We now know with certainty that the much-ballyhooed Biden-Putin summit in Geneva was a total failure, one that falls clearly and unmistakably on Biden’s doorstep. His clique of anti-Russian staff wrecked the summit and brought war closer.

The trigger was the breach by HMS Defender when it entered the territorial waters of Crimea. The elaborately prepared intrusion is clear from a PowerPoint planning presentation, classified as Most Secret, that somehow was left “in a soggy heap” at a bus stop in Kent and was “discovered” by a “member of the public.” 

And the US part in coordinating the intrusion was known immediately to the Russians who followed a US spy plane, a P-8 Poseidon, which flew from Crete and provided overhead coverage for Defender, warning it of the movement of Russian aircraft, submarines and ships converging on the HMS Defender

Putin has candidly told us that he was immediately advised about the spy plane and even recalled the tail number of the plane.

NATO is backing the HMS Defender intrusion in an unqualified manner, claiming it is Russia that “continues to destabilize” the region.

HMS Defender’s scripted intrusion came after a visit to Odessa in Ukraine. The idea for it was to show “solidarity” with Ukraine. In fact, it may have provided the Russians with an incentive to take stronger action against Ukraine, rather than the reverse.

It will be recalled that Putin had mounted a major military exercise on Russian territory – including the disputed Crimea – before the Biden-Putin summit. But in the face of demands that Russia pull back from a military exercise that was seen as immediately threatening Ukraine, Putin ordered the troops back, although much of the equipment and temporary facilities to support the exercise were kept in place. 

The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender arrives in the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Seyran Baroyan

No provocation

Putin’s gesture, if that properly describes the Russian President’s decision, was a bone thrown to Biden. Beyond that, at the summit Putin reiterated his desire to see the Ukrainian issue tackled in accordance with the Minsk II Protocol and not through hostile action. 

There was no new provocation of any kind that triggered the HMS Defender operation. It is far from clear why Biden authorized the operation, just as it isn’t clear why Britain’s Boris Johnson was willing to risk losing a key British Navy asset for little benefit to the UK or anyone else. 

Of course, the Russians see these actions as more evidence of the West’s double dealing.  

The US is now conducting a very aggressive naval exercise in the Black Sea called Sea Breeze 2021. A US Navy Press release says: “This year’s iteration has the largest number of participating nations in the exercise’s history, with 32 countries from six continents providing 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft and 18 special operations and dive teams scheduled to participate.” 

Sea Breeze is co-hosted by the US and Ukraine, making it clear to the Russian side that the US is a part of Ukraine’s security shield and that the NATO “partnership” with Ukraine is virtually the same as Ukraine being a NATO member.

Certainly, all of this is not lost on Russia. 

Russia considers its southern flank extraordinarily sensitive and a red line for its security. When Russia worked out an agreement with Ukraine that returned independence and sovereignty to Ukraine, it also agreed that Russia and Ukraine would share Sevastopol, the key Crimean port and the home of Russia’s southern fleet and Ukraine’s small navy. 

In effect, Ukraine agreed to Russian protection. All of that, of course, went by the boards as relations between Russia and Ukraine deteriorated, as pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine were removed and as the rebellion in Donetsk led to the formation of two quasi-independent entities, the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, both founded in 2014. 

Nakhimov School cadets march during the Last Bell ceremony to mark the end of the school year in Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia. The Nakhimov Naval School is a famous Russian boarding school, which prepares teenagers for service as officers in the Russian Navy. Photo: AFP / Konstantin Mihalchevskiy / Sputnik

Contested area

In 2014, Russia also annexed Crimea and took over Sevastopol, holding the Ukrainian navy assets hostage. After a while, some of those ships have been released.

Since then, Ukraine has been contesting both the breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which is regarded by Ukraine and most of the rest of the world as illegal.

Ukraine cut off power and water to Crimea. Water is supplied by the North Crimea Canal. Ukraine has also built two dams on the canal, said to be 80% complete, to block even more water flowing to Crimea.

Agricultural cultivation in Crimea, with water shortages, has gone from 130,000 hectares in 2013 to only 14,000 in 2017. While the Russians have built some reservoirs and are extracting water locally, the situation continues to deteriorate. Many residents fill their home bathtubs when there is water as a conservation measure.

Meanwhile, some experts think the Russians have to solve the water problem. Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Russian President Putin, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, suggests that Russia could attack from Crimea toward the canal, capturing control of the vital water supply and even possibly grabbing the Yuzhnoukrainsk Nuclear Power Plant which supplies about one-third of Ukraine’s power. 

A Grad BM-21 multiple launch rocket system fires during the joint military drills held by Russia and Belarus. The Zapad exercises may be an excuse to launch an attack, according to one expert. Photo: AFP / Alexey Kudenko / Sputnik

Military exercises

Illarionov thinks there is a chance Russia will take advantage of the forthcoming Zapad 2021 military exercise to launch an attack.

Zapad 2021 takes place every four years and will be held in September. This year it will feature much stronger coordination with Belarus and will involve a massive number of troops, aircraft and other army assets and will feature modular basing and new net-centric warfare methods, some of which the Russians learned from the lessons of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

The exercise will show both defensive and offensive operations featuring airborne units, special forces, Spetsnaz, reconnaissance and naval infantry.

Should NATO keep pressuring Russia on Ukraine, Zapad 2021 could end up being a kind of Trojan horse – that is, a jumping-off point where Russia could seize more Ukrainian territory or even attempt to overthrow Ukraine’s government altogether.

What NATO could do, or would be willing to do, is anyone’s guess. Putin says if NATO tries, it will lose. All of this leaves little doubt that the Biden-Putin summit was a failure and the risk of war has escalated.