‘A deliberate move’ Russia reports firing ‘warning shots’ at British destroyer near Crimea. The UK denies it.

HMS Defender in the port of Odesa, Ukraine, on June 18, 2021Sergey Smolentsev / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On June 23, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that it fired “warning shots” and dropped bombs to deter a British Royal Navy destroyer, accusing the warship of violating Russia’s state border in the Black Sea. In turn, the British authorities denied both of these claims, while maintaining that the ship, HMS Defender, was conducting “innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters” near the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. The British Defense Ministry added that the crew had been made aware of Russian training exercises in the area. However, a BBC defense correspondent on board HMS Defender reported that there was firing, though it appeared to be out of range of the ship.

The Russian Defense Ministry says that a British Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Defender, violated Russia’s state borders in the Black Sea. The incident took place on Wednesday, June 23, off the coast of Cape Fiolent on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the ship entered Russian waters at 11:52 a.m. local time. It was given a warning that weapons would be used in the event that Russia’s state borders were violated, but allegedly didn’t respond. A border patrol ship then proceeded to fire warning shots and at 12:19 p.m., a SU-24 jet carried out a “warning bombing” in the British destroyer’s path. Four minutes later, HMS Defender left Russian territorial waters.

The Russian Defense Ministry considers the British destroyer’s actions a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In turn, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the incident a “gross provocation” and said that the British Ambassador in Moscow would be summoned to the foreign ministry. RIA Novosti released video footage of the British warship taken from Russia’s SU-24 jet prior to the bombing, but it doesn’t show the moment when the bombs were dropped. 

The British authorities have denied reports that bombs were dropped in the path of HMS Defender. According to the UK, which doesn’t recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, the navy ship was “conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.” The British Defense Ministry stated that the destroyer was shadowed by Russian coast guard ships, underscoring that this is standard practice. The ministry also stated that the British vessel had been made aware of Russian training exercises “in her wider vicinity” on the Black Sea.

A BBC reporter on board the British destroyer said that the vessel “did not deviate from its course.” According to BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Beale, HMS Defender passed within 12 miles of the Crimean coast, through territorial waters under Russia’s de facto control. Beale described this as a “deliberate move” by the Royal Navy warship, which “said it was going through a recognized international shipping lane.” 

“The crew were already at action stations as they approached the southern tip of Russian-occupied Crimea. Weapons systems on board the Royal Navy destroyer had already been loaded. […] Two Russian coast guard ships that were shadowing the Royal Navy warship, tried to force it to alter its course. At one stage, one of the Russian vessels closed in to about 100 meters [328 feet].”

According to Beale, there were more than 20 military aircrafts nearby, but despite “increasingly hostile warnings,” the British destroyer did not change course. “We did hear some firing in the distance but they were believed to be well out of range,” Beale reported.

HMS Defender has been in the Black Sea since June 14. It passed the Crimean Peninsula on June 23 on its way to Georgia. Also on June 14, the Dutch Navy’s Eversten frigate entered the Black Sea’s waters. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that the Russian Navy was monitoring the two ships, which were in the port of Odesa in southern Ukraine as of June 18. The American destroyer USS Laboon entered the Black Sea on June 11 and is still there. In accordance with the Montreux Convention, ships from non-Black Sea states can spend no more than 21 days in the Black Sea. 

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Story by Grigory Levchenko

Translation by Eilish Hart


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