A Russian coastguard ship made a series of hostile threats to HMS Defender as it sailed past Crimea on Wednesday, before warning shots and bombs were fired in the Royal Navy destroyer’s path after it was accused of crossing into territorial waters.
The British Type 45 destroyer was told, ‘If you don’t change course I’ll fire,’ after it entered the 12-mile limit of Crimea’s territorial waters near Cape Fiolent in the Black Sea.
Moscow boasted that an Su-24 dropped four bombs in the vessel’s path after it refused to back down and warning shots were fired from their patrol ship, but Britain has flatly denied the claims, saying the destroyer stayed in international waters and no shots were fired.
Two Black Sea Fleet coastguard ships continued to shadow HMS Defender from 100 yards away while 20 military aircraft patrolled it from the skies as it charted its course from Odessa in Ukraine to Georgia past Crimea, which Russia has annexed but the West refuses to recognise.
It was the first time since the Cold War that Moscow acknowledged using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, reflecting the growing risk of military incidents amid soaring tensions between Russia and the West, as Ukraine’s foreign minister appealed for further NATO help.
Defence correspondent Jonathan Beale, who is on board the British vessel, said HMS Defender’s crew were primed and weapons systems loaded as they approached the southern tip of the peninsula.
He told the
Captain Vincent Owen said his mission was confident but non-confrontational and insisted he was maintaining course on an internationally recognised shipping lane but Mr Beale said it was a ‘deliberate move to make a point to Russia’.
Moscow has now summoned Britain’s military attaché and ambassador Deborah Bronnert to explain why the destroyer entered the waters.
The Ministry of Defence and Number 10 insist the incident never happened, adding that Russia was carrying out pre-arranged exercises and Defender was conducting an ‘innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters’.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee slammed the government of Russia’s Vladimir Putin in a pair of tweets on Wednesday.
‘Firing shots at ships in international waters is criminal. Putin’s regime has: Used chemical weapons in the UK, Murdered opponents across Europe, Set explosions in Prague, Invaded and illegally occupied Ukraine and Georgia, Kept the Russian people hostage for a generation,’ he wrote.
‘Now it appears they lied about it,’ Tugendhat said in a second tweet.
‘For a mafia regime they really are pretty rubbish. But then they’ve so robbed the people and stripped out the country that there’s nothing left. Russia deserves better than these thieves.’
An Su-24 dropped four bombs in the path of HMS Defender in the Black Sea after Russia accused it of entering its waters near Cape Fiolent on Wednesday
A picture taken on Friday shows a ship from the Russian Black Sea Fleet (circled) shadowing USS Laboon , HMS Defender and the frigate HNLMS Evertsen
In an unusual move, Russia released footage of the defence attaché being summoned in Moscow.
Such meetings are normally private but a video was released to state media fuelling the assumption that Moscow was using the alleged incident for propaganda.
‘In the wake of a violation of the Russian Federation’s border by a Royal Navy destroyer, the defence attaché at the UK embassy in Moscow has been summoned to the Russian Defence Ministry,’ said a statement.
The Russian defence ministry had claimed a patrol ship first opened fire at 12.06pm and shot again two minutes later at HMS Defender after it refused to listen to radio warnings about entering its territorial waters.
Around ten minutes later, the Su-24 dropped four OFAB-250s in the path of the British vessel, forcing it to retreat after venturing two miles inside their waters, Russia said.
But the MoD issued a swift response to the claims, saying: ‘No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender.
‘The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.
‘We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior-warning of their activity.
‘No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.’
Moscow has summoned Britain’s military attaché and ambassador to explain why the Royal Navy’s HMS Defender allegedly crossed into their waters (pictured)
In an unusual move, Russia released footage of the defence attache being summoned in Moscow
The Royal Navy said earlier in June that the HMS Defender had ‘peeled away’ from its strike group conducting NATO operations in the Mediterranean to carry out ‘her own set of missions’ in the Black Sea.
A spokesman for Boris Johnson said this morning: ‘We saw the reports this morning. It’s incorrect to say that Defender was fired upon or was in Russian waters.
The Ministry of Defence has flatly denied Russia’s claims, saying no warning shots were fired
‘Defender was taking the most direct and internationally recognised route between Ukraine and Georgia.’
