HMS Defender goes for a pleasure cruise through Russian narrative warfare in the Black Sea

Russia uses kinetic operations to support its narrative objectives — again

Early on June 23, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it had “fired warning shots” at UK warship HMS Defender — in transit from Odesa, in Ukraine, across the Black Sea to Georgia. 

The internet immediately exploded in various versions of the headline: Russia fires warning shots on NATO warship after it violates Russian territorial waters in Black Sea.

But this was not a display of Russian military might: it was a demonstration of the primacy of Russian narrative warfare.

And we need to be really clear about what that means. 

Russia, unhappy at upcoming annual NATO exercises in the Black Sea and other support for Ukraine, set out to capture perceptions of how these events will be interpreted, especially in NATO nations. 

The voyage of HMS Defender was pre-planned; its departure from Odesa was not a secret; and it seems the UK was quite deliberately using this opportunity to sail within the boundary of what Russia considers its territorial waters (but which is not internationally recognized due to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea) to show what would happen. 

In the simplest terms, the Kremlin wanted to undermine NATO’s attempts to build a narrative that the Black Sea is anything more than a Russian lake. Seeing opportunity, Russia captured perception of this event with remarkable ease, exploiting our own assumptions of their ongoing belligerence and aggression to transform what was actually a moment of relative Russian impotence versus NATO strength into a projection of Kremlin saber-rattling against cowed NATO partners.

The most important actual news from the day, as reported from the deck of HMS Defender by a BBC reporter conveniently aboard: “This would be a deliberate move to make a point to Russia. HMS Defender was going to sail within the 12 mile (19km) limit of Crimea’s territorial waters. The captain insisted he was only seeking safe passage thorough an internationally recognized shipping lane.

Russia wanted the NATO ship to alter course. It did not.

In response, Russia made noise. The Kremlin flipped the entire event on its head, in terms of how we perceive it. So now we need to flip it back. 

The whole HMS Defender incident reminds me of what David Patrikarakos, in his book War in 140 Characters, and former Estonian President Toomas Ilves have more eloquently described in recent years — that for Russia, the war is the information operation, and they conduct kinetic actions in support of the narrative objectives.

So let’s take a look at what happened, and how we should understand it.

* * * * *

HMS Defender, a British Royal Navy destroyer, arrived in the Black Sea on June 14, doing the rounds in Romania, Ukraine, and Georgia as part of a UK Carrier Strike Group before the beginning of the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise on June 28. Sea Breeze is an annual exercise (conducted since 1997) that brings together NATO partners and Black Sea nations that want to train for joint operations with NATO. This year’s Sea Breeze has 32 participating countries, for a total of about 5000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations teams. It’s a lot of visitors to an area that Russia views as one of its most vital naval assets.

Photos posted by the US Navy show HMS Defender, USS Laboon, and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen conducting “close proximity sailing as a Russian warship watches from afar in the Black Sea” on June 17. 

On June 18, HMS Defender arrived in Odesa, accompanied by HNLMS Evertsen.

The HMS Defender was doing some joint training with Ukraine, and the UK announced it will provide Ukraine with two minesweeper ships as part of its efforts to help rebuild Ukrainian naval capacity, which was gutted during Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Aboard Defender, the UK and Ukraine signed a memorandum for a partnership agreement between UK industry and the Ukrainian Navy, for joint UK-Ukraine projects to build new warships and construct two naval bases in Ukraine. 

While Defender and Evertsen were parked in Odesa, their automatic identification system (AIS) signals —AIS transmits ship position details to improve maritime safety — were spoofed, showing them departing Odesa and sailing to within two nautical miles of the entrance to Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol, in Crimea, the headquarters of their Black Sea Fleet. Webcams and other resources confirm that despite what the positioning signals showed, both ships were still in Odesa. 

Though the source of this dislocation is not yet confirmed, Russia has extensively spoofed locational data for ships in the Black Sea (and elsewhere), including their GPS positions. This can confuse and disrupt navigation — or it could be used as a false justification for, say, a military response to the violation of territorial waters. It can be used to fuel military deception campaigns for a variety of purposes. But in this case it seems likely that Russia already had its eye on Defender. 

