On June 23, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that coast guard vessels operating out of illegally-occupied Crimea fired “warning” shots at the HMS Defender, a British Royal Navy destroyer in the Black Sea steaming from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Georgia.
The ministry also claimed that a Russian Su-24 warplane dropped several bombs ahead of the British destroyer in an attempt to divert it further from the coast.
“At 12:06 and 12:08, the border guard patrol ship conducted warning fire. At 12:19, a Su-24M plane carried out preventing bombing (four OFAB-250 bombs) along the route of the guided missile destroyer Defender,” the Russian Defense Ministry statement read, as reported by the Russian state news agency TASS.
According to the ministry, the British navy vessel had been “operating in the northwestern part of the Black Sea” and “crossed the state border of the Russian Federation and moved 3 km into the territorial sea near Cape Fiolent.”
Multiple Russian state media sources, as well as international media outlets, reported these claims.
They are false or misleading.
The assertion that the HMS Defender crossed into Russian territorial waters is false because Russia has no territorial waters in the area. As the U.K. Ministry of Defense noted, Crimea is internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, not Russian.
“No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender,” the ministry tweeted. “The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”
The U.K. Ministry of Defense later tweeted:
“We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior-warning of their activity. No shots were directed at HMS Defender, and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.”
According to BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale, who was aboard the HMS Defender during the incident and reported the events as they happened, the crew was on high alert and numerous Russian military planes flew by the ship, one of which could be heard during his report.
Beale reported hearing shots fired by the Russian side, but they were “well out of range.” He also reported that the Russian military had earlier announced it would conduct gunnery exercises in the area.
According to Beale, the Defender did not deviate from its course despite being buzzed by Russian jets and shadowed by Russian coast guard vessels.
Since occupying the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the Russian military has staged provocative incidents involving NATO vessels, including U.S. Navy ships. It has also lied about what actually happened in those incidents.
The first such incident took place in April 2014 shortly after the Crimean annexation, when a Russian Su-24 buzzed the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook. While the vessel didn’t even go to battle stations, Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets outside of Russia falsely claimed the plane had targeted the ship with a top-secret electronic warfare device that temporarily disabled its electronic systems.
The Atlantic Council-linked Digital Forensic Laboratory exposed the story as a fabrication, reporting that it had been concocted out of false claims spread by Russian state media and phony social media accounts.
In 2019, the Russians accused the U.S. Navy of unsafe behavior that led to a near miss between a Russian naval vessel and the American cruiser USS Chancellorsville. Video and photographs of the incident, however, indicated that the Chancellorsville was recovering a helicopter at the time, and thus had the right of way according to international maritime regulations.