Russian jets and warships were involved in a dramatic confrontation with a Royal Navy destroyer off the coast of Crimea on Wednesday with the British warship being told it would be fired upon unless it changed course.
The skirmish off Cape Fiolent came amid growing tensions in the region. Russia, which was said to be shadowing HMS Defender with more than 20 aircraft and two coastguard ships, claimed the Royal Navy vessel violated territorial waters near the disputed peninsula and opened warning fire.
A BBC journalist who happened to be on board HMS Defender said increasingly hostile warnings were issued over the radio by the Russians, including the threat: “If you don’t change course, I’ll fire.”
In an interview with Channel 4 News last night, the Russian ambassador to the UK, Andrei Kelin, said the incident was “regrettable” and that HMS Defender had “gone deep, about three kilometres... into the territorial waters”. He added that Britain was in violation of existing territory agreements.
The Russian embassy took to Twitter to tease the UK about the incident, claiming “HMS Defender turns HMS Provocateur”.
Britain subsequently denied its ship had violated any territory, nor had it been subjected to warning fire, and accused Moscow of “disinformation”.
Following the incident, the British ambassador and military attache to Moscow were summoned by the Russian foreign ministry.
Both sides were sticking to their version of events – the incident appeared to be a freedom of navigation operation to assert rights to sail in what the West considers are Ukrainian waters – and amid claim and counterclaim, the incident stayed true to the maxim that truth is the first casualty of conflict.
According to a timeline presented by the Russian defence ministry, the British entered disputed territorial waters shortly before noon on Wednesday. A Russian coastguard then allegedly fired two warning shots about a quarter of an hour later.
Ten minutes later, Su-24M fighter jets “dropped four high explosive fragmentation bombs” in the British ship’s path. The warship left Russian waters soon afterwards, the ministry said, only having ventured as much as three kilometres (two miles) inside.
“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,” a spokesman said.
That version was contradicted in a statement from the British Ministry of Defence. Its message asserted that HMS Defender was in international waters, and claimed the Russians were carrying out a planned military activity.
“No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender,” read a tweet from the MoD. “The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”
It continued: “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.”
In another denial, prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “It’s incorrect to say either that it was fired upon or that the ship was in Russian waters.”
Britain’s defence secretary Ben Wallace said Moscow had made false claims about the incident and he attacked Russia’s “disinformation”.
“We are not surprised by it, we plan for it,” he told the House of Commons. “Disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly. We will not shy away from upholding international law and our rights on the sea.”
The Black Sea has been a regular focus for tensions between Russia and the West since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Crucially, Russia not only claims the peninsula, but also the waters around it. Neither claim has been recognised internationally.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s security chief Alexei Danilov accused Moscow of attempting to turn the Black Sea into an exclusively Russian “lake”.
One set of geolocation data appeared to indicate HMS Defender may have entered Russia’s self-proclaimed waters off Crimea. According to a tracker using automatic identification system (AIS) coordinates, the ship sailed just over 10 nautical miles from the Crimean coast at the nearest point.
But a report filed on military websites on Monday suggested unidentified actors were manipulating HMS Defender’s geolocation data. The spoofed signals appeared to show the British boat heading for the Russian Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol, while in dock in Ukrainian Odessa hundreds of miles away.
Phillip Ingram, a former UK intelligence officer and military expert, told The Independent it was highly unlikely the HMS Defender would have strayed into Russian waters accidentally. Its navigation systems were among the “most sophisticated in the world,” he said — and able to counter attempts to interfere with geolocation signals.
“The Defender may not have been pre-warned about the gunnery activity and strayed into an area near where it was happening,” he said. “The Russians have turned it into an info operation, and one that ties into Putin’s increasingly aggressive military stance on Ukraine in particular.”
Moscow has in recent months upped the rhetoric on US, British and, to a lesser degree, other Nato vessels entering the region. According to international maritime law, non-Black Sea powers can remain in the region for up to three weeks. But Russia has shown increasing irritation at Western presence in what it considers to be its back yard.
HMS Defender was in the Black Sea less than two weeks after another British ship had left the area. Its presence in the area was widely interpreted as a gesture of support for Ukraine and in defiance of Russia’s increasingly aggressive military posturing.
According to some military sources and analysts who spoke to The Independent, Russia may have wanted to counter a series of highly publicised military exercises undertaken by the UK recently, not only in the Black Sea, but also in Syria and Iraq.
A spokesman for Moscow’s foreign ministry said it had summoned the UK ambassador and military attache over the incident.
Maria Zakharova said Russia viewed the incident as “a crude British provocation”, which ran “counter to international and Russian law”.