MOSCOW — It was either the sharpest escalation of NATO-Russian tension in recent years, with Russia firing warning shots at a British destroyer and dropping four bombs in its path, or nothing much happened, depending on whom you talked to Wednesday.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that in 2014 Russia annexed Ukraine. It annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The article has been corrected.
Nope, said Britain’s Defense Ministry. No warning shots were fired at the HMS Defender, nor was the ship in Russian waters. A statement from the ministry said it believed Russia was conducting gunnery exercises in the area and had issued warnings about this. Its careful wording implied that something had happened — just not what Moscow claimed.
“No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path,” the statement said.
Jonathan Beale, a BBC journalist on board the Defender, reported that shots were heard, out of range. He said that Russian warplanes buzzed the vessel but that it did not deviate from its course to Georgia.
The United States, Britain and Europe do not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or its claim to the waters off the peninsula.
Ben Wallace, Britain’s secretary of state for defense, said that the ship traveled in an internationally recognized transit corridor during a routine operation, exiting safely at 11.45 a.m. local time.
“As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage, and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity,” he said.
However, Russia called in Britain’s defense attache in Moscow on Wednesday afternoon and handed him a formal protest note. Russia’s Defense Ministry called the ship’s action a “grave violation.”
The dispute occurred as Russia steps up pressure on NATO to cancel the Sea Breeze military exercises that are due to begin in the Black Sea region on Monday. A record 32 nations are scheduled to participate, according to the U.S. 6th Fleet public affairs office.
The Defender had recently been in Odessa, Ukraine, where British officials signed an agreement to boost Ukraine’s naval capacity, and British and Ukrainian forces took part in exercises described as involving firefighting and damage control.
Russia analyst Mark Galleoti, of Mayak Intelligence, a private London-based firm, said the Defender’s mission to the Black Sea was political, to support Ukraine and to remind Moscow that its annexation of Crimea was not accepted. He said Russia appeared to be sending a message to NATO on Wednesday reinforcing its claim to the seas off Crimea.
“Moscow couldn’t admit that a Royal Navy ship could sail past Crimea with impunity,” he said. “More broadly, the Russians are always more concerned about the British than any other Europeans because they see them as their most subtle enemy — but also because the U.K. is more active in challenging Moscow.”
Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va., said on Twitter that competing claims and disinformation about military interactions in the Black Sea are common and that some assertions “can be entirely untrue.”
Earlier Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained that NATO is ignoring Russia’s proposals to de-escalate tensions.
“Naturally, we cannot but be concerned over the continuous buildup of NATO military potential and infrastructure near Russian borders, as well as the fact that the alliance is refusing to consider constructively our proposals on de-escalating the tension and reducing the risk of unpredictable incidents,” Putin told a Moscow conference on international security.
“We really do hope that common sense together with the desire to promote constructive relations with Russia will eventually prevail,” he said.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, described the British warship’s action as “dangerous” and “a blatant British provocation going against international and Russian laws.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, addressing the international security conference, predicted that the military standoff between Russia and NATO will last for many years, criticizing an increase in NATO spending.
“The situation in Europe is explosive,” he said.
Shoigu’s comments followed an intense Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border and in Crimea recently, as part of Russian military exercises in the region. Ukraine officials have said that much of the military equipment moved to its borders has not yet been withdrawn.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.