Russia says it fired warning shots at British destroyer near Crimea, U.K. denies it
Russia seized and annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014
Russia said one of its warships in the Black Sea fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs Wednesday to force a British destroyer out of an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters, but Britain denied that account and insisted its ship wasn't fired upon.
It was the first time since the Cold War that Moscow acknowledged using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, reflecting the growing risk of military incidents amid soaring tensions between Russia and the West.
The Russian Defence Ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots after HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed three kilometres into Russia's territorial waters near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base in Crimea.
It said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the vessel to persuade the Defender to change course. Minutes later, the Defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.
Britain says Defender not fired upon
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the "rude British provocation that defies international law," and said London's ambassador was being summoned. The Defence Ministry said it also called in the U.K. military attache in Moscow to protest the destroyer's "dangerous move" and urged British authorities to investigate the crew's actions.
Britain's Ministry of Defence denied the Defender had been fired on or was in Russian waters, but had been in Ukrainian waters.
"No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender," it said in a statement. "The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law."
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move not recognized by most countries, gaining access to its long Black Sea coast. Russia has chafed at NATO warships visiting near Crimea as destabilizing. In April, it declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships.
"We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity," the British Ministry of Defence said. "No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path."
'A routine transit'
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the Defender "carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea."
"As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor," he tweeted, adding that HMS Defender exited the corridor safely at 4:45 a.m. ET.
"As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity," he added.
Speaking to Parliament's defence committee, Wallace again denied Russia's version of events.
"These are the things that come and go with Russia," he said. "Disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly. We're not surprised by it; we plan for it."
Asked if Defender's crew had seen or heard anything, he said "initial reports say they did hear or observe training noises somewhere to the rear of her but beyond visual range."
"We saw the reports this morning," said Max Blain, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. "It's incorrect to say either that it was fired on or this ship was in Russian waters. HMS Defender was taking the most direct and internationally recognized route between Ukraine and Georgia."
He emphasized that Britain, and much of the international community, does not recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea.
A clear proof of Ukraine’s position: Russia’s aggressive and provocative actions in the Black and Azov seas, its occupation & militarization of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and allies. We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine & NATO allies in the Black Sea. <a href="https://t.co/VjBPxRWU3d">https://t.co/VjBPxRWU3d</a>—@DmytroKuleba
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was "clear proof of Ukraine's position: Russia's aggressive and provocative actions in the Black and Azov seas, its occupation and militarization of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and allies."
"We need a new quality of co-operation between Ukraine & NATO allies in the Black Sea," Kuleba tweeted.
In November 2018, Russian coast guard ships fired on three Ukrainian gunboats trying to pass from the Black Sea into the Azov Sea and captured them along with 24 crew members. It returned the crew and the boats the following year.
HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, is part of the U.K. Carrier Strike Group heading to the Indo-Pacific region. It was announced earlier this month that it would be temporarily breaking away from the group to carry out its "own set of missions" in the Black Sea.
Just before Wednesday's incident, Defender stopped in the Ukrainian port of Odessa, where Ukrainian and British officials and industry representatives signed an agreement to collaborate on boosting Ukraine's naval capabilities.
NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria border the Black Sea. Warships from the U.S., U.K. and other NATO allies also have made increasingly frequent visits in support of Ukraine.