Phew! I was worried I wouldn’t get this piece written before World War III broke out in the English Channel – but luckily it appears there might still be a few hours to spare before doomsday.
The British press lost its collective mind this week when it emerged that a fleet of Russian warships led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier was making its way from Murmansk to Syria via the Mediterranean Sea and would be passing through the English Channel en route.
Despite the operation being entirely transparent and the ships operating in international waters (except where they were escorted through UK territorial waters), British newspapers decided to render it all a tad more dramatic. Vladimir Putin’s warships were “lurking” off the coast of Scotland, the Daily Mail reported. The paper was no less dramatic when it reported that a “fire-breathing dragon” – that’s the HMS Dragon destroyer – was being dispatched as part of an operation with NATO allies to “make sure Putin’s attack fleet leaves” the English Channel. You know, just in case they decided to dock at Dover and call it a day.
The Daily Star wrote that the Russian ships were “stalking past” Britain on a “brazen” voyage. A later piece published by the Star included “shock photos” of Putin’s fleet “loaded for battle” off the British coast. It’s unclear what exactly was so shocking about the photos. The Express warned readers that Russian “nuke power” was on their “doorstep” as Putin’s “fearsome fleet” sailed by.
Reading the headlines, you’d honestly think the ships were about to launch nukes at London rather than the more mundane reality; that they were traversing international waters and minding their own business.
The whole thing caused such a stir that groups of people headed out to the cliffs of Dover with cameras and binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of the Russian warships. One marine researcher told the Mail it was an “astonishing sight,” the likes of which you don’t see every day.
The official reaction was slightly more muted than the media’s, but not by much. The British Defense Ministry still chose to make a mountain out of a molehill, with Secretary Michael Fallon reassuring Brits that the Royal Navy, along with other NATO member vessels, would be watching the Russian ships every step of the way as part of their “steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe” – which is wording you might have expected him to use if there was legitimate cause to believe the Russian fleet was any threat to Britain at all, which it clearly was not.
The Russian media, for its part, was amused by the drama, claiming that its country’s fleet had scared the Brits – which seemed to irk sensitive journalists, despite them having run headlines about how “The Russians are coming!” not long before.
Is it fair to say the Russian fleet decided to sail through the English Channel by daylight knowing full well it would cause a stir? Probably. Is it fair to say the route was chosen partly as a show of force? I’d say so. Russia does indeed want to be regarded as the powerful force it is on the world stage. Moves like this are less about threatening anyone with unprovoked “aggression,” and more about sending a message that it is a military not to be messed with. At a time when Western sabre-rattling against Russia seems to be getting worse by the day, such actions are not especially unusual.
The reaction in the UK fits with a now well-established pattern across the Western world of fear-mongering when it comes to Russia. Russian jets in international airspace are cause for mass hysteria, while NATO jets near Russian airspace are no big deal. Submarines, if they can’t be immediately identified, are always Russian and coming to get you. Not even the US election is safe from the Kremlin’s nefarious hand. Vladimir Putin is rigging the entire world in his favor, it would seem, if you were to believe everything you read in Western press.
Yes, we certainly are in a new Cold War. Yes, mounting tensions should be taken seriously. Yes, the relationship between Russia and the West must be seriously rethought. There is genuine cause for concern at the rapid and dangerous deterioration in relations. But scaremongering at this level over something which is clearly no threat to the West is juvenile and pure sensationalism designed to garner as many clicks as possible.
By Danielle Ryan