The UK has rejected claims from Russia that warning shots were fired at the British warship HMS Defender in the Black Sea on Wednesday morning, as it sailed off the coast of the disputed territory of Crimea.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said “no warning shots have been fired” at the destroyer, contradicting a statement made by its Russian equivalent which said that shots had been fired and a warplane dropped four bombs close to the ship.
The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said HMS Defender was carrying out “routine transit from Odesa towards Georgia across the Black Sea” using an “internationally recognised traffic separation corridor” which the ship exited at around 9.45am UK time.
The British minister added that “Russian vessels shadowed her passage” and implied that the Russian activity was part of pre-planned exercises. Wallace said that the crew of HMS Defender were made aware of the exercises “in her wider vicinity.”
Defence sources added that the Russians were undertaking gunnery practice, with aircraft also exercising in the area. The Russian military had provided HMS Defender and other ships sailing in the area with prior warning.
The Russians said the incident took place near Cape Fiolent, a landmark on the coast of Crimea. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in a move condemned by the west, which still considers it Ukrainian territory.
Russia’s defence ministry said HMS Defender left what it called Russian waters soon afterwards, having ventured as much as 2 miles (3km) inside.
“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,” it said, adding that a Russian Su-24 bomber had dropped four high-explosive fragmentation bombs as a warning.
Incidents involving aircraft or ships are common at Russia’s borders, especially during heightened tensions with the west, but rarely result in open fire.
The Royal Navy said earlier in June that the HMS Defender had “peeled away” from a strike group conducting Nato operations in the Mediterranean to carry out “her own set of missions” in the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Russia’s firing of warning shots 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 & militarisation of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and allies,” he said on Twitter.
“We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine & Nato allies in the Black Sea.”