MOSCOW -- Russia said one of its warships in the Black Sea fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs Wednesday to force a British destroyer out of an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters, but Britain denied that account and insisted its ship wasn't fired upon.
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 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 vessel to persuade the Defender to change course. Minutes later, the Defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the “rude British provocation that defies international law,” and said London’s ambassador was being summoned. The Defense Ministry said it also called in the U.K. military attache in Moscow to protest the destroyer’s “dangerous move” and urged British authorities to investigate the crew’s actions.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense denied the Defender had been fired on or was in Russian waters, but had been in Ukrainian 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."
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move not recognized by most countries, gaining access to its long Black Sea coast. Russia has chafed at NATO warships visiting near Crimea as destabilizing. In April, it declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships.
“We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity," the British Ministry of Defense said. “No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Defender “carried out a routine transit from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea.”
“As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor,” he tweeted, adding that HMS Defender exited the corridor safely at 9:45 a.m. BST (0845 GMT; 4:45 a.m. EDT).
"As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity,” he added.
Speaking to Parliament’s defense committee, Wallace again denied Russia’s version of events.
“These are the things that come and go with Russia,” he said. “Disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly. We’re not surprised by it; we plan for it.”
Asked if Defender's crew 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.”
“We saw the reports this morning,” said Max Blain, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “It’s incorrect to say either that it was fired on or this ship was in Russian waters. HMS Defender was taking the most direct and internationally recognized route between Ukraine and Georgia.”
He emphasized that Britain, and much of the international community, does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
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.
In November 2018, Russian coast guard ships fired on three Ukrainian gunboats trying to pass from the Black Sea into the Azov Sea and captured them along with 24 crewmembers. It returned the crew and the boats the following year.
HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, is part of the U.K. Carrier Strike Group 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.
Just before Wednesday's incident, Defender stopped in the Ukrainian port of Odessa, where Ukrainian and British officials and industry representatives signed an agreement to collaborate on boosting Ukraine’s naval capabilities.
NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria border the Black Sea. Warships from the U.S., U.K. and other NATO allies also have made increasingly frequent visits in support of Ukraine.
Speaking 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 naval movements near Crimea until November in a move that drew strong complaints from Ukraine and the West. Russia rejected the criticism and noted the restrictions wouldn’t interfere with commercial shipping.
Earlier this year, Russia also bolstered its troops near the border with Ukraine and warned Kyiv 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. Moscow withdrew some of its forces after maneuvers, but Ukrainian officials say many of them remain.
Speaking earlier Wednesday via video to participants of the security conference, President Vladimir Putin expressed concern about NATO 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, following Moscow's annexation of 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 military exercises near the borders of Russia and alliance members.
He said “the world is rapidly sinking in a new confrontation, which is much more dangerous than during the Cold War times.”
Lawless reported from London.