Russia says it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British destroyer as UK rejects Russia's account, saying shots were a pre-announced Russian exercise and that no bombs had been dropped.
Russia claims it has fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of waters Moscow claims in the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimea peninsula, an incident London has firmly denied.
Britain rejected Russia's account of the incident, saying it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian "gunnery exercise" on Wednesday and that no bombs had been dropped. But it confirmed that its destroyer, HMS Defender, had sailed through what it described as waters belonging to Ukraine.
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 ship was "conducting an innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law," Britain's Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
London vs Kremlin
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson said, "It's incorrect to say either that it was fired upon or that the ship was in Russian waters."
Military experts said that whether or not the details of the Russian or British accounts were accurate, the incident appeared to represent an escalation in the confrontation between the West and Russia over disputed sea lanes.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots after the British destroyer HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed 3 kilometres (1.6 nautical miles) 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 British ship’s path to persuade it to change course. Minutes later, the British warship left the Russian waters, the ministry said.
The Defense Ministry said it summoned the UK military attache in Moscow to protest the British destroyer’s “dangerous move” as a “crude violation” of international maritime law. It urged British authorities to investigate its crew’s actions to “prevent such incidents in the future.”
Russia seized and annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and considers areas around the peninsula's coast to be Russian waters. Western countries deem the peninsula part of Ukraine and reject Russia's claim to the seas around it.
"Innocent passage" is an internationally recognised right for ships to sail through territorial waters of a country provided they mean no harm.
"This was done to test Russian resolve over Crimea," Mark Gray, a maritime security specialist and a retired colonel with Britain’s Royal Marines, told Reuters.
"Russia is trying to create facts on the ground and get them respected internationally, so that their annexation is in effect rubber-stamped by the world," he said, comparing Moscow's Black Sea claims to those of Beijing in the South China Sea, also rejected by the West.
"Nonetheless, the Russian response is extraordinarily robust, a tad undiplomatic and way over the top.”
Exercise Sea Breeze
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the incident showed that Russia's "aggressive and provocative policies" in the Black Sea and nearby Azov Sea constituted a "continuous threat to Ukraine and its allies". In a tweet, Kuleba called for more cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in the Black Sea.
Western countries are conducting naval exercises this week in the Black Sea known as Sea Breeze. Hours before the incident, Russia's embassy in Washington had called on the United States and allies to cancel them.
The British destroyer visited the Ukrainian port of Odessa this week, where an agreement was signed for Britain to help upgrade Ukraine's navy.