Russian forces fired warning shots at a Royal Navy destroyer after it entered the country’s territorial waters in the Black Sea, the Russian Defence Ministry has said.
A border patrol boat fired warning shots at HMS Defender and a Su-24M warplane dropped four bombs close to the ship, the Defence Ministry said in a statement reported by the Russian Interfax news agency.
HMS Defender left Russian waters soon afterwards, having ventured as much as 3 kilometres (2 miles) inside, the ministry said. The incident took place in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.
"The destroyer was warned in advance that weapons would be fired in case of a violation of the Russian state border. It disregarded the warning," the statement said.
"As a result of joint actions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Border Service of the Russian Federal Security Service, HMS Defender left the territorial sea of the Russian Federation at 12.23pm."
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has dismissed the reports from Russia that warning shots were fired at HMS Defender, insisting it was a routine gunnery exercise and the Royal Navy vessel was "conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law".
In a statement posted on Twitter, the MoD said: "No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path."
The Telegraph understands Russian forces were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the vicinity of HMS Defender and provided the maritime community with prior-warning of their activity. Russian aircraft were also exercising in the area.
Defence sources said HMS Defender is taking the most direct and internationally recognised route between Ukraine and Georgia.
Cape Fiolent map
The UK does not recognise Russia’s claim to Crimea, in line with the international consensus that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said HMS Defender was "shadowed" by Russian vessels and "she was made aware of training exercises" in the area.
HMS Defender carried out a "routine transit" from Odessa towards Georgia across the Black Sea, he said.
"As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognised traffic separation corridor.
"She exited that corridor safely at 0945 BST. As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity."
HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, is part of the UK Carrier Strike Group currently heading to the Indo-Pacific region.
However, it was announced earlier this month that it would be temporarily breaking away from the group to carry out its "own set of missions" in the Black Sea.
A UK Defence source told The Telegraph: "Defender was transiting, she was being shadowed by some small patrol boats and aircraft and the Russians asked her to leave where she was – they did not want her to be so close to Sevastopol, their Black Sea base.
"But she’s allowed to be there. Defender was legal at all times in terms of innocent passage. She managed to go faster than the Russian vessels that were shadowing her.
"These small patrol boats were being outpaced so they fired into the distance, using small guns." The shots were not fired at HMS Defender.
The source added that the Royal Navy believed there were no bombs or ordnance deployed by the Russian Navy, adding that it seemed that the "Rusians are lying".
The insider said that while Moscow appeared to be trying to provoke a response, the British Government would now "downplay and de-escalate" the incident.
The British Royal Navys destroyer HMS Defender in the port of Odesa on Ukraines Black Sea coast
Credit: Konstantin Sazonchik/TASS
Lisa Nandy MP, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, responding to reports of the alleged warning shots fired at HMS Defender by Russian forces, said:
"The Foreign Secretary must urgently come to the House to confirm the validity of these deeply concerning reports and outline what steps the UK is taking to ensure the safety of British forces in the Black Sea."
A recent open source report from the US Naval Institute said the location information of HMS Defender and a Dutch Frigate were spoofed to show they left Odesa port on Friday night and provocatively sailed to within two nautical miles of the port of Sevastopol, 180 miles away in Crimea.
MoD officials confirmed to The Telegraph the incident happened and said neither ship had left port at the time suggested by the fake data. Russia is widely suspected as having been behind the spoofing of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) used to show ship’s locations.
The alleged incident comes just two days after the announcement that Britain is to assist Ukraine with the "design and build of warships" and the construction of two new naval bases.
Defence minister Jeremy Quin and his Ukrainian counterpart signed a "memorandum of implementation for naval partnership projects" on board HMS Defender in Odessa on Monday, according to a UK Government Facebook page.
A retired Russian admiral has said Russia did nothing wrong in firing the warning shot at the British destroyer.
"They did everything right, without violating any international law," Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former head of the Russian Navy’s General Staff, told Interfax.
"A report about the British vessel’s violation will be presented in a note of protest. The British will at least have to apologise… The British may say that this was a navigation mistake. But the coast was so close – what kind of mistake was that?"