Confusion reigns supreme over what has really transpired in the Black Sea, over the passage of the British destroyer HMS Defender (D36). The British warship, which was sailing from Odesa in southern Ukraine to Georgia, passed south of the Crimea peninsula.

Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014; the annexation has not been recognized internationally. While Moscow claims the peninsula and its waters are Russian territory, the U.K. says HMS Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters in a commonly used and internationally recognized transit route.

HMS Defender being shadowed by a Russian SU-24 attack aircraft
HMS Defender being shadowed by a Russian SU-24 attack aircraft. (Russian Navy)

Could the Ships Positioning Data Have Been Faked by Russia?

Moscow claims that the HMS Defender went 1.9 miles inside Russian territory off Cape Fiolent in Crimea just before noon local time on Wednesday. A nation’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its coastline. With a few exceptions, any foreign warship going past that limit would need the permission of the country in question.

The Russian Defense Ministry, as quoted in the state-run TASS news agency, said that in response to the supposed territorial incursion by the British ship it sent a Su-24M attack jet. The Su-24M dropped bombs while a coastal patrol ship fired warning shots in front of the British destroyer.

The U.S. Naval Institute News (USNI) reported on Monday that open-source intelligence data on the positions of the British destroyer and a Dutch frigate had been faked on June 18-19 to show them steaming to within two nautical miles of a Russian naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea.

“Despite the AIS (Automatic Identification System) track, there is clear evidence that the two warships did not leave Odessa. Live webcam feeds show that they did not leave Odessa, however. This was anyway the known situation in defense circles, and local media. Anyone in Odessa can see that they did not leave. The webcams are broadcast live on YouTube by Odessa Online. Screenshots archived by third-party weather sites like show the two warships present in Odessa overnight.”

The British government rejected the notion that shots were fire or bombs dropped in front of its ship. The British Ministry of Defense posted on Twitter that “No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”

The U.K. government says was that HMS Defender was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in international waters.

HMS Defender, USS Laboon, and Dutch frigate with a Russian ship in the distance monitoring the group last week in the Black Sea.
HMS Defender, USS Laboon, and Dutch frigate with a Russian ship in the distance monitoring the group last week in the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy)

“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.”

Some Accounts Seem to Indicate That Shots Were Fire

However, Jonathan Beale, a British BBC journalist who was accompanying the British warship said the Russians shadowed the warship very closely.

Beale reported that he saw more than 20 aircraft overhead and two Russian coastguard boats which at times were just 100 meters away. His report for the BBC stated, “Increasingly hostile warnings were issued over the radio – including one that said ‘if you don’t change course I’ll fire.’ We did hear some firing in the distance but they were believed to be well out of range.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news outlets that “We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law, and if that doesn’t work, we can bomb.”

Ryabkov said that in the future bombs would be sent “not only in its path but also on target.”

HMS Defender is the fifth of the Type 45 (otherwise known as Daring-class) air-defense destroyers built for the Royal Navy. She was launched in 2009. She completed her first sea trials in October and November 2011 and was commissioned during March 2013.