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Thursday, 18 July 2024
Britain’s Gunboat Diplomacy
James Denselow

In international politics, the term “gunboat diplomacy” refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power. It is a tactic associated more with periods of history rather than the modern day; the idea of a battleship appearing off the coast being able to sway the politics of the day seeming out of place in today’s global geopolitics. Yet the actions of HMS Defender would seem to suggest that the approach may be making a comeback. Diplomacy

The British Type 45 or Daring-class air-defence destroyer was recently headline news with various reports either in the Western press about the ship defending the right to free passage and pushing back against Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, or in the Russian press that the ship was chased out of its water by its military. Footage of the showdown made clear that Russian jet planes and coast guard vessels were certainly up close and personal to the British warship and the radio chatter between the two sides escalated quickly to the point of seemingly being ready for a physical confrontation.

We know much of this because HMS Defender was carrying a number of British journalists at the time. This was no accident and following years of Russia teasing Western states with bombers flying close to their airspace forcing them to scramble fighters, the tactic was now been used in reverse. As one of the officers on board admitted to the BBC, the objective of sailing so close to Crimea was to ‘poke the Russian bear’ and the bear duly responded resulted in reams of media coverage potentially amiable to both sides.

The UK was able to show that the new ‘Global Britain’ approach would see a more frequent and assertive use of its military power, and the Russians were able to demonstrate that they would not suffer such tactics lightly. Indeed, several days after the standoff with HMS Defender, the Russian’s tested a giant new nuclear submarine, the Belgorod, in the White Sea. The submarine is advertised as having not just to ability to launch nuclear missiles but is also able to tamper and disrupt caballing at the bottom of the sea an obvious strategic threat to countries like the UK. Diplomacy

The thinking behind the UK actions following the G7’s clear recognition of the threat from Russia which was also seen in a major review of UK foreign and defence policy; is that the Russians will take constant advantage of areas where the West is not holding the line. The Integrated Review 2021, which describes the UK government’s vision for the nation’s role in the world over the next decade, states that “Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK”. Analysts would point to Syria as a perfect example in point; where a confused and reluctant Western policy to get too involved in the conflict was contrasted to the Russians significantly investing in manpower and changing the course of events entirely.

There is of course the counterpoint to the holding the line or pushing back strategy, that it could accidentally result in further escalation and that events could take their own momentum. Following the HMS Defender incident, the Russian military has launched sweeping manoeuvres in the Mediterranean Sea featuring warplanes capable of carrying hypersonic missiles, a show of force. The Russian drills began on Friday in the Eastern Mediterranean come as a British carrier strike group is in the area.

As soon as military forces with a history of enmity behind them are thrown into a proximate location then the levels of risk are far higher. A huge learning from the Cold War is the number of near misses that could have escalated into nuclear Armageddon. We’re in a different time now of course but there are still nuclear weapons primed and ready to go in several states’ armouries and perhaps the absence of clarity around what situations they would be used in makes things more not less dangerous. As President Biden recently demonstrated, what is needed is a clear sense as to what diplomatic and political channels are open to ensure that the key mode of communication between Moscow and London doesn’t take the form of heavily armed warships. Diplomacy

by: James Denselow levant 


James Denselow,