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Russia Forces British Warship Away from Crimea amid Rising Tensions with NATO

By Vusala Abbasova June 26, 2021

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British Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender arrives at the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine. / Sergey Smolentsev / Reuters

Russian forces pushed British destroyer HMS Defender back from the waters near Crimea, accusing the Royal Navy ship of violating its borders in the Black Sea.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Russia’s defense ministry said a Russian border patrol warship fired warning shots as a Su24M aircraft carried out a "precautionary bombing" along the route of the British destroyer to force the British vessel away from an area in the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimea peninsula.

Russia claims that the destroyer had entered three kilometers into its territorial waters in the region of Cape Fiolent, after which bombs were dropped in its path by Russian forces.

"At 12:23 the combined actions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Border Forces of the FSB forced the HMS Defender to leave the territorial waters of the Russian Federation," the statement from Russia's defense ministry reads.

The incident took place off the coast of Crimea – a peninsula located on the northern coast of the Black Sea. The peninsula has become a bone of contention between Kyiv and Moscow since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, which was followed by Russia's takeover of Crimea. The Moscow-backed referendum held in March that year reportedly revealed that over 90 percent of Crimea’s residents wanted the peninsula to be under Russian control. However, the vote was declared illegitimate by Ukraine, Western countries and the United Nations.

While Moscow claims that the peninsula and its waters are Russian territories, the UK does not recognize Crimea as Russian territory.

After the incident, the UK government has denied that one of its vessels was shot at by Russia's military, and claimed that it was in Ukrainian waters. 

"The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law," the British defense ministry said in a Tweet.

Earlier this month, the Royal Navy said the Type 45 destroyer, had veered away from its strike group while it was conducting NATO operations in the Mediterranean to carry out its own missions in the Black Sea.

For Russia, the Black Sea is of particular importance for economic and geostrategic reasons. Russia’s Black Sea ports, as the country’s only warm water ports, have always served its economic interests. The control of the Black Sea also means total control over the Sea of Azov - a small body of water surrounded by Russia and Ukraine connected to the Black Sea by the Kerch Strait.

Director of the Information and Press Department at Russia's Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova told a media briefing that Moscow regards the Black Sea incident with the British Navy destroyer as a "blatant provocation" by the British side. In this regard, the British Ambassador was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow over the incident in the Black Sea and met with officials on Wednesday afternoon.

The incident comes amid years of rising tensions between Russia and its neighbors in the west. Diplomatic expulsions and travel bans imposed since the start of this year have increased existing tensions between the West and Russia.

As the world’s second strongest military power, Russia has repeatedly voiced concerns over the expansion of NATO’s presence along the borders, calling such actions destabilizing.

In his recent address to the ninth Moscow Conference on International Security, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu voiced concerns over the situation in Europe, calling it "explosive".

"As a whole, the situation in Europe is explosive and requires specific steps to de-escalate it," Izvestiya quoted Shoigu as saying on Wednesday. "The Russian side has proposed a number of measures. For example, it put forward a proposal to move the areas of drills away from the contact line."

He also pointed out during his remarks that the bloc is being transformed into global military and political alliance aimed at containing Russia and China, recalling the outcomes of the recent NATO summit held in Brussels.

NATO member states’ defense spending has increased by $260 billion since 2014, and by 2024, it is expected to increase by $400 billion. Moscow’s top general stressed that the actions of the alliance are increasing tensions and reducing the level of security along the border between Russia and NATO members.

"We expect that common sense and the desire to develop constructive relations with us will eventually prevail," Gazeta.ru quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying at the conference.