By Reuters Staff, published by Channel NewsAsia
Moscow – A Russian military ship fired warning shots at a British Royal Navy destroyer after it entered Russian waters in the Black Sea, and a Russian jet dropped bombs in its path as a warning, Interfax cited Russia’s defence ministry as saying today (June 23).
The HMS Defender “was given a preliminary warning that weapons would be used if the state borders of the Russian Federation were violated. It did not react to the warning,” the ministry said
But the UK’s defence ministry swiftly denied that the incident had happened at all.
“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,” the ministry said.
The British vessel HMS Defender left Russian waters soon after the incident, having ventured as much as 3km inside, the Russian ministry said, adding that the confrontation took place near Cape Fiolent, a landmark on the coast of Crimea.
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in a move condemned by the West which still considers it Ukrainian territory.
“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.
A Russian Su-24 bomber dropped four high explosive fragmentation bombs as a warning in the British destroyer’s path, according to the Russian ministry.
The Royal Navy said earlier in June that the HMS Defender had “peeled away” from its strike group conducting NATO operations in the Mediterranean to carry out “her own set of missions” in the Black Sea.
Incidents involving aircraft or ships are not uncommon at Russia’s borders, especially during heightened tensions with the West, but rarely result in open fire.
Russia’s NATO “concerns”
Earlier today, President Vladimir Putin said Russia is “concerned” about the NATO build-up near Russian borders.
Addressing an international security conference in Moscow, Putin said the alliance “refuses to constructively consider our proposals to de-escalate tensions and reduce the risk of unpredictable incidents”.
The US periodically sends warships to the region in a show of support for Ukraine, often drawing protests from Russia.
At the height of tensions over Ukraine this spring after Russia built up troops on its border and in Crimea, Moscow stepped up military exercises in the Black Sea and Washington warned it would send two warships.
Those ships were never dispatched, as Russia pulled back its forces and the tensions eased.
At the time, Russia also threatened to close parts of the Black Sea, which would have affected access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov that is connected to the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait on the eastern tip of Crimea.
Ukraine had been free to navigate the Kerch Strait – of crucial importance to Kiev for exporting grain and steel – along with Russia until 2014, when Moscow claimed full control of the waterway after annexing Crimea.
“By international law, of course, the waters off Crimea are not Russian, as the annexation is not recognised,” Mark Galeotti, a professor of Russian studies at University College London, tweeted today.
“Continuing to pass those waters – without being too provocative – is a crucial way of reaffirming law over land and sea grab.”
The most serious recent tensions over the waters were in November 2018, when Russian forces boarded and took control of the ships as they headed through the Kerch Strait.
Russia captured 24 Ukrainian sailors as part of the seizure, returning them to Ukraine as part of a prisoner swap in September 2019.
British Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender arrives for a port visit in Istanbul, Turkey on June 9, 2021. Photo: Reuters /Yoruk Isik and published by CNA