UK denies claims Russia fired warning shots, dropped bombs near British ship

The UK has denied Moscow’s claims a Russian warship fired warning shots and a plane dropped bombs to force a British destroyer from waters near Crimea in the Black Sea.

“No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender,” the UK Ministry of Defence Office said in a tweet on Wednesday.

“The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”

The Russian Defence Ministry had earlier announced the alleged military action, while claiming the waters belonged to Russia.

The Russian ministry said its warship fired warning shots after the British missile destroyer HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion in what it described as Russia’s territorial waters.

It said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped bombs ahead of the British ship to persuade it to change course.

The UK instead said it believed 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,” the UK Ministry of Defence said.

A file photograph provided by the Russian Defence Ministry Press Service in December 2015 shows a Russian Su-24 bomber landing at Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (AP)

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace described the British ship’s route as a “routine transit” from Odessa in Ukraine towards Georgia across the Black Sea.

“As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognised traffic separation corridor,” he said, in a statement shared by the ministry on Twitter.

“She exited that corridor safely at 0945 BST (6.45pm AEST).

“As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity.”

Eye-witness account from on board UK warship

BBC journalist Jonathan Beale was travelling on the HMS Defender on Wednesday morning (Wednesday night AEST).

In a recorded cross to the BBC interrupted by Russian aircraft “buzzing” the vessel, he said he heard shots fired but the ship did not deviate from its course.

“There’ve been at times more than 20 aircraft above the warship and there have been warnings from Russian coast guard vessels,” he said.

“And indeed we have heard shots fired. We believe they were out of range.

“HMS Defender continued its journey through Crimea’s territorial waters, in other words within 12 miles of the coast.”

Beale said Russian planes continued to “buzz” the warship after it re-entered international waters.

FILE – The Russian military says its warship fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs to force the British destroyer from Russia’s waters near Crimea in the Black Sea. (Ben Mitchell/PA via AP) (AP)

Differing accounts of what happened

It’s unclear why the countries have issued such differing descriptions of the incident.

Any firing of warning shots and dropping of bombs would have marked the first time since the Cold War Moscow had used live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, reflecting growing risks of military incidents amid soaring Russia-West tensions.

The Russian Defence Ministry said it had summoned the UK military attache in Moscow to protest the British destroyer’s manoeuvre.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move that was not recognised by most countries in the world.

Russia has frequently chafed at NATO warships’ visits near Crimea, casting them as destabilising.

NATO members Turkey, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria all are on the Black Sea but warships from the US, UK and other NATO allies also have made increasingly frequent visits in a show of support to Ukraine.

HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, is part of the UK Carrier Strike Group currently heading to the Indo-Pacific region.

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.

Russia reportedly used SU-24 bombers to conduct the airstrikes.
Russia said it used an Su-24 bomber to drop bombs. (Russian Ministry of Defence)

Russian criticism of NATO operations

Speaking on Wednesday just before the incident, General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, sharply criticised the deployments of NATO warships near Russian waters.

“The moves by warships of the US and its allies have been clearly provocative,” General Gerasimov said at an international security conference in Moscow organised by the Russian Defence Ministry.

“It creates preconditions for incidents and doesn’t help ease tensions in the military sphere.”

He charged that the British destroyer Dragon intruded into the Russian waters near Crimea in October, and the US destroyer John 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 in a move that drew strong complaints from Ukraine and the West.

Russia has rejected that criticism and noted that the restrictions wouldn’t interfere with commercial shipping.

Earlier this year, Russia also beefed up its troops near the border with Ukraine and warned Ukrainian authorities against using force to reclaim control of the country’s east, where a conflict with Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years.

Moscow withdrew some of its forces after sweeping manoeuvres but Ukrainian officials said the bulk of them remained.

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