Russia to summon UK ambassador over Black Sea naval dispute

Diplomatic row escalates as minister says British warships might enter Crimean waters again

British Royal Navy ship HMS Defender arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa British Royal Navy ship HMS Defender arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa, last week. Photograph: Sergey Smolentsev/ReutersBritish Royal Navy ship HMS Defender arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa, last week. Photograph: Sergey Smolentsev/Reuters

, and in Moscow

Russia has said it will summon the British ambassador to the foreign ministry in a political escalation after an unexpected diplomatic and military clash in the Black Sea on Wednesday.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said the UK ambassador, Deborah Bronnert, would receive a “severe démarche” on Thursday after HMS Defender sailed in the waters near the Crimean peninsula.

Russia’s defence ministry claimed its vessels had fired warning shots, including a bombing run, near the British ship, a claim rejected by the UK. The details of the incident remain disputed.

“We may appeal to common sense and demand respect for international law,” said Sergei Ryabkov, a Russian deputy foreign minister. “But if it does not help, we may drop bombs not only in the path [of the ship] but also on the target itself, if colleagues do not understand.”

“The security of our country is the highest priority,” he continued. “The irony of the situation where a destroyer named Defender trespasses our borders should in no way encourage a superficial attitude to it. What has happened is very serious. We condemn the British side’s actions.”

The Kremlin on Thursday accused the British warship of staging an unacceptable “provocation” against Russia and said Moscow would respond harshly to any similar actions in the future. The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia was worried by the British warship’s actions and that it hoped such “provocations” would not happen systematically.

George Eustice, the British environment secretary, reiterated the denial from the Ministry of Defence that no warning shots had been fired at HMS Defender by Russian vessels. Instead a “gunnery exercise” was taking place nearby, which is “not uncommon for Russians to do” in that area, he said.

UK warships would again be prepared to pass through contested waters around Crimea, Eustice told Sky News, adding: “We never accepted the annexation of Crimea, these were Ukrainian territorial waters.”

Eustice disputed reports from a BBC journalist on board the destroyer that the Russian military had “harassed” the ship, closely following HMS Defender as it passed near Crimea with firing heard in the distance. “This was something quite different,” Eustice said.

He added: “Under international law you can take the closest, fastest route from one point to another. HMS Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters, I think on the way to Georgia, and that was the logical route for it to take.

“This is a very normal thing, it’s quite common actually … so I think it’s important people don’t get carried away.”

The warship sailed for about an hour in the morning within the 12-mile limit off Cape Fiolent on a direct route between the Ukrainian port of Odessa and Georgia. The British plan was to assert navigation rights in the Black Sea in support of Ukraine, which lost control of Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, an action condemned and not recognised by the west.

Although warships are permitted “innocent passage” through territorial waters as long as it is not prejudicial to the peace or security of the coastal state, the UK would have known sending a destroyer near Crimea was likely to prompt a response from the Kremlin.

Russia’s defence ministry initially claimed warning shots had been fired at HMS Defender and that one of its war planes had dropped four bombs nearby to force the destroyer to leave the area.

Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, said HMS Defender “did not respond to several warnings, at least the warnings were issued every 10 minutes” in an interview on Channel 4 News, and described the warship as having “gone deep, about 3km from, or deep into, the territorial waters over there”.

The two countries routinely test each other’s defences, with Russian jets often flying close to British airspace and warships sailing through the Channel. However, incidents involving open fire are very rare.

The incident has been played up on Russian state television as a provocation that exemplifies the need for Russia to defend itself from Nato powers.

While the UK has appeared keen to smooth over the incident, Russian diplomatic and military officials have warned they were ready to fire on foreign ships in order to assert Russia’s control over Crimea and its coastal waters.

Russian navy commander Nikolai Yevmenov said that the HMS Defender’s course was “a provocation, as an attempt to test us.”

On Wednesday evening, Russia’s defence ministry released video of its ships and aircraft monitoring the British navy destroyer but did not show a bombing run or shots fired near the HMS Defender.

Vladimir Putin has claimed to have warned US President Joe Biden about Russia’s “red lines,”, which are believed to include threats to Russia’s de facto control over Crimea.

Russia has already fired on other ships off the coast of Crimea. In 2018, the Russian coastguard fired on three Ukrainian ships traversing the Kerch Strait and blocked the narrow waterway with a barge. It held the ships and 24 captured Ukrainian sailors for more than six months before releasing them in a prisoner swap in 2019.

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