Russia has accused Britain of being drawn “too deep” into the conflict in Ukraine, warning that it risks a “dangerous” escalation of the crisis.
Andrey Kelin, the Russian ambassador to the UK, claimed British “specialists” had been involved in an audacious drone attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet at the weekend in which three warships were reportedly damaged, including the flagship HMS Makarov.
After Britain’s ambassador to Moscow Deborah Bronnert was earlier summoned to the Russian foreign ministry in connection with the claims, Mr Kelin said the Kremlin would publish its proof “pretty soon”.
“We perfectly know about participation of British specialists in training, preparation and execution of plans against the Russian infrastructure and the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. We know that it has been done,” he said.
“It is dangerous. It can bring us to the line of I would say no return – return is always possible – but we should avoid escalation.
“This is a warning actually that Britain is too deep in this conflict. It means that the situation is becoming more and more dangerous.”
Mr Kelin said Russia was also continuing to investigate the explosions which damaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 undersea gas pipelines in September, adding that UK special forces had been involved in training the Ukrainians in the use of explosives and undersea drones.
In the West it is widely suspected that the blasts were the work of the Russians themselves in an attempt to increase the pressure on European countries from rising energy prices.
A UK Government spokesman said the Russian allegations were an attempt to “distract attention” for its illegal invasion of Ukraine and its continuing losses on the battlefield.
“We do not plan to give a running commentary on these allegations; it is no secret that the United Kingdom has taken a public lead in our support to Ukraine – this has been enduring since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” the spokesman added.
Earlier western officials said President Vladimir Putin was likely to come under increasing pressure from nationalist hardliners as he prepares to withdraw Russian forces from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Officials said planning to pull forces out of the city on the Dnipro River appeared to be well advanced with a large proportion of the civilian population having already been moved out.
But while officials expect it to be presented by the Kremlin as a humanitarian evacuation rather than a military retreat, they believe it will not prevent further criticism of the conduct of the war.
“When it does go ahead we can expect another uptick in pointed criticism of Russian national leadership,” one Western official said.
“A key task for us will be to continue to track how this impacts on Putin’s credibility. For now, he appears to continue to successfully deflect with his pointed barbed at his lieutenants.”
The assessment comes as one former Putin ally – the head of the notorious Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin – stepped up his criticism of the Russian leader.
In a statement earlier this week he pointedly praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – who is routinely denounced by Moscow as a neo-Nazi drug addict – as a “strong and confident leader”.
Officials said that while more troops were arriving in theatre in an apparent attempt to shore up their defensive positions, many were recently mobilised reservists who were often “woefully equipped and prepared”.
“In Kherson, it is likely that most echelons of command have now withdrawn across the river leaving demoralised and leaderless men to face Ukrainian assaults. At least some reservists are arriving in theatre without weapons,” one official said.
Officials said the Russians were also running “critically short” of munitions – including artillery shells with additional supplies even being sought from North Korea.
“Without the guns and rocket launchers being fired everything else is grinding to a halt,” one official said.
Meanwhile the Treasury put in place legislation aimed at enforcing a cap on the price of Russian oil agreed by the G7 and Australia earlier this year.
The move will ban UK service firms insurance, brokerage and shipping from being involved in services to transport Russian oil unless it is purchased below the cap, which is intended to starve Mr Putin’s administration of cash.