Russia says warning shots deter UK warship; London denies it

Russia fires warning shots

The Russian military says one of its warships in the Black Sea fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs Wednesday to force a British destroyer away from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters, but Britain denies the account and insists its ship wasn't fired upon.

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 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 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 U.K. 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.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defense 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."

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move that was not recognized by most countries, gaining access to the peninsula’s long Black Sea coast. Russia has frequently chafed at NATO warships visits near Crimea, casting them as destabilizing. In April, it declared a broader sea area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships.

“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 Defense said. “No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.”

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the U.K. vessel “carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea.”

“As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor,” he said on Twitter, adding that HMS Defender exited the corridor safely at 9:45 a.m. BST (0845 GMT; 4:45 a.m. EDT).

"As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity,” he added.

Wallace said Britain’s ambassador in Moscow had been summoned by Russian authorities. Speaking to Parliament’s defense committee, Wallace again denied Russia’s version of events.

“These are the things that come and go with Russia,” he said. “Disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly. We’re not surprised by it; we plan for it.”

Asked if the crew of HMS Defender had seen or heard anything, he said “initial reports say they did hear or observe training noises somewhere to the rear of her but beyond visual range.”

“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 recognized route between Ukraine and Georgia.”

He emphasized that Britain, along with much of the international community, does not recognize 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 militarization 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.

HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, is part of the U.K. Carrier Strike Group currently heading to the Indo-Pacific region. However, it was announced earlier this month that it would be temporarily breaking away from the group to carry out its “own set of missions” in the Black Sea.

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