Kremlin Threatens to Bomb UK Warships for Transiting Russian Waters

HMS Defender (Royal Navy file image)

Published Jun 24, 2021 6:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

After the destroyer HMS Defender transited just off the coast of Sevastopol yesterday, a top Russian diplomat issued an unusually severe warning to the Royal Navy about conducting voyages through Russian-claimed waters.

On Wednesday morning, HMS Defender passed about 10 nm off the coast of Sevastopol, Crimea, the home of the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet. After the freedom of navigation (FONOP) transit, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement suggesting that Defender was chased off by warning shots and bombardment, including aerial delivery of four live bombs "on the course" of the vessel. The UK Ministry of Defence denies that any warning shots were fired (or dropped). 

“We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies on Thursday. “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.  . . . Those who try to test our strength are taking high risks."

The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas provides any vessel the right of innocent passage through another nation's territorial seas on a transit voyage. Like other NATO members, the UK recognizes Ukraine as the state administering waters off the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014; it does not recognize Russian sovereignty over the area involved in Wednesday's incident. 

"We believe that the British destroyer staged a provocation. Moreover, we regret that it was a deliberate and prepared provocation," said Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday. "In our opinion, such activities are unacceptable and are at odds with international law."

Russian warships routinely exercise the right of innocent passage to pass through UK territorial seas in the English Channel, which provides the shortest route between the Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet and Black Sea Fleet. These vessels are typically escorted by the Royal Navy and are allowed to continue unimpeded, in keeping with international law. 

The Russian Navy has been increasingly active in UK waters in recent years: In May, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that Russian vessels have been detected in Britain's waters more than 150 times since 2013, and he described Russia as the UK's "number one adversary threat."