On the 23rd of June, when it was reported that Russian ships fired warning shots at HMS Defender, a British Type-45 destroyer several miles of the Crimean coast, the world was reminded of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine as well as the continuous Russian occupation of Crimea since 2014. The presence of British naval forces in the Black Sea is not a new phenomenon, as NATO conducts annual exercises in the region, often hosted by Romania. While the incident saw no casualties, it has generated novel Russian paranoia regarding its position in the Black Sea. The Kremlin has accused NATO of unprovoked aggression in the Black Sea and has pledged a strong response – although it is not clear what long-term steps Russia can take. It is important to remember that the Russian annexation of Crimea receives limited international recognition and that the peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by Ukrainian territory. Crimea is therefore vulnerable to the probes and prods of NATO forces who wish to test the Russian military. Incidents such as this expose the fact that despite the annexation being in its seventh year, Russia’s position in the region remains weaker than it appears. But is this an issue that the Kremlin can resolve? They cannot suddenly turn their illegal annexation into a legal one and NATO shows no signs of backing down in its competition with Russia in the Black Sea.
Historically, the Black Sea region has been a crucial part of Russian grand strategy, throughout the imperial, soviet and republican eras. It represents the possibility of a year-round warm water port at Sevastopol, and the ability for Russian maritime commerce and military assets to move through the Straits of the Dardanelles, into the Mediterranean. Since the reign of Catherine the Great, Russia has used numerous conflicts and crises to expand its control in the Black Sea and when this was lost during the breakup of the Soviet Union it was not long before the new Russian state sought an opportunity to regain a foothold. This was achieved in 2014 with minimal difficulty as the Russian military occupied the Crimean Peninsula, while Russian backed separatists in eastern Ukraine began and still continue to wage a civil war. The illegality of Russia’s annexation is straightforward: no state has the right to change the borders or territorial integrity of another, by force. Simply put, the right of conquest has no legal standing in the 21st century. Western states may have condemned the annexation and leveed sanctions against Russia, but they have taken no military steps to force Russia out of Crimea. Now that Russia once again holds a position in the Black Sea, they will not surrender it easily.
The HMS Defender incident is not an isolated occurrence. In recent days, the Dutch vessel HNLMS Evertsen had a close run in with several Russian fighter jets, described as a ‘mock attack’. This has all come as NATO commences Operation Sea Breeze 21, a series of joint naval exercises with Ukraine across the Black Sea. This year’s Sea Breeze exercises will also be the largest in the program’s history. They will involve five thousand personnel and thirty-two ships, with more than thirty countries participating. Naval incidents between Russia, NATO and its allies are nothing new as in April it was reported that Royal Navy vessels were deployed in the English Channel to escort a group of Russian ships as they passed through the Dover Strait. Individual NATO states such as the UK have also signed new naval agreements with Ukraine, providing training support as well as new defensive equipment. Rather than leave Ukraine to an uncertain and likely unpleasant fate, NATO is clearly seeking to bolster the state as a crucial partner against Russian expansionism. The new war of words between Russia and NATO over the incident with HMS Defender will likely to do nothing to deter the western allies from maintaining their position in Ukraine and the Black Sea.
The problem that Russia faces is that as its annexation of Crimea was illegal, it cannot claim jurisdiction over the region’s territorial waters, so NATO vessels can continue to move through these waters provided they have permission from Ukraine. This was the primary justification for NATO to conduct the Sea Breeze exercises so close to Russian territory. Russia has also responded to the NATO exercises with its own live fire drills in the Black Sea, these following on from the land-based exercises they conducted in Crimea in April. While it is highly unlikely that NATO or any individual power will try to reverse the Crimean annexation by force, it presents an opportunity for Russia’s opponents to demonstrate their military reach and their continued opposition to the Russian presence in Ukraine.
For all its shows of strength in Ukraine, Russian policy is flailing . The separatists they back in eastern Ukraine may still hold territory, but they have not achieved a resounding victory. The government in Kiev continues to enjoy western backing, which shows no signs of declining and while NATO views Russian Black Sea presence as vulnerable, they will continue to conduct naval exercises. Essentially, this issue is unresolvable for the Kremlin: Russian strategic aims prevent scaling back their position in Crimea and western policy, alongside international law, hampers their attempts to solidify their hold on the region. Under international law, Crimea is Ukrainian, therefore the waters surrounding Crimea are Ukrainian. It does not matter how much military hardware Russia dispatches to the Crimea, it will not change this legal reality. Ultimately, it will be this fact that Russia will continue to be unable to escape.
A second Crimean War is not on the horizon. The five hundred will not charge again into the valley of death and the Thin Red Line will not have to hold. However, the ongoing disputes over Crimea will continue to simmer, with incidents similar to HMS Defender bound to happen again. This is something that the Russians will likely be forced to tolerate, while still displaying its military strength, both in response to NATO actions and their domestic audience. The impasse between the two sides shows no signs of being resolved. Neither Ukraine nor NATO will use force to expel Russia from Crimea, but they’re sure to make the annexation as uncomfortable for the Kremlin as possible.