On June 22, HMS Defender departed Odesa. Russia’s Embassy in Washington posted a denunciation of the Sea Breeze exercise on Twitter: “We call on the US and its allies to stop military operations in the Black Sea.”

Now, here’s where events get interesting, and I think it’s important to catalogue them based on what we now know was actually happening, as opposed to the way the Russians captured the narrative. 

It had been decided that HMS Defender, now sailing on its own, would pass within the boundary Russia views as its territorial waters around Crimea. No one else recognizes these as Russian waters, since the annexation of Crimea is not officially recognized by almost anyone. So it seems like the UK, coordinating with its American and NATO partners, decided to make a statement to this effect — that the annexation of Crimea is not something that is de facto recognized without challenge or protest. 

We know this was deliberate for several reasons. 

First, because the ship was prepared for possible confrontation with Russian forces as they sailed this route — as reported by Jonathan Beale, the BBC reporter who was clearly invited to be aboard Defender to chronicle what happened:  

The crew were already at action stations as they approached the southern tip of Russian-occupied Crimea. Weapons systems on board the Royal Navy destroyer had already been loaded. This would be a deliberate move to make a point to Russia. HMS Defender was going to sail within the 12 mile (19km) limit of Crimea's territorial waters. The captain insisted he was only seeking safe passage through an internationally recognized shipping lane.

An earlier version of the dispatch also noted:

Throughout this transit, the crew on HMS Defender have been on high alert, and at one stage they did put on anti-flash masks to protect their faces, just in case there was going to be an exchange of fire. They didn’t think that would happen, and it did not happen.

Second, this was confirmed by a diplomatic source of the BBC…

… the Defender was not there to pick a fight but to make a point — to assert its right to freedom of navigation in international waters.

… and by the British Ministry of Defense, which tweeted

The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.

This is a massive troll of Russian claims on Crimea. 

Beale gives additional details about what it was like on Defender during the transit. In audio reporting to the BBC, Russian fighter jets can be heard buzzing the ship: 

Two Russian coastguard ships that were shadowing the Royal Navy warship, tried to force it to alter its course. At one stage, one of the Russian vessels closed in to about 100m.

Increasingly hostile warnings were issued over the radio - including one that said "if you don't change course I'll fire". We did hear some firing in the distance but they were believed to be well out of range.

As HMS Defender sailed through the shipping lane it was buzzed by Russian jets. The Captain, Vincent Owen, said the ship detected more than 20 military aircraft nearby. Commander Owen said his mission was confident but non-confrontational.

Third, open source data shows US surveillance overflight during the maneuver, which would indicate prior knowledge of what was intended and what could result. 

Russia also likely knew what was intended. 

As HMS Defender sailed around Crimea, Russia went on information offense. 

The Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement to the press including these details of the encounter: 

At 11:52 am on 23 June, the HMS Defender of the British Royal Navy, operating in the northwestern part of the Black Sea, violated the border and entered three kilometers into Russian territorial waters in the region of Cape Fiolent…

At 12:06 and 12:08, a border patrol vessel carried out warning shots. At 12:19 a Su-24M carried out a warning bombing run using 4 OFAB-250 [high-explosive fragmentation] bombs at the HMS Defender's path of movement

At 12:23 the combined actions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Border Forces of the FSB forced the HMS Defender to leave the territorial waters of the Russian Federation.

At the time, this was the only statement of events; British statements and news accounts would follow later. The Russian statement set off a wave of headlines in Western and Russian media that Russia had fired warning shots on a NATO ship. Even after the British MoD denied that shots were fired on the ship, the headlines remain as “Russia says it blah blah.

