The might of Russia’s military has been left reeling after the Kremlin decided to abort war games off the coast of Ireland due to a planned protest by plucky local fishermen.
If the Russians had not backed off, the group of Irish fishermen had planned to stage a “peaceful protest.” A convoy of 60 fishing trawlers, accompanied by a motley crew of Irish senators, media and television personalities, had signed up to man the boats and help disrupt the military manoeuvres in their traditional fishing grounds.
The naval drills are part of a vast deployment this week by Russia of 140 warships, 60 aircraft and about 10,000 sailors around the world. The live-fire exercises were expected to take place in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and in a small area about 130 nautical miles (200 km) off the coast of Cork, firmly within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
With the world already on tenterhooks over Russia’s mobilisation on Ukraine’s borders, the story suddenly took on an added magnitude.
The shock decision by Russia then to stand down in the face of a band of fishermen left some commentators back in Moscow reeling.
The dispute was sarcastically dubbed "another geopolitical victory for Putin" by prominent Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov. “Irish fishermen forced him to cancel military exercises in the Irish economic zone by threatening to block our military vessels,” tweeted Milov. “Why the hell should Russia conduct them there anyway?”
“These are Fishermen!” tweeted Pavel Fedenko, a BBC Russia Service journalist, after the news emerged of Russia's u-turn. “And if the provocations continue, Ireland will launch a pleasure boat.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos boss turned opposition leader, had framed it as a battle of David versus Goliath on his English-language Twitter account. Afterwards, Khodorkovsky said: “Putin gambled that the US & EU were weak and Nato divided….he even miscalculated the Irish fishermen’s resolve.”
The David v Goliath comparison was possibly flattering to Ireland when you consider the strength of its navy. As a neutral country and non-Nato member, Ireland is woefully equipped to defend its coastline from any potential aggressors.
The Irish Naval Service only has nine ships and is the only country in the EU that doesn't have a primary radar system. If planes switch off their transponders, which Russian jets routinely do, the Irish authorities simply cannot see them.
The Irish government effectively relies on Britain's RAF to keep an eye on Russian planes. In March 2020, RAF Typhoon jets were scrambled twice to monitor Russian Tupolev "Bear" bombers that had entered Irish-controlled airspace off the west coast.
A draft report cited yesterday by the Sunday Independent into the future of the Irish military found “striking gaps” in the State’s capacity to police its air and maritime areas of responsibility, and to protect its national security from external incursion by sea or air.
Early in the week, the Russians had been typically quick to dismiss Ireland's concerns about marine life and the livelihoods of the fishermen. Yuriy Filatov, Russia's Ambassador in Dublin, initially described the controversy as "overblown". At a press conference in Dublin last Monday, he referred to the debate as a "non-story" which had become part of a "propaganda campaign" about an alleged Russian threat to Europe.
After the fishermen kicked up a stink, Filatov invited them to the embassy to try to resolve their differences but he dismissed reports afterwards they had agreed on "a buffer zone" between the Russian naval destroyers and the fishing boats.
Irish South & West Fish Producers Organisation, who met with Filatov, then said its fishermen were heading for the same waters on February 1 as the prawn fishing season was kicking off.
Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the fishing lobby, told the Irish media: “We are not here to challenge the Russian nation, all we are here to do is ensure our boats get to fish in their traditional fishing ground and do so in a safe and fair manner.”
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney dashed off a letter to his counterpart Sergey Lavrov and Russia’s Minister of Defence “to request a reconsideration of naval exercises off the Irish coast" but nobody thought his diplomatically couched words would carry any weight.
Ireland's Department of Transport pitched in and issued a ‘marine notice’ warning Irish vessels of the dangers of operating in this area, but that wasn't going to deter the fishermen.
Russia's shock change of heart was disclosed by its embassy in Dublin on January 29.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Filatov said: "In response to the requests from the Irish Government, as well as from the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu has made a decision, as a gesture of goodwill, to relocate the exercises by the Russian Navy, planned for 3 - 8 February outside the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), with the aim not to hinder fishing activities by the Irish vessels in the traditional fishing areas.”
The jubilant fishermen quickly went viral when Donie O'Sullivan, a US-based reporter for CNN, tracked them down to the fishing village of Castletownbere, where the men had been preparing their ramshackle Armada.
A million people have already viewed the clip, with thousands of people across the world expressing their solidarity with the Irish fishermen.
Such has been the impact of the bearded Irish fishermen on social media that Business Ukraine Magazine tweeted: “Ukrainians are joking about inviting a flotilla of Irish fishermen to strengthen the country’s defences.”
Hollywood celebrities, including actress Mia Farrov and guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, joined in with accolades for the hardy fishermen. “I’m particularly proud of the fishermen who forced Russia to back off,” said Farrow, whose parents hail from County Roscommon. “Nobody messes with the Irish.”
Sinn Féin Defence spokesperson John Brady said it would have been better if Russia had cancelled the drills entirely rather than move them out of Ireland’s EEZ entirely. He said: “Last year, in a similar exercise off the coast of Donegal, fishermen were forced out of an area by British warships; and there was no response from the Minister or the government when I raised serious concerns.
As to why Russia had decided to climb down, many commentators were left scratching their heads. Dorcha Lee, a defence analyst, believes the Kremlin may have simply decided rattling the cage of neutral country was not the best strategy to stop Ukraine joining Nato.
“The Russian Defence Ministry did not consider that their choice of a neutral country’s EEZ waters actually undermined the main Russian stated objective to ensure that Ukraine did not join Nato,” Lee, a retired Irish Army Colonel, told BNE IntelliNews.