MOSCOW (Dispatches) — The Russian military said one of its warships in the Black Sea fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs Wednesday to force a British destroyer away from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters.
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.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots after the British destroyer HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed 3 kilometers (1.6 nautical miles) into Russia’s territorial waters near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base in Crimea. It said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the British ship’s path to persuade it to change course. Minutes later, the British warship left the Russian waters, the ministry said.
The Defense Ministry said it summoned the UK military attache in Moscow to protest the British destroyer’s “dangerous move” as a “crude violation” of international maritime law. It urged British authorities to investigate its crew’s actions to “prevent such incidents in the future.”
Britain’s Ministry of Defense denied the Defender had been fired on or was in Russian waters.
“No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender,” it said in a statement. “The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”
Crimea joined Russia in 2014, giving it access to the peninsula’s long Black Sea coast. Russia has frequently chafed at NATO warships visits near Crimea, casting them as destabilizing. In April, it declared a broader sea area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace
said Britain’s ambassador in Moscow had been summoned by Russian authorities
Asked if the crew of HMS Defender had seen or heard anything, he said “initial reports say they did hear or observe training noises somewhere to the rear of her but beyond visual range.”
HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, is part of the UK Carrier Strike Group currently heading to the Indo-Pacific region. However, it was announced earlier this month that it would be temporarily breaking away from the group to carry out its “own set of missions” in the Black Sea.
NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria all are on the Black Sea. Warships from the U.S., UK and other NATO allies also have made increasingly frequent visits in a purported show of support for Ukraine.
Speaking just before the incident, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, sharply criticized the deployment of NATO warships near Russian waters.
“The moves by warships of the U.S. and its allies have been clearly provocative,” Gerasimov said at an international security conference in Moscow organized by the Defense Ministry. “It creates preconditions for incidents and doesn’t help ease tensions in the military sphere.”
He charged that the British destroyer HMS Dragon intruded into Russian waters near Crimea in October, and the U.S. destroyer USS John S. McCain violated the Russian border in the Sea of Japan in November.
In April, Russia imposed restrictions on foreign navy ships’ movements near Crimea until November.
Earlier this year, Russia also bolstered its troops near the border with Ukraine and warned Ukrainian authorities against using force to reclaim control of the country’s eastern industrial heartland, where a conflict with Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years.
Speaking earlier Wednesday via video to participants of a Moscow security conference, President Vladimir Putin expressed concern about the deployment of NATO’s forces near Russia.
“We aren’t striving for a decisive, unilateral military advantage to tip the balance of forces in our favor,” Putin said. “But we will never allow anyone else to tip that balance.”
Russia’s relations with the West have sunk to the lowest levels since the Cold War over Crimea, accusations of Russian interference with elections, hacking attacks and other tensions.
In a speech at the same conference before Wednesday’s incident, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said “the situation in Europe is explosive,” and accused NATO of stonewalling Russian proposals to enhance security by refraining from holding military exercises near the borders of Russia and the alliance members.
He warned that “the world is rapidly sinking in a new confrontation, which is much more dangerous than during the Cold War times.”