Warnings of imminent shelling on the radio, two dozen planes creating an air barrage, a hostile vessel making threatening maneuvers, possibly intending to ram: As described by the BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale, the scene around the Royal Navy destroyer the Defender resembled a confrontation in a Tom Clancy novel. The Defender was sailing within the 12-mile (19-kilometer) maritime zone not far from Cape Fiolent on the southern tip of Crimea. Russia's annexation of the peninsula is recognized by seven countries. For the rest of the world, these are Ukrainian territorial waters. According to Britain's Ministry of Defence, the ship was sailing through an internationally recognized free-passage way.
Russian authorities regularly warn of naval exercises in Crimean waters to scare off the navies of NATO countries, which have recently started to enter the 12-mile zone more and more frequently. Demonstrative nonrecognition of the annexation of the peninsula by Moscow is a key part of the Black Sea strategy that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization developed after 2014. The strategy includes the rotating regional presence of NATO members' navies, including ships from the United States and UK, almost year-round joint exercises, and massive cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia, whose ships are frequently integrated in the alliance' exercise schedule.
The Defender was on its way to Georgia after a courtesy visit to the port of Odessa, which, after the loss of Sevastopol to the Russians, became the main base of Ukraine's navy. On board the destroyer, the country's deputy defense minister signed a memorandum of implementation with Britain's defense procurement minister and first sea lord (or the commander of the British Navy), as well as representatives of Babcock, one of the world's leading producers of naval hardware. The memorandum is the penultimate step toward a wide-ranging agreement that includes the purchase of modern British warships by Ukraine, as well as personnel training and the modernization of repair docks. Establishing supply-and-repair facilities for NATO navies is a possibility, too. If these ambitions are realized, the Black Sea will soon transform into a region where President Vladimir Putin's Russia is visibly "contained" and pushed back by the alliance — with Ukraine and Georgia becoming its indispensable allies. Membership remains elusive for Ukraine and Georgia because European governments have been resistant to the idea that inclusion in NATO's Black Sea plans would turn the countries into indispensable global partners like Australia or South Korea.
Putin is worried
Despite the bravado and harsh Foreign Ministry statements, the Kremlin is worried. Its control of the Crimea does not compensate for the lag of the Russian surface fleet compared with the capabilities of the key NATO naval powers: the US, the UK and France, which remain the world's only "blue water" navies — i.e., capable of global sea power projection. Russia has almost no chance of catching up, even in the medium term.
Putin knows well that any attempts to push back against NATO's presence on the Black Sea is futile. But, as always, he is afraid to appear "weak" and prefers to "play madman" — even if that means risking lethal consequences.
But the Kremlin's hysterics stopped worrying NATO. The alliance now seems to have taken Putin up on his favorite game: seeing who blinks first.