Hostilities Rise Between Johnson and Putin as Naval Forces Clash in the Black Sea

  • A dispute between Russian and British navy forces has arisen in the Black Sea 
  • Accounts of the conflict are contradicting between the two parties involved. 
  • Though Johnson has defended the Navy’s decision to sail through the region, the dispute echoes a deeper power struggle between the two leaders. 
Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin 

Why are Johnson and Putin hostile towards one another? 

Answer: A dispute between naval ships in the Black Sea has brought light to the two leaders’ growingly hostile relationship.

On the 24th of June, a British navy warship sailed off the coast of Crimea and faced retaliation from Moscow. According to Russia’s defence ministry, a Russian patrol ship fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the Royal Naval ship’s path in order to steer the British ships away from Ukrainian waters near the Crimean city of Sevastopol. 

However, Boris Johnson has rejected Putin’s account of the clash between the two navies in the Crimean water, stating that the ship had not been fired upon and that it was in fact sailing in Ukrainian territory. Johnson holds that the British ship had every right to sail through the territory due to the freedom of navigation. 

Video footage filmed on board by the Russian FSB coast guard vessel has proven the Russian account of warning fire being shot, but the HMS Defender appears distant and there is no evidence of the bombs dropped. The video further shows the British ship insisting to follow the route internationally recognised as Ukrainian waters. 

Russian Navy chief has dubbed the move by the British Navy as provocative, and merely a move to investigate how the Russian Navy would seek to resolve the conflict. 

The dispute in the waters follows Putin’s claim of a broader area of water off Crimea which has been closed to foreign naval ships since April. This move by Russia has only been met with strong dissent from Ukraine and the West. Likely, the presence of the British ship in the recently annexed waters reflects Johnson’s condemnation of Russia’s geopolitics, and is set to stir some dispute between the two leaders. 

What does Johnson want?

Answer: To struggle for naval power and gain international support 

The dispute between Russian and British ships in the Crimean waters tells a deeper political tale between the two countries. In line with Johnson’s justification of the ship’s presence in the territory, Cabinet Minister George Eustice has stated that the dispute in the waters has far from prevented the British Navy from sailing through the region again. The dispute sheds light on Johnson’s government not accepting the annexation of Crimea, which is likely to aggravate Putin and his government further. 

With the truth surrounding the dispute brought to light in a video captured by members of the British media, some have questioned whether the venture into the Crimean waters was a ploy from Johnson to win the so-called “information warfare” between Russia and the West. The BBC’s defence correspondent has noted that the trip into Ukrainian territory was, besides helping build warships for Ukraine, also an information operation. With journalists aboard the ship, it is likely that Johnson sought to aggravate the Russian Navy in order to publicise acts of Russian aggression in the region. 

British governments have been hostile towards Putin since the Salisbury poisoning, whereby a former Russian double agent turned former British intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in the English town of Salisbury in 2018 by Russian agents. The attack led to the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the UK and its allies. With Russia denying the attacks, Johnson, as the foreign secretary at the time, dubbed Russia’s response as “smug sarcasm”.  

Russia is seemingly the only country in Europe that would advocate for the UK’s departure from the EU, which would have indicated a good relationship between the two leaders this time around. However, Johnson has stated that his government has not changed their stance on the Salisbury attack. The appearance of British ships in the Black Sea was an attempt by Johnson to poke holes in Putin’s “smugness”, which is still a point of tension between the two leaders. Johnson’s scepticism and hostility towards Putin is exemplified by his international law rhetoric and attempts to bring about transparency in the region. 

Internationally, Johnson will garner support from the community, such as the US and allies with particular hostilities towards Putin. Ultimately, Johnson is seen vying for political power as the West’s spearhead seeking to contain Putin’s constant breaching of international law and to prove to the world that Britain will continue to condemn the occupation of Ukrainian territory. Similarly, a focus on transparency could be Johnson’s attempt to bring about a new era of integrity for the Tory party to gain support domestically. 

What does Putin want?

Answer: To send a signal to the West that Russia will ignore international law in order to have domination over Crimea.

Condemning the sailing of the British ship in Crimean waters, Putin has been described as testing the will of the West by sending warning shots in retaliation to Britain’s resolve.  

Facing criticism in light of the annexation of Crimea, Putin is on the defensive. Despite Russia’s account being disproved by video footage, even their own description of the dispute violated international law of the sea. Putin’s ruthless response to the presence of the British ship shows that once again, he will commit to presenting Russia as an untouchable force in regional geopolitics, even if doing so feeds into the pre-existing world’s perception of him as a politician that evades the truth. 

The Great Game between Russia and Britain, which started in the 19th century to have dominating influence in Asia, can explain why Putin is determined to maintain control over Ukraine, and keep it from British or EU influence. To Putin, Ukraine is a smaller, mirrored version of Russia that is within a ‘sphere of privileged influence’, and is vital to further his agenda of creating a union of Eurasia who share the same Soviet beliefs. 

Putin has stated that the incident in the Black Sea was merely an act of provocation from the UK and the US. Though, he added that the provocation couldn’t have gone as far to trigger a global war because the West could never be the winners in a World War III scenario. Putin’s reaction to the British ship is divided between two deep-rooted reasons: 1) that the nation is under threat from the UK and its allies and 2) that the nation is strong and can protect itself against foreign forces.

Moreover, the incident in the Black Sea shows that above all, Putin wants to maintain control of Crimea and warn off any interference from the West, who, in accordance with international law, still believe that Crimea belongs to Ukraine. By defending the waters as if they were Russian territory, Putin shows that he will continue to act above international law in order to further his geopolitical agenda with Ukraine. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: More squabbling between the two leaders with Johnson trying to expand his naval power and a less hopeful future for Ukraine.

The dispute between the two leaders could perhaps tell a wider story of transparency in geopolitical relations. Though conflating accounts was inevitable, the British Ministry of Defence has been under attack for the lack of truthful and honest reporting during the incident in the Black Sea. If venturing into the region was truly about transparency, the British government, should themselves, practice sincerity. 

On a wider scale, this could be the start of many attempts seen by Johnson to gain naval and geopolitical power, further bolstered by Britain’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to confront China’s growing maritime power. 

For Putin, the response to the incident in the Black Sea shows that he will continue to have disregard for international law. This indicates little resolve for Eastern Ukraine in the near future. With the undeclared Russo-Ukraine war now approaching its seventh year and the West simultaneously being unable to contain Putin in the region, Ukraine may now seek to bring the Budapest Memorandum back into discussion. However, this guarantees no security for the region. 

As history tells us, little Western military intervention has been employed to limit Putin’s dealings in Crimea. Should the international community be warned off by Putin’s offensive in the Black Sea, the leader could attempt to expand maritime power in the Azov Sea by blockading traffic and bringing about devastation to the Ukrainian economy. 

For the relationship between the two leaders, it appears that Putin and Johnson will continue to test each other. With Johnson going as far to compare Putin to Dobby from Harry Potter, we can expect no prospects of improvement for UK-Russia relations. 

Elle Osborn

R&A Alumna