The Russian government announced that it had fired and bombed a British destroyer off the coast of Crimea.
If confirmed in full details, the incident is unprecedented since the Cold War and was the most serious between NATO (Western military alliance) and Moscow forces since Vladimir Putin annexed the Peninsula. Ukraine in 2014.
The episode took place this month, on an undisclosed date, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, the Tass news agency reported. The British military attaché in Moscow has been called upon to explain himself.
The Defense Ministry in London played down the incident, saying the fire was part of a Russian naval exercise and did not target its destroyer. “The Royal Navy ship is innocently crossing Ukrainian territorial waters,” he said.
According to the Russian account, the destroyer HMS Defender, which accompanied the strike group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean, broke away and went to perform maneuvers in the Black Sea. He was seen crossing the Bosphorus Strait on the last 14th.
In one of these movements, he approached the waters that the Russians consider to be their own around the Crimea. He was warned by a Russian Coast Guard ship that it should change direction, but Moscow said it had not responded.
The Russian ship then fired warning shots at HMS Defender and, more dramatically, a Black Sea Fleet Su-24 jet dropped four bombs in the alleged path of the British ship.
HMS Defender, the ministry said, then left the area without any reaction, according to the Russian report.
In April, during the crisis in which Putin concentrated his troops near the Ukrainian border to stop an alleged reabsorption of pro-Russian rebel areas in the east of the country, the Kremlin closed sections of the Black Sea to foreign ships for six months.
Since the annexation of Crimea following the overthrow of the pro-Mosu government in Kiev, Putin has increasingly militarized the peninsula – which already housed, by agreement, the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.
Ukraine, which, with the crisis since then, has not been able to integrate into NATO as its new government wanted, has started to carry out frequent exercises with Western forces. Putin has already said that his imperative is to prevent the alliance from absorbing its neighbor and establishing a new and broad border with its territory.
Interceptions of ships and aircraft are extremely common in areas of strategic friction between Moscow, NATO, allied Chinese and US forces in the Pacific.
In Europe, the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea are the most active theaters of operations. Last week, for example, a group of Russian bombers and fighter jets were intercepted by planes from NATO and Sweden, a non-allied Western ally, along the Baltic coast.
But a recent episode of such seriousness is unknown, the Russians published the account being accurate. Last year, an American destroyer was nearly hit by another Russian near Vladivostok, Moscow’s Pacific Fleet headquarters, but there was no gunfire.
In the Black Sea, tensions have been high since 2014, and last week’s NATO summit did not help calm the spirits.
In it, the first with the presence of President Joe Biden, the alliance reaffirmed that it views Putin’s Russia as the greatest threat to its security. China, an ally of Moscow, was also included for the first time in the list of potential risks.
The fact that the ship involved in the action is British demonstrates an American attempt to avoid a direct escalation of tensions – Biden had a tense meeting with Putin on Wednesday (16).
HMS Queen Elizabeth is making her first operational voyage, and after acting in the Mediterranean, she will travel to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, in a clear signal to Beijing.
The aircraft carrier, however, does not only carry British planes. There are 18 stealth aircraft on the F-35B radar for naval use, both from London and US Marines on board. This week, they launched the first attack from the ship against the remaining Islamic State positions in Syria.
This is the largest displacement of naval forces from London since the Falklands War in 1982, but independent observers are skeptical of the UK’s financial capacity to maintain such power at sea.