London: Classified Ministry of Defence documents containing details about HMS Defender and the British military have been found at a bus stop in Kent.
One set of documents discusses the likely Russian reaction to the ship’s passage through Ukrainian waters off the Crimea coast on Wednesday.
Another details plans for a possible UK military presence in Afghanistan after the US-led Nato operation there ends.
The government said an investigation had been launched.
According to detail; The documents, almost 50 pages in all, were found in a soggy heap behind a bus stop in Kent early on Tuesday morning.
The documents relating to the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyer, HMS Defender, show that a mission described by the MoD as an “innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters”, with guns covered and the ship’s helicopter stowed in its hangar, was conducted in the expectation that Russia might respond aggressively.
The mission, dubbed “Op Ditroite”, was the subject of high-level discussions as late as Monday, the documents show, with officials speculating about Russia’s reaction if HMS Defender sailed close to Crimea.
Recent interactions in the eastern Mediterranean between Russian forces and a Carrier Strike Group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth had been unremarkable and “in line with expectations”, the document said.
But officials knew this was about to change.
“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,” one presentation warned.
A series of slides prepared at PJHQ shows two routeing options, one described as “a safe and professional direct transit from Odessa to Batumi”, including a short stretch through a “Traffic Separation Scheme” (TSS) close to the south-west tip of Crimea.
This route, one slide concluded, would “provide an opportunity to engage with the Ukrainian government… in what the UK recognises as Ukrainian territorial waters.”
Three potential Russian responses were outlined, from “safe and professional” to “neither safe nor professional”.
In the event, Russia chose to react aggressively, with radio warnings, coastguard vessels closing to within 100 metres and repeated buzzing by warplanes.
An alternative route was considered, which would have kept HMS Defender well away from contested waters.
This would have avoided confrontation, the presentation noted, but ran the risk of being portrayed by Russia as evidence of “the UK being scared/running away”, allowing Russia to claim that the UK had belatedly accepted Moscow’s claim to Crimean territorial waters.
Most of the papers are marked “official sensitive”, a relatively low level of classification used, according to the government, “where there is a clear and justifiable requirement to reinforce the ‘need to know'”.
But one document, addressed to Ben Wallace’s private secretary, and marked “Secret UK Eyes Only”, outlines highly sensitive recommendations for the UK’s military footprint in Afghanistan, following the end of Operation Resolute Support, the Nato operation currently winding down in the wake of President Biden’s decision earlier this year to withdraw American forces.
The document discusses an American request for British assistance in several specific areas, and addresses the question of whether any British special forces will remain in Afghanistan once the withdrawal is complete.
Media reports have already suggested Britain is considering leaving some forces behind.
“Any UK footprint in Afghanistan that persists… is assessed to be vulnerable to targeting by a complex network of actors,” it says, noting that “the option to withdraw completely remains.”
Afghanistan, it says, is already becoming more dangerous.
The reduced presence of Nato forces “is already impairing the situational awareness that we (and the US) used to enjoy across the country”.
No Britons have been killed in Afghanistan since the US-Taliban deal in February 2020, it says, but “this would be unlikely to remain the status quo”.
Rarely has a collection of lost documents covered such a wide range of important areas. This is a major embarrassment for the Ministry of Defence, which is currently carrying out a detailed investigation into how the papers came to be lying on a street corner, in the rain, in the early hours of Tuesday morning.