Classified Ministry of Defence documents containing details for a Royal Navy operation which sparked a dispute with Russia last week have been discovered at a bus stop in Kent.
The trove of papers, which runs to almost 50 pages, were found by a member of the public last week who passed them to the BBC. The MoD has confirmed that the loss of the documents was reported at the time by an employee and that the department has now launched an investigation into the security breach.
The discovery comes at a time when UK military operations are under particular scrutiny. A British destroyer, HMS Defender, passed through disputed waters off the Crimea coast on Wednesday, prompting a backlash from Moscow.
Russia sent 20 aircraft and two coastguard ships to warn the UK vessel away from waters which it has claimed since its annexation of Crimea seven years ago. The Russian defence ministry said warning shots had been fired at the British destroyer and bombs dropped in its path, but the UK has denied this account.
According to the BBC, the document set out two potential routes for HMS Defender to take from Ukraine to Georgia. One route was described as “a safe and professional direct transit from Odesa to Batumi”, including a short stretch through a “traffic separation scheme” close to the south-west tip of Crimea.
This route, the documents said, would “provide an opportunity to engage with the Ukrainian government . . . in what the UK recognises as Ukrainian territorial waters”.
The papers then set out a range of potential Russian responses, from “safe and professional” to “neither safe nor professional”.
Further documents which are more sensitive, and marked “secret UK eyes only”, discuss plans for a possible UK military presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US-led Nato operation, which is due to be completed by September.
While the BBC said it had held back from releasing details which could endanger the security of UK and allied troops, it reported that the papers address the question of whether any British special forces will remain in Afghanistan once the withdrawal is complete.
“Any UK footprint in Afghanistan that persists . . . is assessed to be vulnerable to targeting by a complex network of actors,” the document reads, while adding that “the option to withdraw completely remains.”
Responding to the discovery of the documents, the MoD said it takes the security of information “extremely seriously” and that an investigation has been launched. “The employee concerned reported the loss at the time. It would be inappropriate to comment further,” it said.
On the revelation of specific details about HMS Defender, the MoD said that it, “as the public would expect, plans carefully”.
“As a matter of routine, that includes analysing all the potential factors affecting operational decisions,” it added.
But John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said the breach was “as embarrassing as it is worrying for ministers”.
“It’s vital the internal inquiry launched by the secretary of state establishes immediately how highly classified documents were taken out of the Ministry of Defence in the first place and then left in this manner,” Healey said.
“Ultimately Ministers must be able to confirm to the public that national security has not been undermined, that no military or security operations have been affected and that the appropriate procedures are in place to ensure nothing like this happens again.”