Watch: PM denies UK-Russia relations at ‘historic low’
Britain has accused Russia of “disinformation” after Moscow claimed its forces fired warning shots at a Royal Navy warship in waters off Crimea.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied shots were fired by a Russian patrol boat towards HMS Defender and that a warplane dropped four high explosive fragmentation bombs in its path during its passage through the Black Sea.
The British ambassador Deborah Bronnert was later summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow after Russia accused the Type 45 destroyer of straying into its territorial waters.
But appearing before the Commons Defence Committee, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace insisted the ship had stuck throughout to an internationally recognised “traffic separation route”.
He acknowledged it had been “shadowed” by Russian forces during its transit from Odessa in southern Ukraine towards Georgia but played down the incident saying it was “routine” practice.
However, a BBC reporter aboard the HMS Defender said at times there had been 20 Russian warplanes monitoring its progress and that the sound of gunfire had been heard, although it was believed to be out of range.
No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender.
The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.
— Ministry of Defence Press Office (@DefenceHQPress) June 23, 2021
Defence correspondent Jonathan Beale said throughout its passage the crew had been on high alert, at one point donning their “white flash” protective equipment in case there was an exchange of fire.
He said a Russian coastguard vessel had attempted to make it change course but it stayed with the recognised shipping lane and that even after it was past Crimea, Russian jets continued “buzzing” it.
The Russian ambassador to the UK Andrei Kelin later described the incident as “regrettable” and claimed HMS Defender had been 3 kilometres inside Russian territorial waters.
“He did not respond to several warnings, at least the warnings were issued every 10 minutes while he was going into water, deep into the waters. And then it was stopped by means that were available,” he told Channel 4 News.
The MoD said the shots heard by the crew appeared to have related to a gunnery exercise of which the Russians had given advance notice to the maritime community.
Mr Wallace said it was not the first time the Russians had made false claims about British warships operating in the area, having previously claimed to have “chased out” another Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dragon.
“These are the things that come an go with Russia. Disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly. We are not surprised by it,” he said.
“We plan for it and we take all steps to make sure we are not escalatory or provocative.
“However we will not shy away from upholding international law and our rights on the sea.”
The latest flare-up comes amid months of tensions between Moscow and the west following a build-up earlier this year of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine.
The Kremlin – which annexed Crimea in 2014 – has been riled by the movement of Nato warships in the Black Sea seen as offering support to Ukraine.
HMS Defender is part of the UK Carrier Strike Group currently heading to the Indo-Pacific region.
However, it was announced earlier this month that it would be temporarily breaking away from the group to carry out its “own set of missions” in the Black Sea.
In a statement reported by the Interfax news agency, the Russian Defence Ministry said: “The destroyer was warned in advance that weapons would be fired in case of a violation of the Russian state border. It disregarded the warning.
“As a result of joint actions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Border Service of the Russian Federal Security Service, HMS Defender left the territorial sea of the Russian Federation.”
Watch: Ambassador - Royal Navy ship was ‘deep’ in Russian waters