in what it perceives to be its own area of interest. It is likely that for Russia, a good outcome here will be a decline in Western naval visits and a clear recognition that this is an area of Russian primacy.
Russia will take every opportunity to put Western visitors under a degree of pressure, in order to both firm up its claims to territory like Crimea, and also send a signal that unwelcome visitors can expect a hard time. By doing so, it will be hoping to drive a wedge in NATO between those countries determined to sail in the region, and those who seek a less confrontational relationship with Russia.
The Russians will know that one of NATO's challenges is that its members may have very different views on foreign and security policy issues. They will want to take every opportunity to find ways to cause disruption, raise tensions internally in NATO and make it harder for the alliance to function effectively because they know this reduces the risk it poses to them.
Their goal will be to try to create conditions whereby NATO is unwilling or unable to act collectively on the Black Sea, and where longer-term NATO is unwilling to discuss or consider Ukrainian membership.
In addition, they will be keen to film and exploit opportunities where Russian military units are putting NATO vessels under pressure, and use the imagery captured to create a narrative of a strong Russia. Playing to this crowd-pleasing approach, which portrays Russia as a strong and proud nation feared by its foes, and respected as a global leader is key for the Russian leadership, who see Russia as a global leader, akin to the US and China.
Images showing the Russian military defending the homeland, seeing off unwanted incursions and sending NATO running are a powerful way to swing the population support behind Putin and the military and strengthen his position. It is likely that this approach will continue for as long as NATO sails in the region.
It is hard to see how this situation resolves itself to either side's satisfaction, given that both NATO and Russia have very different goals here. At best a standoff is likely to ensue that will see continued western presence in the region, and high tensions with Russia.
Hopefully, though, this tension will not turn over time into a hot conflict.