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace added: ‘This morning, HMS Defender carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea.
‘As is normal for this route, HMS Defender entered an internationally recognised traffic separation corridor.
‘She exited that corridor safely at 9.45 BST. As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity.’
But Lisa Nandy MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: ‘The Foreign Secretary must urgently come to the House to confirm the validity of these deeply concerning reports and outline what steps the UK is taking to ensure the safety of British forces in the Black Sea.’
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was ‘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 allies.’
‘We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine & NATO allies in the Black Sea,’ Kuleba tweeted.
A map shows the route taken by HMS Defender during the alleged incident near the south coast of Crimea
The British military attaché to Moscow has now been summoned to the Russian defence ministry after the alleged incident.
‘The destroyer had been warned that weapons would be used if it trespasses the border of the Russian Federation. It did not react to the warning,’ the Russian ministry said.
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in a move condemned by the West which still considers it Ukrainian territory.
Britain has previously claimed its warships ships stationed in the Black Sea are in international or Ukrainian waters.
A Russian military ship allegedly fired warning shots at British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender after it entered Russian waters (file image)
Russia claimed an Su-24 (pictured) dropped four bombs in the path of the vessel in the Black Sea
Vladimir Putin is pictured on Wednesday amid the dispute over whether Russia fired at the British vessel
OFAB 250 fragmentation bomb
Explosive weight: 92kg
Bomb weight: 268kg
OFAB 250 bomb
The Russian ministry’s TV channel Zvezda reported: ‘The Black Sea Fleet together with the FSB (security service) stopped a violation of the Russian border by a British destroyer Defender.
‘Today, at 11:52, the Defender crossed the state border of Russia in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.
‘It entered the territorial waters for three kilometres, in the area of Cape Fiolent.
‘Previously warned about the use of weapons in the event of a violation of the border, the British ship did not react to this in any way.
‘At 12:06 and 12:08, a Russian border patrol ship fired a warning shot.
‘At 12:19, the Su-24M aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet performed a warning bombing, dropping 4 OFAB-250 bombs on the course of the destroyer.
‘At 12:23 the British destroyer left the borders of the territorial sea of Russia.’
The Defender had earlier visited Ukrainian Naval port Odessa.
The destroyer had been on operations in the Black Sea with American navy guided missile destroyer USS Laboon and Dutch warship HNLMS Evertsen in a show of support for Ukraine following Putin’s recent vast military build up close to Ukrainian borders.
Russia has said in recent days that it was closely monitoring HMS Defender.
Earlier on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia is ‘concerned’ about the NATO build-up near Russian borders.
Addressing an international security conference in Moscow, Putin said the alliance ‘refuses to constructively consider our proposals to de-escalate tensions and reduce the risk of unpredictable incidents’.
The US periodically sends warships to the region in a show of support for Ukraine, often drawing protests from Russia.
On Tuesday, HMS Defender sent a messages of thanks to Odessa as it continued its operations in the Black Sea
An earlier image taken from Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender showed Russian frigate Admiral Essen ‘shadowing’ USS Laboon.
Russia’s national defence control centre said: ‘Forces and systems of the [Russian] Black Sea Fleet have started monitoring the movements of the Royal Navy HMS Defender and the Dutch Navy’s Evertsen frigate.’
The fleet’s former commander Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov said: ‘Those ships will definitely not be welcome here.
‘No-one is going to greet them as guests of honour, while their actions will definitely be monitored.
The destroyer (pictured) had been on operations in the Black Sea with American navy guided missile destroyer USS Laboon and Dutch warship HNLMS Evertsen
‘They will be put under direct surveillance, technically, from the air and from outer space.’
The Russian fleet was enhancing ‘its combat preparedness, especially the readiness of air defence crews and particular standby forces’ with the presence of the NATO ships, he said.
They were being subjected to ‘close monitoring’.
‘Their visits to the Black Sea have become too frequent,’ said Komoyedov. ‘Their intensified presence has gone too far.
‘They are complying with the Montreux Convention, but the activity of ships from non-Black Sea countries has never been so intensive before, even in the Soviet period.’
The USS Laboon is in the Black Sea ‘to conduct maritime security operations in the region’, the United States Sixth Fleet said on Twitter.
