A government investigation is under way after Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents containing details about a British warship’s controversial voyage off the Crimean coast were found at a bus stop in Kent.
The 50-page file containing details of the Black Sea operation was discovered in a “soggy heap” behind a bus stop in Kent on Tuesday by a member of the public, according to the BBC.
The MoD said it had been informed last week that “sensitive defence papers” has been recovered by a passer-by and shared with the public broadcaster. The ministry has now launched a probe.
Russia has already seized upon the embarrassing blunder. Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova mocked the government, saying: “007 (James Bond) is no longer the same.”
“And now a riddle-like question for the British parliament, why do we need ‘Russian hackers’ if there are British bus stops?” she asked on social media platform Telegram.
So what exactly is contained in the documents, and what does it reveal about the government’s strategy on dealing with Russia and its claims on the Crimean peninsula?
Some of the emails and PowerPoint presentations in the papers relate to pre-operation plans for the British warship HMS Defender, which last week sailed through waters off the Crimea – a region Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 despite international condemnation.
The documents shared with the BBC appear to show that last week’s mission – dubbed “Op Ditroite” – was carried out in the knowledge that Russia could respond aggressively.
“What do we understand about the possible ‘welcome party’…?” one official had asked on the plan to head through Ukrainian waters just off the Crimea coast.
A presentation document warned: “Following the transition from defence engagement activity to operational activity, it is highly likely that RFN (Russian navy) and VKS (Russian air force) interactions will become more frequent and assertive.”
Three possible responses from Moscow to the HMS Defender’s voyage were assessed – from “safe and professional” to “neither safe nor professional”.
The documents also reveal that military chiefs also considered a less risky route through Ukrainian waters, much further away from the contested waters.
But presentation documents also warned that Russia would see the use of a less risky route as evidence of the UK “being scared” – allowing the Kremlin to claim that the UK now accepted its claim to the territorial waters around Crimea.
Well aware of the spin war to come, officials also discussed how the operation would be perceived. “We have a strong, legitimate narrative,” they stated – pointing to the fact that the BBC and Daily Mail journalists on board would help provide “independent verification of HMS Defender’s action”.
In the event, HMS Defender sailed around 12 miles off the coast of Crimea on 23 June. Russia did indeed offer a hostile response – sending jets to buzz overhead and ships out to threaten the British warship.
Russia’s defence ministry also claimed that warning shots were fired and a bomb dropped in the path of HMS Defender – though the MoD tried to play down shots fired in the distance as part of a “gunnery exercise”.
While Downing Street attempted to portray the expedition as a routine voyage – and allies backed the idea the ship sailed through Ukrainian waters – some cabinet ministers were said to be unhappy about the confrontational nature of the mission.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab had warned the MoD that sailing a warship so close to Crimea would be seen as too aggressive, according to The Times.
A separate document found in the soggy heap in Kent is thought to have contained recommendations for the UK’s military footprint in Afghanistan after Nato forces leave the country.
Labour said the discovery of the documents by a member of the public was “as embarrassing as it is worrying for ministers”.
Shadow defence minister John Healey said defence secretary Ben Wallace must confirm that national security had not been undermined and that procedures are in place “to ensure nothing like this happens again”.
Mr Wallace will have to carry out his inquiries from home. The minister and at least six of Britain’s most senior military figures are self-isolating after General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the Armed Forces, tested positive for Covid-19.
Mr Healey has been granted an urgent question in the Commons today in a bid to force defence ministers to set out more details on how the security blunder occurred.
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