Royal Navy ship off Crimea sparks diplomatic row between Russia and UK
Britain was unexpectedly embroiled in a diplomatic and military dispute with Russia on Wednesday after Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender briefly sailed through territorial waters off the coast of the disputed territory of Crimea.
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 Odesa and Georgia, prompting Russian complaints and a disagreement about whether warning shots were fired.
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.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, said HMS Defender was carrying out “routine transit from Odesa towards Georgia across the Black Sea” using an “internationally recognised traffic separation corridor”.
Warships are allowed to engage in “innocent passage” through territorial waters as long as it is not prejudicial to the peace or security of the coastal state, but the UK would have known sending a destroyer near Crimea would have prompted 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.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence denied both incidents took place, saying in a statement “no warning shots had been fired”, but a BBC journalist who was on the board the destroyer said the Russian military had “harassed” the ship.
The BBC correspondent said Russian forces closely followed HMS Defender as it passed near Crimea. Two coastguard vessels sailed behind the destroyer, at one point closing to a gap of roughly 100 metres, while up to 20 aircraft were hovering above.
Firing was heard in the distance but it was believed to be some way out of range. UK defence sources said that Russians were undertaking pre-planned gunnery practice, with aircraft also exercising in the area.
Of HMS Defender, Wallace said that “Russian vessels shadowed her passage”. The defence minister added the crew were made aware of the exercises “in her wider vicinity”.
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 three kilometres from, or deep into, the territorial waters over there”.
The ambassador denied the Kremlin had engaged in a “nakedly aggressive” act, and said Russia had a right to defend its territory. The “British ship was not only in the Black Sea, which is a sea adjacent to Russia, but in the territorial waters of Russian Federation,” he added.
Underlining the tension in the region is Britain’s increasing closeness to Ukraine’s military, and in particular its navy, at a time when the country remains in conflict with Russia in its eastern Donbas region and elsewhere.
Earlier this week, the two countries signed a naval deal on HMS Defender when it was docked in Odesa, which will see the two countries jointly produce eight small warships and the two countries work on creating a new naval base on the Black Sea.
Ukraine is understood to have been happy with the plan for the British warship to sail near the Crimean coast, but had hoped that the UK would be more assertive in public when the Russians began to complain.
Dmytro Kuleba, the country’s foreign minister, said Russia’s action showed an aggressive and provocative policy that constituted a threat to Ukraine and its allies.
“A clear proof of Ukraine’s position: Russia’s aggressive and provocative actions in the Black and Azov seas, its occupation and militarisation of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and allies,” he said. “We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine and Nato allies in the Black Sea.”
Britain and Russia routinely test each other’s defences, with Russian jets often buzzing close to British aerospace and warships periodically sailing down the Channel. However, incidents involving open fire are very rare.