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Russia Says It Fired Warning Shots At A British Warship Which Approached Crimea

The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender in the port of Odessa, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russia said it fired warning shots at the warship Wednesday when it entered territorial waters off Crimea.
Konstantin Sazonchik
Konstantin Sazonchik/TASS
The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender in the port of Odessa, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russia said it fired warning shots at the warship Wednesday when it entered territorial waters off Crimea.

MOSCOW — The British Defence Ministry has denied a claim that a Russian vessel fired warning shots at a Royal Navy warship approaching the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea Wednesday.

Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry said that a warplane had also dropped four bombs in the path of the British destroyer, HMS Defender, to force it to change course.

"No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender," the British Defence Ministry tweeted, saying the warship was "conducting innocent passage" through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.

The HMS Defender was traveling across the Black Sea from Ukraine to Georgia, two former Soviet republics that have both been invaded by Russia and are seeking NATO membership.

Although Crimea is internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, Russia claims it as its own after occupying and annexing the strategic peninsula in 2014. Britain's statement that the HMS Defender was traveling through Ukrainian waters does not preclude that it entered what Russia considers its territory.

"We believe 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 recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path," the British ministry said.

The encounter was close to one of Russia's biggest naval bases

The Russian Defense Ministry says the incident with the HMS Defender occurred off Cape Fiolent, near the port of Sevastopol, the Russian Black Sea Fleet's main base. In a statement, the Russian ministry said the "dangerous actions" of the British destroyer were a "gross violation" of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and asked Britain to conduct a "thorough" investigation.

U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace tweeted that the HMS Defender had entered — and safely exited — an "internationally recognized traffic separation corridor." The British warship was shadowed by Russian vessels, as is routine, he said, and "was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity."

A BBC reporter aboard the warship, Jonathan Beale, said that weapons systems on board the destroyer were loaded as it passed Russian-occupied Crimea.

"This would be a deliberate move to make a point to Russia. HMS Defender was going to sail within the 12-mile limit of Crimea's territorial waters," Beale reported. "The captain insisted he was only seeking safe passage thorough an internationally recognized shipping lane."

"We did hear some firing in the distance but they were believed to be well out of range," he wrote.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that Russia's "aggressive and provocative actions," as well as its "militarization of Crimea," posed a lasting threat to Ukraine and its allies. "We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine and NATO allies in the Black Sea," he said.

When Ukraine lost Crimea, it lost most of its navy, too

The HMS Defender is one of the Royal Navy's most advanced warships. Earlier this week, the destroyer called on the Ukrainian port of Odessa, where Britain pledged to provide Ukraine with two minesweepers and to help build new patrol boats.

Ukraine is struggling to rebuild its naval forces. Ukraine's navy estimated it lost at least 80% of its assets and capabilities after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Ukraine is reliant on American military assistance. Next week, the U.S. Navy will co-host the annual Sea Breeze exercises in the Black Sea, involving 5,000 troops, 32 ships and 40 aircraft from 32 countries.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told an international conference in Moscow on Wednesday that the security situation in Europe was "explosive" and complained that NATO countries were continuously increasing their defense budgets. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said that NATO regularly stages "provocations" in the Black and Baltic Seas that continue to keep tensions high.

RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, played up the incident as a victory for Russia, running with the headline: "Navy and air force expel NATO destroyer violating border in Black Sea."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
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