A war of words between Moscow and London escalated on Thursday as both sides accused one another of giving inaccurate accounts of an incident involving a British warship and Russian forces in the Black Sea.
Russia said it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of HMS Defender on Wednesday as it sailed off the coast of the Crimea peninsula, accusing the Royal Navy destroyer of breaching its territorial waters.
The United Kingdom disputed Russia’s account, saying no warning shots were fired and no bombs were dropped, but suggested a Russian gunnery exercise had been taking place in the area.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Thursday HMS Defender was acting legally in international waters and described the vessel’s route as “wholly appropriate”.
“The important point is that we don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea,” he said. “These are Ukrainian waters and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B.”
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Moscow considers areas around the Crimean peninsula’s coast to be Russian waters.
But Western countries deem Crimea to be part of Ukraine and reject Russia’s claim to the seas around it.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also denounced Moscow on Thurdsay.
“No shots were fired at HMS Defender,” Raab told reporters in Singapore, during a visit to discuss trade deals.
“The Royal Navy ship was conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters. We were doing so in accordance with international law and the Russian characterisation is predictably inaccurate.”
Under international law of the sea, “innocent passage” permits a vessel to pass through another state’s territorial waters so long as this does not affect its security.
Meanwhile, in comments broadcast on state television, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the UK of telling “barefaced lies” regarding its account of events.
The ministry summoned UK Ambassador Deborah Bronnert on Thursday to deliver a “tough demarche” – diplomatic jargon for a telling off – over the episode, which the Kremlin described as a “provocation”.
The UK government said it would not accept unlawful interference with the principle of innocent passage following the incident, which officials said took place as HMS Defender was travelling on an internationally recognised route from Odessa, Ukraine, to Georgia.
However, Russia said HMS Defender had ventured as far as three kilometres (two miles) into Russian waters near Cape Fiolent.
The promontory is a landmark on Crimea’s southern coast and lies near the port of Sevastopol, headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet.
Describing events on Wednesday, Russia’s defence ministry claimed that a border patrol ship fired warning shots while an Su-24 jet dropped four bombs in HMS Defender’s path, prompting the vessel to turn around.
Moscow issues warning
Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned on Thursday that Moscow would always “stand guard” over its borders and was entitled to “bomb” in instances where they are ignored.
“What can we do? We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law. If this does not help, we can bomb not only in the direction, but also on target, if our colleagues do not understand,” Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russia’s Tass news agency.
“I warn everyone violating the state borders of the Russian Federation under the slogan of free navigation, from such provocative steps, because the security of our country comes first.”
“The territorial integrity of the Russian Federation is inviolable. The inviolability of its borders is an absolute imperative, we will stand guard over all this by diplomatic, political and, if necessary, military means.”
Ryabkov’s remarks came as Moscow released footage filmed from a Russian Su-24 bomber flying close to HMS Defender.
The UK’s BBC news, whose reporter Jonathan Beale was on deck during the incident, meanwhile published video from the British ship showing a Russian officer warning that he would shoot if it did not change course.
In that BBC video, after the Russian warning issued over radio, Beale is heard saying: “Shots are fired, but they are well out of range”.
The BBC said as many as 20 Russian aircraft were also buzzing the British warship.