29 June 2021
The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender set sail from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa on 23 June, headed for Batumi, Georgia, and passed 3km into territorial waters claimed by Russia off the coast of Crimea. In response, a Russian patrol ship fired warning shots and an S-24M jet dropped four fragmentation bombs in the Defender’s path, as two Russian coast guard vessels and more than 20 Russian aircraft “escorted” the ship to international waters. In a seeming parody of the Monty Python “dead parrot” sketch, the British government claimed on Twitter that its destroyer was merely “conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters.” A BBC source revealed, however, that the voyage had been intended by Whitehall “to make a point—to assert its right to freedom of navigation” in the area (BBC, 23 June 2021). The Royal Navy earlier indicated that the Defender had been diverted from its strike group in the Mediterranean to conduct “her own set of missions” in the Black Sea (Al Jazeera, 23 June 2021).
Indeed, a day before the incident, classified Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents were found “in a soggy heap” at a bus stop in Kent. Those documents show that the mission (“Op Ditroite”) was intended to send Moscow a message by rejecting safe passage through uncontested waters to instead violate its claimed maritime sovereignty—a provocation that “was conducted in the expectation that Russia might respond aggressively” (BBC, 27 June 2021). Risking a military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia was, the MoD reasoned, “an opportunity to engage with the Ukrainian government … in what the UK recognises as Ukrainian territorial waters.” The Financial Times (23 June) reports:
“HMS Defender, which forms part of the UK’s carrier strike group deployment, visited Odessa this week in a show of support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. British and Ukrainian officials met on board the destroyer on Tuesday to agree a defence deal in which the UK will help boost Kyiv’s naval capabilities.”
Ukraine, which has been ruled by a rightwing, pro-Western government since the 2014 Maidan coup, is an “enhanced opportunity partner” of the NATO imperialist alliance. The HMS Defender provocation came less than a week before the beginning of “Exercise Sea Breeze 2021,” the latest (and largest) iteration of an annual tradition in which American, British, French, Canadian and other NATO war vessels and personnel “enhance maritime security in the Black Sea” by flexing their muscles in front of Russia (Newsweek, 22 June 2021). The exercise, which runs from 28 June to 10 July, includes “5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operation and dive teams” (Ukrinform, 22 June 2021). One wonders how the British government would respond if Russia were to “enhance maritime security” in the North Sea by conducting naval exercises off the coast of the Shetland Islands.
Russia, today an economically weak but militarily advanced imperialist power, has in fact been encircled by NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union. As we recently noted:
“The US has a string of military bases that stretches from former Soviet Central Asia through Afghanistan to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. NATO’s ‘eastern flank,’ which spans from the Baltics to the Black Sea and includes former Soviet bloc countries and USSR republics, is being prepared for armed confrontation with Moscow. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have thousands of NATO combat troops, battle tanks, heavy artillery, drones, attack helicopters and warplanes stationed within striking distance of Russia. Since 2014, NATO’s Response Force has tripled in size, with a dedicated 5,000-strong spearhead unit developed and deployed throughout Europe.”
—“Ukraine in Imperialist Vise: Nationalism & great power rivalries”
It has been a long time since Britannia ruled the waves, but the British ruling class still regards the Royal Navy as vital to its imperial ambitions and is keen to project itself on the world stage after the Brexit fiasco. In March, Boris Johnson announced that the current fleet of 13 frigates and six destroyers will be expanded by a further five vessels by the end of the decade in order to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe” (UK Defence Journal, 16 March 2021). The various branches of the armed forces retain considerable resources around the world, including “a military presence at more than 140 bases in 42 countries” (Middle East Eye, 20 November 2020).
At the center of the dispute between the US/UK axis and Russia is control of “spheres of influence,” markets and lucrative foreign investments tied up with the provision of energy resources to the European Union. The international working class has no side in such a conflict. For Marxists living in Britain, the US and other imperialist NATO member states, the main enemy is, of course, at home. Five years before the outbreak of the second inter-imperialist world war, the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained:
“Lenin’s formula, ‘defeat is the lesser evil,’ means not defeat of one’s country is the lesser evil as compared with the defeat of the enemy country but that a military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the proletariat and to the whole people than military victory assured by ‘civil peace.’ Karl Liebknecht gave an unsurpassed formula of proletarian policy in time of war: ‘The chief enemy of the people is in its own country.’ The victorious proletarian revolution not only will rectify the evils caused by defeat but also will create the final guarantee against future wars and defeats.…
“It is indisputable at any rate that in our epoch only that organization that bases itself on international principles and enters into the ranks of the world party of the proletariat can root itself in the national soil. The struggle against war means now the struggle for the Fourth International!”
—“War and the Fourth International” (1934)
Ukraine in Imperialist Vise: Nationalism & great power rivalries (11 June 2021)
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate: Russia, Capital Export & Global Power (1917 No.41)