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 U.K. rejected that, saying it was likely a “gunnery exercise” that didn’t affect the ship’s planned voyage.
The Defense Ministry in Moscow said the confrontation took place Wednesday off Cape Fiolent, south of its Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, which the U.K. and its allies don’t recognize as Russian territory after President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of the strategic peninsula from Ukraine. The contradictory accounts underline the frictions remaining between the U.K. and Russia even as Putin and the U.S. move to patch up ties.
Russia said the Black Sea incident lasted about half an hour, with the HMS Defender entering waters Moscow claims as its own by about three kilometers (2 miles) and ignoring radio warnings. The Defender continued even after a Russian Border Patrol warship fired its cannon, leaving the area when an Su-24 aircraft dropped four bombs on its course, the Defense Ministry said.
The U.K. rejected that account, saying no warning shots were fired and noting Russia was conducting a “gunnery exercise” in the area.
“This morning, HMS Defender carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said. “As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor. She exited that corridor safely at 0945BST. As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity.”
Russia summoned the British ambassador and military attache in Moscow to protest the incident and call for an investigation. The Defense Ministry later released a 12-second video of the vessel, but it showed no firing or confrontation.
BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale reported from on board the Defender that as many as 20 Russian planes were in the air around the ship and shots were heard, though they were thought to be out of range during the one-hour passage. Two Russian coastguard boats shadowed the vessel, at times just 100 yards away, and one threatened to fire if the Defender didn’t change course.
“Throughout this transit, the crew on HMS Defender have been on high alert, and at one stage they did put on anti-flash masks to protect their faces, just in case there was going to be an exchange of fire,” he wrote. “They didn’t think that would happen, and it did not happen.”
We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior-warning of their activity.
No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.
— Ministry of Defence Press Office (@DefenceHQPress) June 23, 2021
Since the annexation, Russia has deployed its planes and ships when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has sent vessels into the area. At the height of tensions in early 2014, the U.S. accused Russia of flying a warplane dangerously close to a U.S. warship, an allegation Moscow denied.
“Last month they claimed they drove us out of the area. This month it is bombs and missiles,” a senior British official said in a text message. “More fiction than Harry Potter!”
In May, Russia claimed it expelled another British warship in the area last year, an assertion London rejected.
“Moscow is responding to NATO’s freedom-of-navigation exercises with a theatrical stunt designed to show a domestic political audience that it is ready and able to defend what it claims is Russian territory -– as well as crafting a narrative of successfully repulsing Western invaders -– without the risks of an actual military clash,” said Daragh McDowell, Principal Russia Analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Russian military analysts said the use of weapons would be an unusual escalation, if it happened.
“Thank God it didn’t cause any casualties — the common sense of the British commander has to be saluted,” said Maxim Shepovalenko, a retired Russian naval captain who is deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a defense industry consultancy. “Both sides seem keen now to draw a line under the affair.”
The Defender on Tuesday left the Ukrainian port of Odessa, where officials signed agreements implementing the U.K.’s program 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.
The U.K. said the ship’s route Wednesday was the most direct one between Ukraine and Georgia, its next destination.
In signing the Memoranda of Implementation, both nations agreed to implement the Ukrainian naval capabilities enhancement programme with Babcock as the prime industrial partner @UKinUkraine #CSG21 #GlobalBritain #StrongerTogether
— HMS Defender (@HMSDefender) June 21, 2021