The UK and Russia as Aggressor and Defender: Two Narratives, Similar Obligations

HMS Defender. Courtesy of Royal Navy/Wikimedia Commons/OGL v1.0

A dispute between London and Moscow after a Royal Navy warship sailed through Russian-claimed waters off Crimea has garnered considerable media attention. But there is more to this story than meets the eye.

It has been suggested that the recent incidents involving the UK warship HMS Defender in the Black Sea were somehow emblematic of a more aggressive and less apologetic UK military posturing abroad: living the language of the UK’s recent Integrated Review. Given the long record of Royal Navy activities of this kind – in countering Iranian and Chinese maritime claims, as well as Russian ones – this attempt to tie the Black Sea episode to a fundamental shift in UK priorities is not convincing. Also well reported is a perceived Russian readiness to use incidents of opportunity in an escalatory manner. Yet in many ways, Russia could have done nothing else but react in the way it did – for a failure to take action would have undermined its own political and legal position. Given all of these conflicting and competing narratives, signals and obligations, can we read anything into the recent events in the Black Sea?

Two Distinct Incidents

In reality, what we have witnessed is not one, but two incidents, each following a different logic. The first occurred when warships from the UK Carrier Strike Group – HMS Defender and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen – undertook a defence sales visit to the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Although that port is hundreds of kilometres away from the Russian naval bases in occupied Crimea, inexplicably they were electronically reported to be off Crimea approaching the Russian-held port of Sebastopol. The commercial Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmits a vessel’s position to others in the vicinity as an aid to navigation and to help avoid collisions. This position is available to anyone who has the wherewithal to access it. Warships do not have to abide by national legislation on using the system in order to conduct military activities; some countries use it for their warships, some keep information on the system rather bland, and some do not use it at all.

Why would someone bother to fake the real position of the two visiting ships by making them appear closer to a Russian naval base? The faking of positional information on AIS is not a new phenomenon: it has been the subject of much reporting in the Baltic Sea for many years – usually around the approaches to Russian ports and sometimes placing commercial ships as far as 100 miles inland.

This ‘spoofing’ of AIS is usually associated with Russian electronic warfare activity, just as the ‘spoofing’ of Global Positioning System signals in the Straits of Hormuz has become a modus operandi for Iranian Revolutionary Guard units. Both techniques have been experienced around China’s coast and within its claimed territorial waters too. At this stage, we can only surmise why the Russians would have wanted to spoof the AIS data. It may have been prompted by a simple desire to create some mischief, or it may have served as a prelude for the subsequent incident, by building up the supposed evidence for the alleged hostile intent of the two NATO vessels.

The second incident followed on 23 June 2021 as HMS Defender sailed from Odessa for a patrol in the Black Sea. Typically, such patrols are designed to challenge claims to waters that one state feels are not consistent with international law. In this case, Defender made passage through a traffic separation scheme close to the Crimean Peninsula. Such schemes work by dividing shipping into lanes (like motorways) to enable faster passage. Similar schemes operate in the English Channel and off Brest, areas through which Russian and NATO units regularly transit. Whether these schemes are 3 miles or 15 miles from a coast makes no difference: they follow international regulations for operation, as do the vessels passing through them.

Obligations to Fulfil

Unless claims – in this case of territorial waters – are challenged regularly, claimed areas of space – land or sea – can be deemed to have legally passed to the claiming state. There is thus an obligation to make regular challenges: at sea these are sometimes known as Freedom of Navigation patrols or operations. The Royal Navy has been conducting these for many years, including in Iranian-claimed waters and Chinese ones. In every case, the challenges reset the clock on when a state can start claiming a period of ‘uncontested’ and ‘normalised’ use.

Given that the UK government, and thus the Royal Navy, does not recognise the Russian occupation of Crimea as legal, there was an obligation to conduct a patrol through these waters. The warship made the requisite preparations in terms of readiness of people and weapons, and was clearly tracking and monitoring Russian military activity. Warships take the same precautions in many circumstances, whether near Syria, off Iran, in the South China Sea, or when operating within the range of Russian aircraft in the North Sea, the Baltic or the Norwegian Sea. While to the casual observer this may have looked tense, there are few signs that it was either unexpected or unpredictable.

Similarly, given the Russians’ claim that they are now legally occupying Crimea, there was an obligation on Russia’s Black Sea fleet to signal that any foreign warships entering its waters must comply with international law: to Moscow, no traffic separation scheme exists and the waters are an extended part of Russia. International law does not require a warship to inform the parent state of an intention to make peaceful transit. The UK did not do so – indeed it could not, for this would have undermined everything it publicly upholds about the illegality of the Russian occupation.

Thus, the incident – well covered by the embarked BBC crew – made for an interesting story, albeit slightly overblown by some.

And Now?

Are there any lessons to be drawn from the past week? In terms of naval operations there seem to be few surprises here. Escalation rarely happens in unexpected ways and is more deliberate than is usually realised. Military forces do not want to start fighting each other if this can be avoided, and certainly not without a good deal more support than was available to HMS Defender.

Similarly, the Russian activities were perhaps less provocative than we have seen in the Baltic or against US warships where attack aircraft have flown closer, and in a more provocative manner. The fact that this has not happened now may be an indication that Moscow views the UK as a less predictable foe, and decided not to risk an overflight similar to the one meted out to US ships, since this could have made an engagement with the UK ship more likely.

The real lesson seems to be in the preparations of each state in terms of media operations. It is rather surprising that the Ministry of Defence’s press office seemed on the back foot in making statements and releasing media footage. Allowing Russia to take control of the narrative and reacting to that alone could be construed as being ‘mature’ or ‘statesmanlike’, but given the rapidity of news cycles, this is perhaps not a fit business model for the information age.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Correction notice: This article was updated on 26 June 2021 to clarify that international law does not require a warship to notify a parent state of its intention to make peaceful transit.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.


Professor Peter Roberts

Senior Associate Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content