MOSCOW — Russia is prepared to fire upon intruding warships, a senior Russian diplomat said Thursday in a tough warning in the wake of a Black Sea incident in which a British destroyer sailed near Crimea in an area that Russia claims as its territorial waters.
Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of British destroyer Defender on Wednesday to drive it away from the area near Sevastopol. Britain denied that account, insisted its ship wasn’t fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
The incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow acknowledged using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, underlining the rising threat of military collisions amid Russia-West tensions.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that “the inviolability of the Russian borders is an absolute imperative,” adding that it will be protected “by all means, diplomatic, political and military if needed.”
He said the British navy should rename its destroyer from Defender to Aggressor and warned that “those who try to test our strength are taking high risks.”
Asked what Russia would do to prevent such intrusions in the future, Ryabkov told reporters it would stand ready to fire on targets if warnings don't work.
“We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law,” Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “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."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman deplored what he described as a "deliberate and well-prepared provocation” by Britain and seconded the tough warning.
“If unacceptable provocative actions are repeated, if those actions go too far, no options to legitimately protect the borders of the Russian Federation could be excluded,” the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a call with reporters.
On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots after the HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed 3 kilometers (1.6 nautical miles) into Russia’s territorial waters near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base in Crimea. It said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the vessel to persuade the Defender to change course. Minutes later, the Defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.
Britain denied the Defender had been fired on or that bombs were dropped in its path. It insisted that the ship was making a routine journey through an internationally recognized travel lane and remained in Ukrainian waters. The U.K., like most of the international community, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula's 2014 annexation by Russia.
“Under international law, you can take the closest, fastest route from one point to another,” Cabinet minister George Eustice told Sky News on Thursday. “HMS Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters … and that was the logical route for it to take.”
Russia long has chafed at NATO warships visiting near Crimea as destabilizing, even though three NATO members — Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria — all have Black Sea coastlines. In April, Russia declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships until November, a move that drew strong protests from Ukraine and the West.
The Russian navy chief, Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, said Thursday that the British destroyer's move was clearly provocative, noting that it ignored the warnings in a bid to test Russia's resolve.
“They came to see how we act," he told reporters in St. Petersburg. "And they only reacted to the power of weapons. Our navy acted in a competent and safe manner to stop the provocation.”
A BBC report from the British ship did not show bombs being dropped but showed the Defender being buzzed by Russian military aircraft and receiving a threat over the radio to change course or be fired upon.
Footage filmed from a Russian warplane and a drone that was released by the Russian Defense Ministry also showed Russian jets flying close to the Defender but didn't feature any bombs dropped or warning shots fired.
Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired Russian army colonel who works as a military analyst based in Moscow, said the Russian warplane apparently dropped bombs miles away from the British ship to avoid any damage. He charged that the British denial that Russia had fired warning shots and dropped bombs to chase the Defender away was an attempt to save face.
“They couldn't admit that they were forced to change course, that they were aware of a threat that weapons would be used against them,” Khodaryonok said in a telephone interview. “The former ruler of the seas couldn't allow for a loss of face by admitting that they submitted to the demands of the Russian side to change course.”
Associated Press journalists Jill Lawless in London and Daniel Kozin in Moscow contributed to this report.