MOSCOW – Russia is ready to target intruding warships if they ignore warnings, a senior diplomat said on Thursday after an incident in the Black Sea in which a British destroyer sailed near Crimea in an area which Russia claims as its territorial waters.
Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs on the way to the British destroyer Defender on Wednesday to clear it from waters near the Crimean city of Sevastopol . Britain has denied this account, insisted its ship was not targeted and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
The incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow has admitted to using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, underscoring the growing threat of military collisions amid Russian-Western tensions.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that “the inviolability of Russian borders is an absolute imperative”, adding that they will be protected “by all means, diplomatic, political and military, if necessary”.
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He sarcastically suggested that the British Navy should rename its destroyer from Defender to Aggressor and warned that “those who try to test our strength take high risks.”
Asked what Russia would do to prevent such intrusions in the future, Ryabkov told reporters he would stand ready to shoot at targets if the warnings did not work.
“We can appeal to reason and demand respect for international law,” Ryabkov said in remarks broadcast by Russian news agencies. “If that doesn’t help, we can drop bombs and not just on the path but just on the target, if our colleagues don’t understand otherwise.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov lamented what he described as a “deliberate and well-prepared provocation” on the part of Britain and supported the stern warning.
“If unacceptable acts of provocation are repeated, if these acts go too far, no option to legitimately protect the borders of the Russian Federation could be ruled out,” Peskov told reporters.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that a patrol vessel fired warning shots after HMS Defender ignored a trespassing advisory and sailed 3 kilometers (1.6 nautical miles) through the waters territorial units near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base in the Crimea.
He said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs in front of the ship to persuade the Defender to change course. Minutes later, the Defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.
Britain has denied that the Defender was fired on or that bombs were dropped in its path. He insisted that the ship was on a routine voyage through an internationally recognized shipping lane and remained in Ukrainian waters. The UK, like most countries in the world, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite Russia annexing the peninsula in 2014.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not say whether he personally approved the Defender’s trip, but suggested the Royal Navy take stock of the route.
“The important point is that we do not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, it is part of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Johnson told reporters Thursday during a visit to an army barracks in England. “It was only right that we stand up for the law and pursue the freedom of navigation as we did, take the shortest route between two points, and that’s what we did.”
He denied that relations between the UK and Russia were at an all-time low, noting that “I remember times in my own life when things were much worse”.
In April, Russia declared a larger area off Crimea closed to foreign warships until November, a move that sparked strong protests from Ukraine and the West.