MOSCOW – Russia is ready to target invading warships if they fail to heed warnings, a senior diplomat said Thursday after an incident in the Black Sea in which a British destroyer sailed near Crimea in an area Russia is considered to be designates its territorial waters.
Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots on Wednesday and a fighter plane dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer Defender to evict it from the waters near the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The UK denied this account, insisting that its ship not be shelled and saying it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
The incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow admitted live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, underscoring the increasing risk of military collisions amid tensions between Russia and the West.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that “the inviolability of Russia’s borders is an absolute imperative,” adding that it will be protected “by all means, diplomatically, politically and militarily, if necessary”.
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He sarcastically suggested that the British Navy rename their destroyer from Defender to Aggressor, warning that “those who try to test our strength are taking high risks”.
When asked what Russia would do to prevent such break-ins in the future, Ryabkov told reporters it would be ready to shoot targets if the warnings don’t work.
“We can appeal to reason and demand to respect international law,” said Ryabkov in a statement by Russian news agencies. “If it doesn’t help, we can drop bombs, and not just in the way, but directly on the target, if our colleagues can’t do it any other way.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov regretted what he called a “deliberate and well-prepared provocation” by Britain and supported the harsh warning.
“If unacceptable provocative actions are repeated, if these actions go too far, no options to legitimately protect the borders of the Russian Federation could be ruled out,” Peskov told reporters.
On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that a patrol ship had fired warning shots after HMS Defender ignored a notice against the intrusion and moved 3 kilometers (1.6 nautical miles) into Russian territorial waters near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base the Crimea, had sailed.
A Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs in front of the ship to make the Defender change course. Minutes later, the defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.
Britain denied that the Defender was shot at or bombs thrown in its path. It insisted that the ship make a routine voyage via an internationally recognized itinerary and stay in Ukrainian waters. Britain, like most countries in the world, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to say whether he personally authorized the defense attorney’s trip, but suggested the Royal Navy would make a point with this route.
“The important point is that we do not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, it is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory,” said Johnson on Thursday during a visit to an army barracks in England. “It was absolutely right that we defend the law and pursue freedom of navigation as we did, take the shortest route between two points, and we did.”
He denied that UK-Russia relations were at an all-time low, noting that “I can remember times in my life when things were much worse”.
In April, Russia declared a large area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships until November, a move that sparked violent protests from Ukraine and the West.