Crew: Two (pilot, weapons operator)
Wingspan: 57ft 10ins
Top speed: 1,027mph
Max altitude: 36,090ft
Power: 2 x turbojets
Armament: 23mm cannon, laser-guided air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles, unguided rocket launchers, general purpose and tactical nuclear bombs
Class: Type 45 Destroyer
Displacement: 8,000 tons
Top speed: 35mph+
Armament: Sea Viper air defence system, Aster 15 and 30 missiles, 2 quad Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers, armed Lynx Wildcat / Westland Merlin helicopters, various naval guns
Engines: 2 Rolls-Royce WR-21 gas turbines, 2Wärtsilä 12V200 diesel generators
The destroyer is capable of carrying up to 56 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
In a blast last month General Vladimir Kulishov, deputy director of the FSB security service, claimed that Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dragon had to be ‘expelled’ by the Russians ‘warnings’ not to enter ‘Russian territorial waters’ off annexed Crimea.
‘The destroyer Dragon of the British Navy crossed the state border of the Russian Federation in the area of Cape Khersones in the Black Sea,’ said the counterintelligence chief.
‘The destroyer’s captain responded with a poor signal to the demand to immediately leave Russian territorial waters,’ he said.
‘As a result of the joint actions with the Russian Navy and the Russian Aerospace Forces, the warship was expelled into neutral waters.’
British sources flatly denied the FSB claim which related to an incident in October last year.
‘The Russian Federation Navy did not impede HMS Dragon’s passage. She navigated without incident, exercising our right of innocent passage under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,’ said a Ministry of Defence spokesperson in London.
‘HMS Dragon was taking the most direct route between two port visits, navigating a recognised safe route for all international shipping within Ukrainian waters.’
Russia is known to have deployed submarine Veliky Novogorod to track HMS Dragon.
Won by conquest, given away as a ‘gift’, now occupied by force: Russia’s history in Crimea and the Black Sea
Prince Grigory Potemkin, who established the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea in 1783
The Black Sea – and the Crimean peninsula which juts into it – are a strategic crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia which has been contested by Empires and nations for centuries.
The sea itself contains vital trading routes, is bordered by five of Russia’s near-neighbours, and today hosts vital energy pipelines and fibre optic cables.
For Russia to assert power in the waters, control of Crimea – which contains its main Black Sea port at Sevastopol and controls the Kerch Strait leading to the nearby Sea of Azov – is essential.
Crimea has, at one time or another, come under the control of the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans.
It was not until 1783 that it fell fully under the control of the Russian Empire when Russian generals Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kamensky led a force of 8,000 men to victory against an Ottoman army of 40,000 at the the Battle of Kozludzha.
Russia’s Prince Grigory Potemkin quickly established the Russian Black Sea Fleet at the port of Sevastopol, from where he asserted naval power over the Black Sea, it neighbours including Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey, and projected power further into the Mediterranean.
Crimea also turned into a key trading post. On the eve of World War 1 in 1914 – some 50 per cent of all Russia’s exports and a full 90 per cent of its agricultural exports passed through Bosphorus Strait which leads out of the Black Sea.
In 1954 Crimea was given as a ‘gift’ by Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine, ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Tsarist Russia, but more likely to secure Ukraine’s support for Khrushchev’s leadership and to cement Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union.
Because Ukraine was then part of the Union, Moscow maintained control over Crimea and its vital ports – at least until 1991 when the union collapsed and Ukraine became and independent county.
Following Ukraine’s independence, access to the peninsula became a bargaining chip between the two nations, with Ukraine recognising Russia’s right to the port at Sevastopol in return for concessions such as writing off debts and taking control of part of the Black Sea fleet.
But in 2014, the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a popular uprising that wanted to draw the country closer to Europe.
Fearing the loss of the port at Sevastopol, Putin marched troops into Crimea and seized control of it – later holding a ‘referendum’ which showed majority support for the region to become part of Russia, though the result is viewed as far from credible.
Today, Moscow is in control of the peninsula and refers to it as part of its territory, though most world bodies refer to the region as ‘occupied Crimea’.
The Black Sea Fleet remains one of Russia’s largest and most formidable, thought to comprise a total of 47 ships, seven submarines and 25,000 troops, mostly marines.
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