Posted inGlobal Affairs

Never in Isolation: HMS Defender, COVID-19 and illusions of control in Putin’s Russia

It was bound to happen. A Royal Navy destroyer on a routine voyage through the Black Sea decided to steam past Cape Fiolent, the southern peninsula of Russian-occupied Crimea. It triggered a frosty response by Russian border guards, and brusque words were exchanged between the British and Russian governments. Of course, respective accounts differed. The Russian narrative stated that border troops swiftly expelled the British vessel from Crimean waters. The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied any actual “confrontation” happened at all – their vessel continued unimpeded.

This incident does not refer to June’s HMS Defender debacle, but in fact predates it by eight months. It occurred not on 23 June 2021, but 13 October 2020 and the ship was not called Defender, but Dragon. The MoD did not comment on HMS Dragon’s voyage until late in May 2021. In Russian media, it received similarly scant attention. The highest profile comment – that Britain had ‘abused the right of innocent passage’ – came from General Valerii Gerasimov at a Moscow security conference, but the matter did not go further.

HMS Defender conducts a Photographic Exercise (PHOTEX). This picture by the Royal Navy Media Archive is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The actual events surrounding Defender and Dragon were almost identical. Reaction to them was not. The sudden change took British officials by surprise. Following a confrontation between the Defender and Russian forces during the course of its 36-minute passage through Crimean waters on 23 June, a diplomatic and media frenzy unfolded. The following day, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned: “We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law, and if this does not help, we can bomb.” Russian statements have tried to stress the confrontation’s hostility, and have insisted that bombs were deployed by naval aircraft to detonate in the Defender’s path. This account first originated in a government newspaper, Rossiiskaya gazeta, is backed with no documentary evidence, and remains stoutly refuted by the MoD. Russian President Vladimir Putin even went on record to state that Russia would have gotten away with sinking Defender without beginning a Third World War. This boldness did not characterise the Dragon’s “incursion” in October. At the same time, the narrative surrounding the Defender is not just one of triumphalism but simultaneously one of victimhood. Putin’s narrative encompasses a NATO and US-backed European conspiracy against the Russians of Crimea, to which the Italians, Dutch, and Americans are also privy.

Russian media outlets disproportionately flooded the public space with news about the Defender. On the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda (a government-aligned tabloid), ninety-six articles appear when “HMS Defender” is entered in the search bar. TASS (a state-run news agency), released 19 separate press statements on the day after the Defender incident. These pieces were, more often than not, eager to exploit inconsistencies in the MoD’s account and to praise swift and decisive action by Russian forces. Komsomolskaya Pravda stated that ‘it is worth noting that [HMS Defender] would definitely have gone to the bottom…no one could guarantee that the regional armed conflict would not develop into a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia.’ The threat of war is clearly implicit. Putin and the organs of state propaganda have clearly utilised Defender as an opportunity to spin an (arguably paradoxical) narrative of besiegement and triumphalism to the Russian population. It is not a new narrative. For instance, it ubiquitously characterised Russian coverage of the war in Donbass. If Putin has one eye towards foreign navies in the Black Sea, the other without doubt looks back towards his home audience.

Russia’s domestic situation is deteriorating. The Defender’s accompanying propaganda campaign came at a crucial juncture in Russia’s COVID-19 outbreak. Mid-June saw infection rates jump by a third per week, and like in Britain, this shows no sign of slowing down. Russia’s Coronavirus HQ death toll currently stands at around 130,000, but Russia’s Rosstat agency quotes a figure of 270,000 total deaths by the end of April. At the very least, Russian authorities have been known to understate their figures by as much as 70%. The official figures, rather stark in themselves, conceal an even grimmer picture of the pandemic spiralling out of control across the Federation. On 1st June, according to official figures, there were 9,369 new cases. A month later, 23,128 were recorded in a single day

For the moment, though, the integrity of the Putin regime is not so greatly threatened by COVID. Recent polls show Putin’s approval ratings dropped only 1% between May and June, and his disapproval rate has not budged. Putin repeatedly casts himself as one of “the people”, against corporatist or elitist interests exploiting the pandemic (such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, whose vaccines he criticised on live television just days ago). Putin hosts an annual call-in with ordinary Russians, called Pryamaya liniya (“Direct Line”). The most recent one was held on 30 June. Putin’s thoughts on the Defender were, of course, closely adjoined to questions about COVID. The call-in featured Putin responding to callers’ reservations about new COVID vaccines and encouraging those with medical exemptions to decline them. He also repeatedly objected to enforcing a programme of mandatory vaccination. At the same time, he also urged Russians to listen to medics and take vaccines where possible – ‘It is necessary to listen, not to people who understand little about this and spread rumours, but to specialists’. To control COVID’s spread, Putin needs to convince Russians to engage with the national vaccination programme. But his parallel efforts to convince ordinary Russians that he is “one of them” show the extent to which dominating narratives on COVID-19 and vaccination in Russia are independent of government control.

The more overriding concern for Putin is the demonstration of control, rather than the practice of it. Quite frankly, he would probably be unable to enforce a programme of mandatory vaccination even if he chose to do so. The Levada Centre (Russia’s last independent pollster) reported in May that up to 62% of Russians would refuse vaccination or were afraid of or unready for it. Russian governors and mayors have taken the hit for pushing ahead in mandatory vaccination programmes and lockdowns. 25% have made vaccines obligatory for certain workers and pressed restrictions for the unvaccinated, and in consequence their approval dropped six points in the same period as Putin’s remained level. The Putin regime has taken its lead on COVID policy from what it can realistically achieve with the Russian people. Just days ago, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitrii Peskov stated: “Nobody wants any lockdowns, and yes, it is not up for debate. It is not being discussed.” It has been similarly difficult to coordinate a common nationwide COVID policy, which in different republics has largely been made discretionary to regional governors. Despite the alarming rise in cases nationwide, only the Siberian Republic of Buryatia has ordered a blanket lockdown since the beginning of Russia’s third wave.

Putin’s power is stable for now, but not without insecurity. After all, the Navalny protests which rocked over 100 Russian cities earlier this year were less than half a year ago at the time of writing. Putin also infrequently has to contend with the excesses of the essentially independent tyrant of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2015, Kadyrov’s hitmen assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov without Putin’s sanction, and now he has threatened to break with Putin’s line on lockdowns and mandatory vaccination. Kadyrov recently stated, unless vaccine uptake rose and infection rates fell, Chechens deemed “irresponsible towards themselves and others” would face “severe restrictive measures”. 

The Putin regime’s response to Russia’s third COVID outbreak shows that its main power resides in defending itself and the interests of those served by it, rather than enforcing specific policies across the entire Federation. The illusion of control is as crucial to Putin’s rule as the actual exercise of it. The Defender had a role to play in this, which was exploited in a characteristically opportunistic fashion. Russian geopolitical insecurity factors in but does not in the last analysis explain why the Defender debacle erupted when it did rather than that it did. It has provided a welcome, though momentary, distraction from the doldrums of COVID for organs of state propaganda. More importantly, it bolsters the illusion of control. If Putin has the influence to defend Russian borders against NATO with such apparent ease, it speaks to the stability of affairs under his rule. It makes Putin the Man in Control, just as Russia’s third wave of COVID spirals out of it. To quote Russia analyst Mark Galeotti, ‘If people think you are powerful, you are powerful.’

Putin and his acolytes have protested that the Defender affair represents a renewed – and failed – aggression against the motherland. However, such is the nature of Russia’s leadership that it needs such incidents just as it rails against them. A symbiosis of Western threat and Russian resistance feeds the illusion of control in Putin’s Russia.