HMS Defender's route was bound to spark a response from Russia - but is it just a war of words?

·2-min read

Britain will have known sailing a warship off the coast of Crimea - no matter how innocent or legal the passage - would provoke a response from Russia.

That Moscow was able to publish its version of what happened on Wednesday morning in the Black Sea first will annoy some within the British government.

But, unusually for a Whitehall department, the Ministry of Defence was relatively quick and coordinated at pushing back on the claims that a Russian vessel had fired a warning shot at HMS Defender and a Russian warplane dropped bombs in its path.

The MoD's Twitter account mobilised, declaring the Type 45 destroyer was "conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law".

Another post alleged the Russians had been carrying out a pre-planned gunnery exercise and that "no shots were directed at HMS Defender".

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also had something to say to try to defuse an incident that was making global headlines, playing down what he called normal maritime manoeuvring by the British and routine shadowing by Russians.

For Russia's foreign ministry, there was outrage that the UK had chosen to pass close to Crimea's coast.

"We treat it as blatant Britain's provocation that is contrary with international law and Russian legislation," a spokeswoman said, adding that the British ambassador had been summoned.

On the surface all of this is nothing but a war of words and posturing.

But in a world where information is used as a weapon, this exchange between the UK and Russia matters.

So too do the physical actions of the Royal Navy and Russia's armed forces.

The UK has sought to demonstrate it does not recognise Russia's claim to the waters off Crimea.

Moscow for its part has sought to portray London as an aggressor that it was forced to chase away.

It is a sign of escalating tensions below the threshold of conflict between the West and the Kremlin.

It is also a sign of the kind of claim, denial and counter claim that we can expect to see more of as HMS Defender and a larger group of ships, including the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier, make their way to Asia and into the South China Sea.

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