Environment Secretary George Eustice disputed claims from Moscow that Russian warplanes dropped bombs and a patrol boat fired warning shots at a British destroyer it claims entered into its territorial waters in the Black Sea.
“This is a very normal thing,” Eustice told Sky News. “It’s quite common, actually, what was actually going on is the Russians were doing a gunnery exercise and given prior notice of that, they often do in that area. So I think it’s important that we don’t get carried away.”
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a military intervention in the region in 2014. The international community opposed that annexation, and still considers Crimea as Ukrainian territory.
But the Kremlin escalated its war of words with Britain on Thursday, saying the warship carried out a “deliberate, planned provocation.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with journalists that Russia is “obviously concerned about such actions of the British ship.”
His remarks came after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Russia had the right to “bomb on target” when foreign ships violate its sea borders, according to Russian state media TASS.
“What can we do? We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law. If this does not help, we can bomb not only in the direction, but also on target, if our colleagues do not understand,” Ryabkov said, according to TASS.
Eustice insisted the vessel was making a legal passage under international law to Georgia via Ukraine. Asked if the UK would sail through disputed Ukrainian waters again, he replied: “Yes … because we never accepted the annexation of Crimea.”
And British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab denied Moscow’s version of Wednesday’s incident as “predictably inaccurate.”
“No shots were fired at HMS Defender,” Raab said at a news conference in Singapore, at the end of a three-day trade trip to South East Asia.
Russia said the ship went three kilometers (1.9 miles) inside what it described as its territory off Cape Fiolent in Crimea, just before noon on Wednesday. A nation’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) from its coastline; any foreign warship going past that limit would need permission of the country to do so, with a few exceptions.
Shortly after the British ship crossed the territorial boundary, an Su-24M attack jet dropped bombs and a coastal patrol ship fired warning shots in front of the British destroyer, the Russian defense ministry said in a report from Russian state media TASS.
But British officials pushed back on the Russian allegations, and Eustice continued to play them down on Thursday.
Pressed on the reported bombing, he said: “I’m told that’s not what happened.”
“I don’t think they were warning shots. There was a military exercise that was taking place, and it’s not uncommon for the Russians to do this in this area, and therefore the incident is not particularly abnormal in that sense,” he said.
The UK Defense Ministry had previously denied Moscow’s accusation, saying that the vessel, HMS Defender, was making a legal and innocent passage.
The UK ambassador to Moscow was due to visit the Russian foreign ministry Thursday after being summoned over the incident, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on state TV.
“We announced yesterday that the British ambassador has been summoned. She will be in the Foreign Ministry today. She will be given a tough demarche, ” Zakharova said on Russia 24, according to TASS.
Zakharova had previously said on Wednesday in a Telegram message that the UK were spreading lies about the incident involving the UK Royal Navy.
“So, who’s lying: the British Defense Ministry, the British BBC reporter or the British Embassy in Moscow? There is an answer. This time – the British Defense Ministry and the British Embassy … London has lost its manners. I advise the British partners to knock if they want to ‘peacefully enter’ next time,” Zakharova wrote on Telegram.