A war of words between Moscow and London escalated on Thursday as both sides accused one another of giving inaccurate accounts of an incident involving a British warship and Russian forces in the Black Sea.
Russia said it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of HMS Defender on Wednesday as it sailed off the coast of the Crimea peninsula, accusing the Royal Navy destroyer of breaching its territorial waters.
The United Kingdom disputed Russia’s account, saying no warning shots were fired and no bombs were dropped, but suggested a Russian gunnery exercise had been taking place in the area.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Thursday HMS Defender was acting legally in international waters and described the vessel’s route as “wholly appropriate”.
“The important point is that we don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea,” he said. “These are Ukrainian waters and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B.”
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Moscow considers areas around the Crimean peninsula’s coast to be Russian waters.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also denounced Moscow on Thurdsay.
“No shots were fired at HMS Defender,” Raab told reporters in Singapore, during a visit to discuss trade deals.
“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.
Meanwhile, in comments broadcast on state television, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the UK of telling “barefaced lies” regarding its account of events.
The ministry summoned UK Ambassador Deborah Bronnert on Thursday to deliver a “tough demarche” – diplomatic jargon for a telling off – over the episode, which the Kremlin described as a “provocation”.
The UK government said it would not accept unlawful interference with the principle of innocent passage following the incident, which officials said took place as HMS Defender was travelling on an internationally recognised route from Odessa, Ukraine, to Georgia.