Joe Biden, the US president, has been accused of having emboldened Russia as sources told The Telegraph that the US decided against sailing close to Crimea alongside the British.
The Telegraph can reveal that while US Laboon, an American destroyer, has recently been operating with HMS Defender and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen in the Black Sea, it was “many hundreds of miles away” when the two vessels travelled within 12 miles of Crimea’s shoreline on Wednesday.
The navigation triggered a confrontation with Russia, which scrambled jets and fired warning shots, and a diplomatic clash at a time of rising tensions over Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move not recognised by most countries, gaining access to its long Black Sea coast. Russia has chafed at NATO warships visiting near Crimea as destabilising. In April, it declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships.
A source told The Telegraph that despite being in the region the US warship "was not involved and did not have anything to do with” the British efforts to sail through the contested waters in a show of defiance against Russian claims.
It comes after the US cancelled the deployment of two warships to the area in April, after Russia unilaterally closed off several areas of the Black Sea to foreign warships due to military drills.
One of the restricted areas is a part of Crimea’s southern coast between Sevastopol and Gurzuf which includes Cape Fiolent that the Royal Navy destroyer approached on Wednesday.
HMS Defender: Cape Fiolent map
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, criticised the Biden administration for its failure to join the British and Dutch vessels.
He said: “Russia and China are now working together in a very aggressive way because they think they have America on the run. They think Biden is weak. He goes to Russia with all his rhetoric and comes back a pussycat. Putin is laughing his head off.”
Sir Iain cited Russia’s posturing in eastern Ukraine and China’s “bullying” of Taiwan by flying daily military jets over the country since Mr Biden took office as testing the US president’s resolve.
“Biden isn’t behaving and showing his administration is strong on any of this stuff,” he said.
Lord West, the former first sea lord, highlighted that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, “has form on this”.
He added that “I would like to think” Mr Biden would have sailed the same passage as the British and the Dutch on Wednesday.
“That is a bad thing not having American ships showing their support. We had a Dutch ship with us so other NATO members should be going in there.”
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, sought to play down Russia’s claims that its forces fired warning shots at HMS Defender, which were denied by the UK Government.
In a written ministerial statement, Mr Wallace said the warship “conducted innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters via a direct route using a traffic separation scheme (TSS)” on Wednesday at 9.50am, and that 10 minutes later, “a Russian coastguard vessel warned that Russian units would shortly commence a live fire gunnery exercise”.
He said that while they noted “gunnery astern and out of range of her position”, it “posed no danger” to the ship.
However, Russian state television had a field day on Thursday as it portrayed the incident as an immediate threat to Russia that had to be repelled.
Rossiya-24 discussed the incident and featured a pro-Kremlin military columnist who defended the Russian response and said that the warship could have carried nuclear weapons.
“We had the right to stop that ship,” he said. “I don’t think we would want to sink it but our weaponry would be enough to deactivate it.”
A senior Russian diplomat also said Moscow will be ready to fire to hit to protect its borders.
Speaking on Thursday, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy defence minister, said 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".
Asked by reporters what Russia would do to prevent such intrusions in the future, Mr Ryabkov said it would stand ready to fire on target if warnings don’t work.
"We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law," Mr Ryabkov said. "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."
Meanwhile, Nikolai Yevmenov, commander of the Russian Navy, also said on Thursday that the incident was Britain’s deliberate provocation.
Admiral Yevmenov told Russian media: “You always hope that your counterparts have common sense, that they are reasonable people.
“But that was not about unprofessionalism. This was a deliberate action.
“Our Navy acted in a correct and safe manner to prevent this provocation and further developments of this madness on the part of the crew of the British vessel.”
Building on Mr Ryabkov’s comment, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman said that Russia should not rule out “any options to protect Russia’s borders”.