The accusations and recriminations were serious with potentially severe repercussions. Russia’s Defence Ministry claimed that warning shots were fired and a bomb dropped in the path of a British warship in the Black Sea.
The British government claimed that no such warning shots were fired and that HMS Defender, a type 45 destroyer, was in international waters. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) in London also stated that the Russian military was carrying out gunnery exercises, and had given international shipping adequate warning of this.
Moscow’s version of events was quite specific: the HMS Defender had gone into Russian territorial waters for two miles, ignoring warnings to stay away, and thus was subject to warning shots from two patrol boats. When she kept advancing, a Sukhoi SU-24 fighter bomber dropped two guided bombs ahead of the ship, on her navigational path.
The denial of Moscow’s version of events by the British MoD was followed by Ben Wallace, the UK’s defence secretary, saying in a statement that HMS Defender was carrying out a “routine transit” when she entered the internationally recognised traffic corridor. The defence secretary accused Vladimir Putin’s government of disseminating “disinformation and misinformation”. A Downing Street spokesperson reiterated that the destroyer had taken “the most direct and internationally recognised route between Ukraine and Georgia”.
The waters of the Black Sea have been disputed ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 – until then a part of Ukraine – and there have been a number of confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian vessels in the intervening time.
But why should there be a flashpoint now? What really happened? Jonathan Beale, the BBC’s security correspondent, who is on board HMS Defender, reports that the destroyer had been shadowed by two Russian coastguard ships that had tried to alter its course at the southern tip of Crimea, in what the officer in charge of the destroyer, commander Vincent Owen, insisted were internationally recognised shipping lanes.
There had been messages of increasing hostility from the Russians, including a threat to open fire. “We did hear some firing in the distance but they were believed to be well out of range,” said Mr Beale. Commander Owen also said that up to 20 military aircraft had buzzed the ship over a period.
So, no shots were fired at the British warship and no bombs dropped, according to this account. But it was still a potentially risky situation. The crew on board HMS Defender were at action stations, and the weapons system was being loaded.
So what could have led to this? According to some military sources and analysts, the Russians may have wanted to counter a series of highly publicised military actions and exercises by the UK.
The royal navy had been taking part in a naval exercise in the Black Sea with the navies of the US and also Ukraine, whose warships have frequently been in confrontation with Russia. In an agreement signed on board HMS Defender, the UK pledged to strengthen Ukraine’s naval capabilities.
HMS Defender is part of a strike group led by the new British aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which started military operations against Isis while in the Mediterranean. It was also claimed that British and American F-35B stealth jets taking part in missions against Isis in Syria and Iraq “denied airspace” to Russian aircraft flying in an area in support of Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus regime.
Also this week, a major military exercise involving British forces took place in a Middle East state, in an operation tied to the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group. The exercise took place in an area in which Moscow has strategic interests.
It is, of course, also possible that other factors contributed to the incident involving HMS Defender. But the confrontation illustrates the hazards which may result from the presence of heavily armed forces in a volatile region.