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Russia says it fired warning shots at British destroyer in Black Sea, which U.K. denies

Russian Su-24 bomber
A Russian Su-24 bomber lands at Hemeimeem air base in Syria in 2015.
(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

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

The disputed incident would mark the first time since the Cold War that Moscow used live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, amid a time of soaring Russia-West tensions.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Russian warship fired warning shots after the British missile destroyer Defender ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed 1.6 nautical miles into Russia’s territorial waters. It said that a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the British ship to persuade it to change course. Minutes later, the British ship left Russian waters, the ministry said.

The ministry said it had summoned the U.K.'s 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 the crew’s actions to “prevent such incidents in the future.”

The British Ministry of Defense denied that 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.”

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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 temporarily break away from the group to carry out its “own set of missions” in the Black Sea.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move not recognized by most countries in the world. Russia has frequently chafed at NATO warships’ visits near Crimea, describing them as destabilizing. In April, it declared a broader 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 British vessel “carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea.”

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“As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor,” he said on Twitter, adding that the Defender exited the corridor safely at 9:45 a.m. British time (1:45 a.m. PT).

“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 to Moscow had been summoned by Russian authorities. Speaking to the British 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.”

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Asked if the crew of the 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 British 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.

Ukrainian 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.

NATO members Turkey, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria all border the Black Sea, but warships from the U.S., Britain and other NATO nations have made increasingly frequent visits in a show of support for Ukraine.

Speaking Wednesday just before the incident, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, sharply criticized the deployments of NATO warships near Russian waters.

“The moves by warships of the U.S. and its allies have been clearly provocative,” Gerasimov said at an international security conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Defense Ministry. “It creates preconditions for incidents and doesn’t help ease tensions in the military sphere.”

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He accused the British destroyer Dragon of intruding into Russian waters near Crimea in October, and said the U.S. destroyer John McCain violated the Russian border in the Sea of Japan in November.

In April, Russia imposed restrictions on foreign navy ships’ movements near Crimea until November in a move that drew strong complaints from Ukraine and the West. Russia has rejected that criticism and noted that the restrictions wouldn’t interfere with commercial shipping.

Earlier this year, Russia also beefed up its troops near the border with Ukraine and warned Ukrainian authorities against using force to reclaim control of the country’s east, where a conflict with Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years. Moscow withdrew some of its forces after sweeping maneuvers, but Ukrainian officials say that the bulk of them have remained.

Speaking earlier Wednesday via video to participants of a Moscow security conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern about the deployment of NATO forces near Russia.

A Moscow court has outlawed the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist.

“We aren’t striving for a decisive, unilateral military advantage to tip the balance of forces in our favor,” Putin said. “But we will never allow anyone else to tip that balance.”

Russia’s relations with the West have sunk to their lowest levels since the Cold War, following the annexation of Crimea, accusations of Russian interference in Western elections, hacking attacks and other tensions.

In a speech at the same conference before Wednesday’s incident, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that “the situation in Europe is explosive,” and accused NATO of stonewalling Russian proposals to enhance security by refraining from holding military exercises near the borders of Russia and NATO member states.

He warned that “the world is rapidly sinking in a new confrontation, which is much more dangerous than during the Cold War times.”


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