Russia said it used bombs and gunfire in “warning shots” to force a British Navy destroyer to leave waters it claims in the Black Sea, but the UK rejected that, saying it was likely a “gunnery exercise” that didn’t affect the ship’s planned voyage.
The episode, which the Russian Defence Ministry said took place off Cape Fiolent, south of its Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, highlights the tensions in the area following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the strategic peninsula from Ukraine.
Russia said the episode lasted about half an hour, with the HMS Defender entering waters Moscow claims as its own by about three miles and ignoring radio warnings. The Defender continued even after a Russian Border Patrol warship fired its cannon but left the area after a Su-24 aircraft dropped four bombs on its course, the Defence Ministry said.
But the UK rejected that 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.”
Russia summoned the British military attache in Moscow to protest the incident, the Interfax news service reported.
The UK and its allies don’t recognize Crimea as Russian territory after Moscow annexed the region from Ukraine in 2014.
Since then, Russia has deployed its planes and ships when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has sent ships into the area. At the height of tensions in early 2014, the US accused Russia of flying a warplane dangerously close to a US warship, an allegation Moscow denied.
Russian military analysts said the use of weapons would be an unusual escalation, if it happened.
The UK’s muted response could mean “they miscalculated and were not ready for what the Russians did,” said Vasily Kashin, a military expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“The talk of warning shots could be a total or partial fabrication [it wouldn’t be the first time] or it could be true,” Mark Galeotti, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote in Twitter. “Either way, it shows not strength but weakness.”
Until now, the Russian navy had only resorted to firing on foreign fishing vessels suspected of poaching in the Far East, said Ilya Kramnik, a military expert at the state-run Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
The Defender on Tuesday left the Ukrainian port of Odessa, where officials signed agreements implementing the UK’s programme to help Ukraine build up its navy, according to the ship’s Twitter account. Reached last October, the deal includes refurbishment of existing ships and delivery of new ones.