LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused Britain on Thursday of spreading barefaced lies over an incident in the Black Sea in which Moscow said it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British destroyer off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea.
A still image taken from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry allegedly shows British Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender filmed from a Russian military aircraft in the Black Sea, June 23, 2021. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS
Russia summoned the British ambassador in Moscow for a formal diplomatic scolding after the warship breached what the Kremlin says are its territorial waters but which Britain and most of the world say belong to Ukraine.
Britain said Russia was sowing inaccuracies and disputed Russia’s account, saying no warning shots had been fired and that no bombs had been dropped in the path of the Royal Navy destroyer Defender.
Russia’s foreign ministry summoned ambassador Deborah Bronnert to deliver a “tough demarche” – diplomatic jargon for a telling off – and spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused London of “barefaced lies”.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters during a visit to Singapore: “No shots were fired at HMS Defender.”
“The Royal Navy ship was conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters. We were doing so in accordance with international law and the Russian characterisation is predictably inaccurate.”
Under international law of the sea, innocent passage permits a vessel to pass through another state’s territorial waters so long as this does not affect its security.
Russia seized and annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and considers areas around its coast to be Russian waters. Western countries deem the Crimea to be part of Ukraine and reject Russia’s claim to the seas around it.
The Black Sea, which Russia uses to project its power in the Mediterranean, has for centuries been a flashpoint between Russia and its competitors such as Turkey, France, Britain and the United States.
BLACK SEA ROW
During the 2008 Georgian war, Russia bristled at U.S. warships operating in the Black Sea, and in April the United States cancelled the deployment of two warships to the area.
Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden say ties between the two former Cold War foes are at a low point after disputes over spying, hacking, election meddling, Ukraine, Belarus and human rights.
Ties between London and Moscow have been on ice since the 2018 poisoning with a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok of double agent Sergei Skripal, a mole who betrayed hundreds of Russian agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service.
Russia said the British ship had ventured as far as 3 km (2 miles) into Russian waters near Cape Fiolent, a landmark on Crimea’s southern coast near the port of Sevastopol, headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet.
Britain sought to play down the warship incident while accusing Moscow of disinformation.
“These are things that come and go with Russia; disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said. “We are not surprised by it, we plan for it.”
Britain’s BBC released footage from the ship showing a Russian officer warning that he would shoot if the British ship did not change course. Russia released footage filmed from a Russian SU-24 bomber flying close to the British ship.
Reporting and writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additonal reporting by Joe Brock in Singapore; Editing by Kate Holton and Angus MacSwan