Russia says its forces fired warning shots and dropped bombs to deter a British Royal Navy destroyer, accusing the ship of entering its waters in the Black Sea on Wednesday, a claim denied by the United Kingdom.
According to the Russian defence ministry, HMS Defender “was given a preliminary warning that weapons would be used if the state borders of the Russian Federation were violated. It did not react to the warning”.
The incident reportedly took place off the coast of Cape Fiolent on Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014; the Defender had ventured as much as 3km (2 miles) inside, the ministry said.
A border patrol ship fired the warning shots while an SU-24 jet dropped four bombs in HMS Defender’s path, prompting the British vessel to turn around, the ministry said.
But the UK Ministry of Defence denied Russia’s account, saying: “No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”
“Innocent passage” is an internationally recognised right for ships to sail through territorial waters of a country, provided they mean no harm.
Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, said in a statement that HMS Defender was travelling on an internationally recognised route from Odessa, Ukraine, to Georgia.
“This morning, HMS Defender carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea,” he said.
“As is normal for this route, HMS Defender entered an internationally recognised traffic separation corridor. She exited that corridor safely at 0945 BST (British Summer Time). As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity.”
The British defence attache in Moscow has been summoned regarding the incident, Russia’s TASS reported.
The Royal Navy said earlier in June that the HMS Defender had “peeled away” from its strike group conducting NATO operations in the Mediterranean to carry out “her own set of missions” in the Black Sea.
The British destroyer visited the Ukrainian port of Odessa this week, where an agreement was signed for the UK to help upgrade Ukraine’s navy.
Putin voices NATO concerns
Incidents involving aircraft or ships are not uncommon at Russia’s borders, especially during heightened tensions with the West, but rarely result in open fire.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Wednesday that Russia’s action showed how Moscow’s policy constituted a threat to Ukraine and its allies.
“A clear proof of Ukraine’s position: Russia’s aggressive and provocative actions in the Black and Azov seas, its occupation & militarisation of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and allies,” Kuleba said on Twitter.
“We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine & NATO allies in the Black Sea,” he added.
Wednesday’s incident came as Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow is “concerned” about a NATO build-up near Russia’s borders.
Addressing an international security conference in Moscow on the same day, Putin said the alliance “refuses to constructively consider our proposals to de-escalate tensions and reduce the risk of unpredictable incidents”.
The United States, a leading member of the transatlantic security alliance, periodically sends warships to the Black Sea region in a show of support for Ukraine, often drawing protests from Russia.
Western countries are conducting naval exercises this week in the Black Sea known as Sea Breeze.
Hours before Wednesday’s incident, Russia’s embassy in Washington had called on the US and allies to cancel them.
Earlier this year, tensions over Ukraine soared when Russia built up troops on its border and in Crimea.
Moscow then stepped up military exercises in the Black Sea, prompting a warning from Washington that it would send two warships.
Those ships were never dispatched, as Russia pulled back its forces and the tensions eased.