Britain acknowledges surprise at speed of Russian reaction to warship

Kremlin summons UK ambassador as Boris Johnson says HMS Defender’s deployment ‘wholly appropriate’

British officials acknowledged they were taken by surprise by the speed of the Russian reaction to HMS Defender’s 36-minute passage through Crimean waters on Wednesday as the British ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Kremlin.

Although a Russian response to the Royal Navy warship’s passage within the 12-mile territorial limit was anticipated, the UK Ministry of Defence did not expect the Kremlin to speedily declare that warning shots had been fired.

That dramatically escalated the situation on Wednesday lunchtime, forcing the MoD in London to scramble to establish what had happened, before concluding that the Russians had fired cannon at a safe distance behind the British warship.

“We knew that something might happen, but we didn’t quite expect the Russians to say that,” a defence source said. What had been expected to be a tense, if routine, mission to assert navigation rights in the Black Sea, had escalated into a military and diplomatic incident.

The Russian military also claimed that a jet had dropped four bombs in the path of the British destroyer to force it to change course, but that was rapidly debunked, because there was no evidence to support it.


Speaking on Thursday, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said the deployment of the HMS Defender was “wholly appropriate” – although Downing St would not confirm whether he personally authorised the mission.

The prime minister added: “The important point is that we don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea. This is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory, it was entirely right that we should vindicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did, take the shortest route between two points, and that’s what we did.”

Russia said it would summon the British ambassador to the foreign ministry in a political escalation after the unexpected diplomatic and military clash in the Black Sea on Wednesday.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said the UK ambassador, Deborah Bronnert, would receive a “severe demarche” on Thursday after HMS Defender sailed in the waters near the Crimean peninsula.

“We may appeal to common sense and demand respect for international law,” said Sergei Ryabkov, a Russian deputy foreign minister. “But if it does not help, we may drop bombs not only in the path [of the ship] but also on the target itself, if colleagues do not understand.”

A clearer chronology began to emerge on Thursday. HMS Defender had planned to sail for about an hour through territorial waters off Cape Fiolent in Crimea, less than 12 miles from the disputed territory, on Wednesday lunchtime local time.

The warship intended to take what the UK said was an internationally recognised shipping lane, on a direct route between the Ukrainian port of Odessa and Batumi, in Georgia, to assert freedom of navigation rights and show support to Kyiv.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, in an annexation that is not recognised by the UK or other western territories, and the Royal Navy knew the Russians guarded their waters closely.

During the passage through the Crimean waters, HMS Defender was shadowed by two Russian coastguard ships, one of which got as close as about 100 metres, while an estimated 20 aircraft buzzed overhead, in some cases at heights as low as 150 metres, according to British estimates, in a deliberate attempt to harass the warship on its journey.

A parliamentary statement released by the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, on Thursday said that HMS Defender entered “Ukrainian territorial waters” at 9.50am UK time – local time 11.50am – engaged on “innocent passage”.

Exactly 10 minutes later, the statement continued, “a Russian coastguard vessel warned that Russian units would shortly commence a live-fire gunnery exercise”. Artillery was seen behind or astern the navy ship at 10.08am, but it was “out of range” and “posed no danger”.

BBC and Daily Mail journalists on the warship both heard cannon fire in the distance – but UK defence sources on Thursday said the heavy guns were three miles away, using weapons understood to have a range of 2.5 miles. Because they were not fired at the vessel they could not be considered to be warning shots.

“At no point were warning shots fired at HMS Defender,” Wallace said, “nor bombs dropped in her path as has been asserted by the Russian authorities.” HMS Defender then departed the territorial waters at 10.26am UK time.

A few minutes later, Russia’s defence ministry told the Interfax news agency that warning shots had been fired at the British warship and bombs dropped in its path, with the first reports in English emerging at 11.05am. The UK denial emerged an hour later, at 12.09pm, as the incident had already become headline news.

The two countries routinely test each other’s defences, with Russian jets often flying close to British airspace and warships sailing through the Channel. However, incidents involving open fire are very rare.

The incident has been played up on Russian state television as a provocation that exemplifies the need for Russia to defend itself from Nato powers.

Russian diplomatic and military officials have warned they were ready to fire on foreign ships in order to assert Russia’s control over Crimea and its coastal waters.

On Wednesday evening, Russia’s defence ministry released video of its ships and aircraft monitoring the British navy destroyer but did not show a bombing run or shots fired near the HMS Defender.

Russia has already fired on other ships off the coast of Crimea. In 2018, the Russian coastguard fired on three Ukrainian ships traversing the Kerch strait and blocked the narrow waterway with a barge. It held the ships and 24 captured Ukrainian sailors for more than six months before releasing them in a prisoner swap in 2019.


Dan Sabbagh in London and Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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