Russian forces said they fired warning shots Wednesday at a British Royal Navy destroyer taking part in a U.S.-led naval exercise in the Black Sea near Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the action was taken because the HMS Defender entered 3 kilometers into Russia’s territorial waters. Britain says no shots were fired toward the vessel.
According to a Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson, a Russian patrol boat fired the shots at the destroyer and a Su-24M warplane dropped four high-explosive fragmentation bombs near the ship. The action came just hours after Russian officials condemned the war games, code-named Sea Breeze, involving vessels from 32 countries, including the United States, other NATO members and Ukraine.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense dismissed Moscow’s characterization of the incident and denied any warning shot had been fired at the HMS Defender.
British defense officials told reporters in London that as far as they are concerned the Russians were engaging in a gunnery exercise and that the Royal Navy warship was “conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”
In a statement posted before the incident on the Twitter account of the Russian embassy in Washington, officials said, “The scale and aggressive nature of the ‘Sea Breeze’ exercises in no way helps with the real challenges of ensuring security in the Black Sea region.” The tweet also warned the exercise would “increase the risk of unintentional incidents.”
Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian army’s general staff, also had warned Britain and the United States against the “provocative” presence of NATO warships near Russia’s borders. During a conference on international security in Moscow Wednesday, he said British warship HMS Dragon, a guided missile destroyer, had flouted international maritime rules by sailing in what Russia claims as territorial waters near Crimea in October.
British officials said it was “categorically untrue” that the HMS Dragon broke any maritime laws and denied Russian claims that it had been chased away by Russian forces. Gerasimov also accused the USS John S. McCain, an American destroyer, of trespassing in Russian waters in the Sea of Japan off Vladivostok in November.
At the same conference, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, warned of growing tensions between Moscow and Western countries. “The world is rapidly plunging into a new standoff,” he said at the conference being attended by officials from Armenia, Belarus, Serbia and some African states.
In a statement about Wednesday’s incident, Russian defense officials claimed the HMS Defender, a guided missile destroyer, was instructed to turn back but that it failed to respond. Moscow said it had summoned the British defense attaché at the Britain embassy in the Russian capital over the incident.
“The destroyer was warned in advance that weapons would be fired in case of a violation of the Russian state borders. It disregarded the warning,” the ministry said in the statement. “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 at 12.23 p.m.” The incident occurred near Cape Fiolent off the Crimean coast.
Warships from the U.S. Sixth Fleet, based in Naples, Italy, have been leading the annual Sea Breeze exercise in the Black Sea. This year’s drill, the 21st, is the biggest to date. More than 30 ships have been deployed, along with 40 aircraft and 5,000 troops. It concludes July 10.
“The United States is proud to partner with Ukraine in co-hosting the multinational maritime exercise Sea Breeze, which will help enhance interoperability and capabilities among participating nations,” Kristina Kvien, chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, said Monday. “We are committed to maintaining the safety and security of the Black Sea,” she added.
On Monday, Britain’s Defense Ministry announced it is transferring two minesweepers to the Ukrainian Naval Forces, as part of a $1.7 billion agreement with Kyiv to upgrade Ukraine’s navy. The memorandum for the deal was signed on board the HMS Defender. Under the deal, Britain is to help Ukraine build two naval bases, one in the Azov Sea and one in the Black Sea.