A Russian warship fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs on Wednesday to force a British destroyer from an area in the Black Sea near Crimea that Russia claims as its territorial waters.
The incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow has used live ammunition to deter a Nato warship, reflecting growing risks of military incidents amid soaring Russia-West tensions.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the Russian warship fired warning shots after the British missile destroyer Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion in Russia’s territorial waters. It said that a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the British ship to persuade it to change course.
The HMS Defender left Russian waters soon after the incident, having ventured as much as three kilometres inside, the Russian ministry said, adding that the confrontation took place near Cape Fiolent, a landmark on the coast of Crimea.
"The destroyer had been warned that weapons would be used if it trespasses the border of the Russian Federation. It did not react to the warning," it said.
The Russian Defence Ministry said it has summoned the UK military attache in Moscow to protest the British destroyer’s manoeuver.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move that was not recognised by most countries in the world. Russia has frequently chafed at Nato warships visits near Crimea, casting them as destabilising.
Nato members Turkey, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria all are on the Black Sea, but warships from the US, UK and other Nato allies have also made increasingly frequent visits in a show of support to Ukraine.
In April, Russia imposed restrictions on foreign navy ships’ movements near Crimea until November in a move that drew strong complaints from Ukraine and the West. Russia has rejected that criticism and noted that the restrictions wouldn’t interfere with commercial shipping.
Earlier this year, Russia also beefed up its troops near the border with Ukraine and warned Ukrainian authorities against using force to reclaim control of the country’s east, where a conflict with Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years. Moscow withdrew some of its forces after sweeping manoeuvers, but Ukrainian officials say that the bulk of them have remained.
UK defence ministry denies incident
Britain’s Ministry of Defence denied the Defender had been fired on or was in Russian 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.”
“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 recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.”
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK vessel “carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea”.
“As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognised traffic separation corridor,” he said on Twitter, adding that the HMS Defender exited the corridor safely at 9:45am (BST).
“As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity,” he added.
“We saw the reports this morning,” said Max Blain, a spokesman for 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 recognised route between Ukraine and Georgia.”
He emphasised that Britain, along with much of the international community, does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the incident was “a clear proof of Ukraine’s position: Russia’s aggressive and provocative actions in the Black and Azov seas, its occupation and militarisation 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,” Kuleba tweeted.
Additional input by Reuters.