Britain unexpectedly became embroiled in a diplomatic and military dispute with Russia on Wednesday after the 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 Odessa and Georgia, prompting Russian complaints and a disagreement over whether warning shots were fired. .
The British plan was to enforce 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 recognized by the West.
Ben Wallace, the UK defense secretary, said HMS Defender was conducting a “routine transit from Odessa to Georgia via the Black Sea” using an “internationally recognized traffic separation corridor”.
Warships can make “innocent passage” through territorial waters as long as it is not detrimental to the peace or security of the coastal state, but the UK would have known that sending a destroyer near Crimea would have prompted a response from the Kremlin. .
The Russian Defense Ministry initially claimed that warning shots had been fired at HMS Defender and that one of its warplanes had dropped four bombs nearby to force the destroyer to leave the area.
The British Defense Ministry denied that both incidents occurred, saying in a statement that “no warning shots had been fired”, but a BBC journalist aboard the destroyer said the Russian army had “harassed” the ship.
The BBC correspondent said that Russian forces closely followed HMS Defender as it passed near Crimea. Two coast guard ships sailed behind the destroyer, at one point closing within a gap of approximately 100 meters, while up to 20 aircraft flew overhead.
Shots rang out in the distance, but were believed to be out of range. UK defense sources said the Russians were conducting a pre-planned artillery drill, and the planes were also exercising in the area.
On the HMS Defender, Wallace said that “the Russian ships followed its passage”. The defense minister added that the crew was informed of the exercises “in their wider surroundings.”
Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, said that HMS Defender “did not respond to several warnings, at least the warnings were issued every 10 minutes” in an interview on Channel 4 News, describing that the warship had ” deepened, around three kilometers from, or in depth, the territorial waters there ”.
The ambassador denied that the Kremlin had engaged in an “openly aggressive” act and said that Russia had the 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 the Russian Federation,” he added.
Underscoring the tension in the region is Britain’s growing closeness to the Ukrainian army, 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 agreement on HMS Defender when it was docked in Odessa, which will see the two countries jointly produce eight small warships and the two countries will work on creating a new naval base in the Black Sea.
Ukraine is understood to have been happy with the plan for the British warship to sail near the Crimean coast, but expected the UK to be more assertive in public when the Russians started complaining.
Dmytro Kuleba, the country’s foreign minister, said that Russia’s action showed an aggressive and provocative policy that posed 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 militarization of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and its 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 defenses, with Russian jets often buzzing near British warships and aerospace ships periodically navigating the canal. However, open fire related incidents are very rare.