Deploying a British warship to the Black Sea where it was buzzed by 20 Russian fighter jets was a demonstration of “confidence” and not a bid for “confrontation” with Moscow, the Foreign Secretary insisted tonight.
Dominic Raab told MPs sending the Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender into waters off the Crimea was the Royal Navy exercising lawful passage during the vessel’s voyage from Odessa, in Ukraine, to Georgia.
He also revealed he has warned Chinese leaders to expect a Navy flotilla in the disputed South China Sea when the Carrier Strike Group led by the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in the region later this year.
He told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: “It’s absolutely right we exercise and defend the rights, and we do so from the Ukrainian territorial sea to the South China Sea.”
The presence of British naval vessels in contested waters is under the microscope after Defender was harassed by Russian ships and warplanes last month.
She broke off from the carrier group to sail in what international leaders say are Ukrainian waters but what Moscow claims is Russian territory, following its 2014 annexation of the Crimea.
The Kremlin claimed four bombs had been dropped into the UK vessel’s path – something denied by the Ministry of Defence.
Moscow also alleged its patrol boats fired warning shots near Defender.
But British officials said a Russian maritime “gunnery exercise” was taking place in the area at the time – and Mr Raab today rubbished the Russians’ claims as “nonsense” and disinformation”.
Quizzed about the incident by MPs, the Foreign Secretary said: “HMS Defender was taking the shortest and most direct route, it’s an internationally-recognised traffic route.
“We have got every right to conduct innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters, in accordance with international law.
“That’s what we will continue to do.”
SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald said Vladimir Putin’s regime had waged “quite a successful government disinformation event” in the aftermath of the stand-off.
But Mr Raab hit back: “What they said was nonsense and widely viewed as typical.”
He denied the incident would lead to UK ministers abandoning plans for another controversial voyage when the Queen Elizabeth is due to sail through the South China Sea, which Beijing has been militarising.
The Foreign Secretary said: “It’s going to be an exceptional opportunity for us to showcase our defence capabilities, but also the wider aspects of ‘Global Britain’.
“Of course we will do so in a confident but not confrontational way.
“We have been very clear with our partners in the region about this.
“I have raised it with the Chinese foreign minister and said, ‘This is what we are doing, it’s important, there’s nothing that should create nervousness or anxiety’.
“That mantra of ‘confident but not confrontational’ is important.”