June 24, 2021

British PM defends freedom of navigation after Black Sea incident with Russia

Says waters around Crimea are Ukrainian

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted the U.K. Navy was “entirely right” to defend freedom of navigation following an incident with Russia in the Black Sea, while Moscow warned it was prepared to fire on warships entering territorial waters it claims around Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Speaking at an army barracks on June 24 a day after the incident, Mr. Johnson reiterated that Britain didn’t recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and said the Royal Navy destroyer was sailing “the shortest route between two points” from Ukraine to Georgia.

“It was illegal, these are Ukrainian waters, and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B,” Mr. Johnson said.

Russia claimed that its vessels on June 23 fired warning shots and a military plane dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer HMS Defender to force it to change course from the area near the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Britain’s Defense Ministry denied the HMS Defender had been fired upon, saying that Russia was carrying out a previously announced “gunnery exercise” in the area.

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reiterated during a visit to Singapore that “no shots were fired” as the British ship was “conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters.”

“We were doing so in accordance with international law and the Russian characterization is predictably inaccurate,” Mr. Raab said.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said on June 24 that British Ambassador Deborah Bronner was summoned and warned in a demarche that Britain would be fully responsible for any consequences if a similar incident occurred again.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia was ready to consider all manner of responses to what he called “provocative actions.”

Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Ryabkov ratcheted up the rhetoric, saying that Russia would use “all means,” including diplomatic, political and military, to defend what he claimed were Russia’s borders.

“We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law,” Mr. Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. “If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target, if colleagues don’t get it otherwise.”

Cabinet member George Eustice said on June 24 in a televised interview that British warships could sail again through the disputed waters around Crimea because Russia’s occupation of Crimea was illegal.

“What was actually going on is the Russians were doing a gunnery exercise, they had given prior notice of that, they often do in that area,” he said.

“So, I think it’s important people don’t get carried away,” he said, and that the Royal Navy would do it again.

“We never accepted the annexation of Crimea, these were Ukrainian territorial waters,” Mr. Eustice said.

Additional reporting for this story was provided by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters.

Copyright 2021, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-black-sea-uk-hms-defender-shots-bombs-conflicting/31324222.html).