Can Russia's planned naval exercises be disrupted by fishermen?

(AP Photto/Yonhap, File)

When we recently discussed some of Russia’s provocative moves in the region around Ukraine, there was one side note to the story that didn’t draw quite as much attention. That was the fact that Russia had announced they would be conducting some naval exercises in the Atlantic in February off of the southwest coast of Ireland. Perhaps because it was announced at the same time as all of the army “exercises” taking place on the Ukrainian border, the move was viewed as also being provocative in nature.

Since the drills are to be conducted in international waters, there didn’t seem to be much anyone could say about it, even though the area does fall inside of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone. It’s the economic zone that may now become more important now, however, because it turns out that someone does plan to try to do something about it. But it’s not any of the military forces of Ireland or the rest of Great Britain. A fleet of Irish fishing vessels will reportedly be setting sail for the same stretch of water in what appears to be an effort to disrupt the Russian naval maneuvers. (BBC)

A group of fishermen is planning to peacefully disrupt Russia’s plans to hold a military exercise off the coast of Ireland in February.

The chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO) has said the area is “very important” for members.

Patrick Murphy says they want to protect biodiversity and marine life.

But Russia’s Ambassador to Ireland says controversy around the exercise is “hugely overblown”.

The Russian response to this news has been fairly predictable and not particularly hyperbolic. The Russian Ambassador to Ireland held a press conference to call all of the drama surrounding this activity “completely overblown.” He called concerns over the exercises part of a “propaganda campaign” designed to create a narrative about a Russian threat to Europe. He also warned about the potential safety hazards of bringing a group of fishing vessels into close proximity of their warships.

The fishermen are claiming that they will be fishing for blue whiting in their traditional spawning grounds, not specifically trying to intervene with the warships. But if that did cause some sort of disruption to the exercises, it could be thought of as a “peaceful protest.”

I may surprise some of you (and myself as well) by saying that I’m sort of taking the side of the Russians on this one. Russia will have three or four ships out there, though they won’t comment on whether or not any subs will be involved. (Nobody ever comments on the location of their subs, including the United States.) If there is a sub in the region and the Irish have any deep nets out, it could potentially create issues. And if you risk a collision between a warship and a fishing trawler, you don’t need to be much of a nautical expert to predict which one will come out on the losing side.

More to the point, if you really stop and consider the reality of what’s going on, how is this exercise by Russia even being considered provocative? Massing troops on the Ukrainian border signals the very real possibility of an invasion. But what would Putin be attacking from the sea off the western coast of Ireland? London? Even Vlad isn’t that crazy, or at least I hope he isn’t.

There’s nothing unusual about what Russia is doing if you remove it from the context of the Ukraine situation. That’s a very common area for naval exercises. Heck, even I sailed through that precise area back in the day when I was in the Navy.

If the fishing trawlers go out there and try to cause a disruption and it leads to any sort of collision, this will quickly turn into an international incident. And don’t we already have enough tension going on with the Russians? Perhaps someone in the Biden administration needs to get on the phone with our Ambassador to Ireland and the Russian ambassador as well to try to calm things down a bit. The idea of some fishermen boldly sailing forth to confront the Russian menace sounds like the makings for a classic folk song, but in reality, it seems rather foolish.