Russia continued to populate the narrative of a major incident — never mind that whatever shooting that occurred was not near Defender. The UK defense attaché was summoned for demarche — on camera of course, to be pushed out over state media (and kudos to that guy for his casual demeanor as he had to sit through the charade). The Russian Ministry of Defense issued ongoing statements against the UK’s “violations” and the need for “investigation.” They released video of jets buzzing Defender, and other surveillance tape — though none seemed to back up its claims that shots were fired, forcing the British warship to alter course.

It was all a lot of theater. 

But initially, at least, it worked.

* * * * *

So, to be clear: HMS Defender knew what it was getting into; it was a political decision by the UK to execute this maneuver; the objective was clear; the allies knew; and Defender kept its course through the passage. 

The Kremlin knew the goal of this was the political statement the UK intended to make: Crimea isn’t Russia, and we’re going to sail on by, wave the flag, and give a little toot-toot of the horn on the way — and Russia won’t stop us. 

It’s also worth nothing that if the UK MoD tweet is accurate and not just further trolling — that the Russians had “provided the maritime community with prior-warning” of “gunnery exercise in the Black Sea” — then that means Russia had even tried a second tactic to deter the NATO vessel, and it also failed. Russia frequently announces “naval exercises” to interrupt commercial and other activity at sea. Defender wasn’t playing along. 

The voyage of Defender is an expression of strength from a NATO ally in advance of Sea Breeze: Russia doesn’t set the terms at will in the Black Sea. 

This is totally unacceptable to the Russian narrative. So they preempted it and turned it 180.

By putting out the statement of what seems like a serious, surprising military encounter — claiming to have performed a kinetic action that would be widely denounced as inflammatory and escalatory— the Kremlin made the narrative one of Russian aggression deterring NATO half-measures. They set the narrative, and then conducted just enough kinetic operations to push it to the top of the doomscroll. 

This was entirely about achieving goals via narrative warfare. Inflate perceptions of Russian dominance in the Black Sea, inflate perceptions in NATO nations that the cost to operate in totally normal ways in the Black Sea is too high and too dangerous, inflate perceptions in Ukraine and Georgia that NATO ain’t coming to save you. 

In reality, a NATO ally did something very bold today — and Russia couldn’t stop it. NATO (or at least, the UK) stood up for Ukraine, and it stood up to Russia. It did it without firing shots. The significance of this is important.

Meanwhile, a thousand kilometers away, Russia’s whole defense establishment was rattling on at the Moscow security conference. “As a whole, the situation in Europe is explosive and requires specific steps to de-escalate it,” said Minister of Defense Shoigu — head of the MoD that thought statements about fictitious near-conflict with NATO and conducting kinetic operations to make a narrative point would ‘de-escalate’ the situation. “The Russian side has proposed a number of measures. For example, it put forward a proposal to move the areas of drills away from the contact line.” 

(This usage of “contact line” is particularly interesting, given Russia’s denial of involvement in these conflicts on Russia’s borders.) 

* * * * *

A ship chugging past Crimea may seem like a small thing — but what it represents is not. 

“Not a very helpful action by the Kremlin on the heels of the Putin-Biden Summit,” Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges, former Commanding General of US Army Europe, tells Great Power of the incident with HMS Defender. “Biden hopes for a stable, predictable relationship with Kremlin and said we would know within 3-6 months. Don’t think we will have to wait that long. This sort of challenge to Russian illegal claims is exactly what’s needed.”

Russia has become so accustomed to the low-cost of tactics like using kinetic military operations to populate content for narrative warfare objectives that they are taking risks that constantly escalate the potential of real conflict. And the West has become so accustomed to not imposing costs for all the nonsense that it is just now waking up to the fact that its posture has encouraged risk-taking and miscalculation by the Kremlin. 

It’s not a great place to try to navigate a way out of. But to begin, we can stop giving the Kremlin these easy victories in its narrative warfare, and we can start making more meaningful gestures like the voyage of HMS Defender, which show we aren’t ceding the determination of the rules of engagement to the Kremlin. 

Russia hides behind its narrative armor, and that armor influences how we make decisions and policy. Every chink we can show in the armor strengthens us, and weakens the Kremlin.