Moscow — Russia’s Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday that a British Royal Navy destroyer had entered the country’s territorial waters in the Black Sea, drawing a series of “warning shots” from Russian ships and aircraft before turning around. Britain denied that the HMS Defender had drawn any warning fire from Russia and, along with the United States and many other nations, doesn’t agree with Russia’s definition of its own territory.
Russia’s state-run TASS news agency said the warning shots from a Russian patrol vessel were followed by a Russian Navy Su-24 fighter jet dropping four bombs along the path of the British warship, to prevent it from further maneuvers in the area. According to the report, the Defender “did not respond” to the warnings, but eventually left Russia’s waters after sailing about two miles into the country’s territory.
But the incident happened near Cape Fiolent, on the coast of Crimea, which Russia unilaterally annexed from Ukraine in 2014 after sending military forces across the border to help secure the ground.
Most of the international community has refused to recognize Crimea as Russian territory, and the U.S., Britain and Europe have all hit Russia with sanctions over the move.
The Russian Defense Ministry summoned Britain’s military attaché in Moscow and issued a formal protest on Wednesday.
“The Russian military department calls on the British side to conduct a thorough investigation of the actions of HMS Defender crew to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future,” the Ministry said in a statement. “The dangerous actions of the British Navy destroyer are regarded as a gross violation of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
But the British military soon denied that any shots had been fired at its warship, adding that the Russian military was holding live-fire naval and air exercises in the vicinity of the HMS Defender, and that it gave advance warning of vessel’s activity in the area.
“No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship was conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law,” a spokesperson for the U.K. Defense Ministry said in a statement.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the warship was conducting a routine passage from Odessa, Ukraine, to Georgia across the Black Sea.
“As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor. She exited that corridor safely,” Wallace said. “As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity.”
The Defender left the southern Ukrainian port of Odessa after British and Ukrainian officials signed a deal onboard the ship to beef up the Ukrainian Navy, which was dealt a huge blow by the loss of Crimea and its ports. The U.K. is to provide minesweeping ships and patrols boats to Ukraine, as well constructing two new naval bases.
“HMS Defender’s mission to the Black Sea was a political one — about projecting presence, supporting Kyiv and reminding Moscow that its annexation was not forgotten or accepted,” Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said in a tweet.