Environment Secretary George Eustice disputed claims from Moscow that Russian warplanes dropped bombs and a patrol boat fired warning shots at a British destroyer it claims entered into its territorial waters in the Black Sea.
“This is a very normal thing,” he told Sky News.
“It’s quite common, actually, what was actually going on is the Russians were doing a gunnery exercise and given prior notice of that, they often do in that area. So I think it’s important that we don’t get carried away.”
Russia said the UK’s HMS Defender went three kilometres inside what it described as its territory off Cape Fiolent in Crimea, just before noon on Wednesday. A nation’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometres) from its coastline; any foreign warship going past that limit would need permission of the country to do so, with a few exceptions.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a military intervention in the region in 2014. The international community opposed that annexation, and still considers Crimea as Ukrainian territory.
Mr Eustice insisted the vessel was making a legal passage under international law to Georgia via Ukraine. Asked if the UK would sail through disputed Ukrainian waters again, he replied:
“Yes … because we never accepted the annexation of Crimea.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace both backed the assertion.
“We don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea. It was illegal,” Mr Johnson said.
“These are Ukrainian waters and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B.”
He denied that UK-Russia relations were at a historic low, noting that “I can remember times in my own lifetime when things have been far worse.”
“The important point is that we don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Mr Johnson told reporters on Thursday during a visit to an army barracks in England.
“It was entirely right that we should vindicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did, take the shortest route between two points, and that’s what we did.”
On Thursday, Kremlin officials accused the UK of a “deliberate, planned provocation” and said it had the right to “bomb on target” when foreign ships violate its sea borders.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with journalists that Russia was “obviously concerned about such actions of the British ship.”
“What can we do? We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law. If this does not help, we can bomb not only in the direction, but also on target, if our colleagues do not understand,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, according to Russian state media TASS.
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described Moscow’s version of Wednesday’s incident as “predictably inaccurate,” saying “no shots were fired at HMS Defender.”
A BBC reporter on the ship said he witnessed Russian warplanes and naval vessels buzzing the destroyer during the flare-up on Wednesday.
Shortly after the British ship crossed the territorial boundary, an Su-24M attack jet dropped bombs and a coastal patrol ship fired warning shots in front of the British destroyer, the Russian defence ministry said in a report from Russian state media TASS.
But British officials pushed back on the Russian allegations, and Mr Eustice continued to play them down on Thursday.
“I don’t think they were warning shots. There was a military exercise that was taking place, and it’s not uncommon for the Russians to do this in this area, and therefore the incident is not particularly abnormal in that sense,” he said.
The UK defence ministry had previously denied Moscow’s accusation, saying its ship was making a legal and innocent passage and there was
“No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path,” the UK Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Russian jets flew over the ship, one dropping as low as 500 feet (150 metres) but “at no point” were warning shots fired or bombs dropped.
“These aircraft posed no immediate threat to HMS Defender but some of these manoeuvres were neither safe nor professional,” he said, in a written statement to Parliament on Thursday.
“HMS Defender responded by VHF radio to the Russian units on several occasions and was, at all times, courteous and professional.”
The UK ambassador to Moscow was due to visit the Russian foreign ministry on Thursday after being summoned over the incident, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on state TV. On Wednesday, Zakharova accused the UK of spreading lies about the incident.
“So, who’s lying: the British defence ministry, the British BBC reporter or the British Embassy in Moscow? There is an answer,” she said.
“This time – the British defence Ministry and the British Embassy … London has lost its manners. I advise the British partners to knock if they want to ‘peacefully enter’ next time,” Zakharova wrote on Telegram.
The incident in the Black Sea will be watched further afield, with Europe, the US and China all likely observing Britain’s response, experts told CNN.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the EU to stand together against “provocations” from Russia, but also to seek direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the bloc “needs to create a format for dialogue.”
“This is a moment that comes just as France and Germany now, to the surprise and disconcertion of a number of smaller EU countries, are trying to establish some sort of new relationship with Russia,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
“If Britain still were in the EU, it would have been in a position to have warned against this.”
The UK “has very much gone in the other direction” from France and Germany with its decision to sail through the Black Sea, James Nixey, Director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, told CNN.
“Russia does revel in and understand the value of theatricality,” Mr Nixey said.
“The message to (the West) is: ‘We will not be restrained by internationally imposed rules.'”
The Kremlin likely also had a domestic audience in mind, some experts said.
“It would be unusually risky to take the sort of actions that Russia claims to have taken — including dropping bombs in front of a foreign vessel,” Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told CNN.
“The Russians have been working to push the narrative that the Royal Navy acted provocatively and was driven away — which might be both for domestic consumption and to reinforce international perceptions of Russia’s red lines,” he said.
“China will be looking to see if the British are as bold in the South China Sea as they are in the Black Sea,” Mr Nixey said.
“That is a can of worms that the UK may be less willing to open by comparison.”
Tensions there between the US and China most recently flared up in April, when US-Philippine training exercises took place and a Chinese aircraft carrier entered the region.