Russia is threatening to begin bombing Western warships that sail too close to Crimea, while complaining that naval drills in the Black Sea could lead to "a real conflict" with NATO powers.
“We can bomb not only in the direction [of the ships], but also on target, if our colleagues do not understand,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday. “I warn everyone violating the state borders of the Russian Federation under the slogan of free navigation, from such provocative steps, because the security of our country comes first.”
The United Kingdom’s HMS Defender is in the Black Sea ahead of major naval exercises co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO but has drawn support from the trans-Atlantic bloc since Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russian officials, irritated by the impending exercises, claimed to drop bombs in front of the British ship when the vessel was sailing near Crimea, but the British side denies any such thing happened.
"We don't recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea — it was illegal,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Thursday. “These are Ukrainian waters, and it was entirely right to use them to get from A to B.”
In the British telling, Russian coast guard vessels notified ships in the area of an impending “gunnery exercise” and then carried it out as expected, only to claim thereafter that they had fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the British ship. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace dismissed that as “disinformation,” although the U.K. acknowledged that the ship was harried by almost two dozen Russian fighters.
“We should recognize this is a dangerous game,” British lawmaker Tobias Ellwood, who leads the defense committee, told British radio. “Su-24 Russian jets buzzing ships, there’s huge scope for an accident to occur, misinterpretation leading to an actual kinetic engagement, and it could be a bit of time before someone grabs that red phone and calms things down. And the same applies with China.”
The uproar comes just days after the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine announced the details of annual naval drills in the Black Sea, which this year features 32 ships from as many countries, that will drill together from June 28 to July 10.
"The United States is proud to partner with Ukraine in co-hosting the multinational maritime exercise Sea Breeze, which will help enhance interoperability and capabilities among participating nations,” U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kristina Kvien, the top American diplomat at the embassy in Kyiv, said Monday. “We are committed to maintaining the safety and security of the Black Sea.”
Another Russian diplomat cited those exercises and the controversy around the Defender incident as a potential source for “a real conflict” between Russia and NATO powers.
"This situation is explosive, even if all parties remain prudent. Unintentional incidents, which can result in a real conflict, are not ruled out,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told the Moscow Conference on International Security on Thursday. ”We cannot but be concerned that NATO is consistently building up its military presence along our borders, increasing the volume of air patrols, the number of drills, with its warships entering the Black, Baltic, and even the Barents Sea.”
Six NATO member-states border the Baltic Sea, and three have Black Sea coasts.
Russian officials summoned British Ambassador Deborah Bronnert to the Foreign Ministry for a "protest" on Thursday, but former British naval chief Alan West derided the Russian posture as mere preening. “Putin wants to play to his home audience. He wants to tell them, ‘Aren’t I tough? Look at that. I’ve made Britain go away,’ and that’s why I think they lied about firing warning shots at the defender, which they didn’t do,” he said.
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke
Original Location: Russia warns of 'a real conflict' with NATO over Black Sea naval exercises