British Navy goes overboard following Russian sub sighting

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
The British Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer HMS York  © Darrin Zammit Lupi
The British media gleefully reported this week that a Russian submarine had come to scare their poor little navy off the English coast. The reality, however, was far less dramatic.

A mythical British newspaper headline supposedly once read: “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off.” Today, it’s invoked to describe events where "little Englanders" think everything is about them. Like the future of Europe or Spanish policy in holiday resorts, for instance.

We can now add routine Russian ship movements from northern to southern bases to this category. On Wednesday, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, announced that Vladimir Putin, presumably personally, had sent an “attack submarine into (the) English Channel just days before England’s Russia clash at Euro 2016.”

Never mind that Putin appears to favor ice hockey to soccer, the notion that Russia would be bothered to send a sub to intimidate England’s, usually pretty rubbish, footballers is beyond absurd. Billed as an ‘exclusive’ by The Sun, the story gave the impression that the UK Navy had somehow uncovered a nefarious, secret Russian plot to wreak “hybrid war” (or whatever this month’s agreed propaganda line is) on Britain. The Sun went on to describe the vessel’s jaunt as an act of “sabre-rattling… certain to inflame patriotic passions”

Media sub-standards

Not to be outdone, the Independent, in the past a ‘quality’ paper, carried a report by the (also once- respected) Press Association, which made it sound like NATO had been stretched to the limit of its capabilities in a bid to discover the clandestine Russian mission.

The Indy and PA went on to reference an April 2015 incident where a trawler was dragged violently by its nets while fishing 18 miles off the coast of Ulster, Ireland. The copy inferred that there were “suspicions they had snagged on a Russian submarine.” In actual fact, it was revealed some time ago that it was actually a BRITISH NAVY submersible that endangered the lives of the fishermen. Indeed, British vessels have a history of intimidating and irresponsible behavior off Irish coasts.

But back to this week’s version of the “Hunt For Red October.” Even the UK Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, got involved. He remarked: “This shows that the Navy is maintaining a vigilant watch in international and territorial waters to keep Britain safe and protect us from potential threats.”

Meanwhile, the commander of the British ship apparently “shadowing” the sub, one Daniel Thomas, claimed that “locating this submarine was a combined effort with NATO allies and shadowing such units is routine activity for the Royal Navy.”

Let’s be honest, if this was a genuine yarn, it’d be a great story. Country sends military to scare the living daylights out of a much weaker nation a few days before a big soccer game. The problem is the the tale is complete hogwash.

Now You See it

In reality, Putin, who surely has better things to be doing anyway, did not send an “attack submarine” to England. What actually happened was that the Russian vessel was traveling “up top” (ie. not hiding, but fully visible) and in international waters. In other words, a small child with binoculars traveling by ferry could spot it, without “a combined effort with NATO allies,” or even “Action Man” figures for that matter. Which makes one wonder about the competence of Officer Thomas and how such an obvious nincompoop ever achieved such a high rank in the British Navy. Unless The Sun fabricated the quote, of course, which wouldn’t be a huge surprise, given their past form.

To make things even easier for NATO’s super sleuths, the Russian sub was accompanied by a tug boat. On Wednesday, Moscow’s Defense Ministry released a statement confirming that the vessels were moving from the Arctic to Russia’s Black Sea base in Sevastopol. Anyone with access to a map and a pencil could easily figure out that passing the English Channel, which is perfectly legal, is the fastest route.

So what happened here? And why did a complete non-story become headline news in London? The presence of quotes from a serving British Naval Commander suggests that some clown in the military’s press office, probably trying to make a name for themselves, conjured this nonsense to get some attention. Sadly, however, it’s also possible that this is part of some PR campaign to promote the idea of a “Russian threat” in order to drum up support for increased defense spending. Literally “weaponizing information,” if you like.

Rule Britannia?

If this theory is wrong, and the formerly feared British military was really scared of a single Russian submarine, floating above the waterline, then its decline has been even more severe than most analysts believe. It’s known that the illusion of British martial competence was destroyed after their 2007 humiliation in Basra, but if things genuinely atrophied so rapidly since then, it would be shocking.

Also, if Thomas’ quotes are correct, and Britain really needed to call in NATO to spot the sub, that suggests they don’t even have binoculars these days, let alone functioning radar.

Let’s get this straight. A submarine traveling “up-top,” attached to a tug, is not trying to hurt anybody. Whether its an American vessel off Mexico or a British one en route from Gibraltar.
On the other hand, the constant vilification of Russia in the UK media is damaging. And it continues to reach deeper and deeper depths, if you’ll excuse the pun.

By treating every Russian activity as heinous and stereotyping Russians as evil doers, they destroy any chance of Moscow and London ever repairing relations.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.