Johnson Vows Russian ‘Bear’ Won’t Deter U.K. After Navy Spat
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the U.K.’s armed confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea, dismissing Moscow’s protests as London vowed to continue to exercise its right to enter disputed waters off Crimea.
“I think it was wholly appropriate to use international waters,” Johnson told reporters at a military base in Hampshire on Thursday, declining to say whether he’d personally approved the route of the British destroyer. “The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea.” Asked for his reaction to Russia saying the U.K. lied over the incident, he replied: “They’re the bear.”
Russia warned the U.K. not to repeat what it branded as “unacceptable provocative actions.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would not exclude any options to defend its border on a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said later it summoned U.K. Ambassador Deborah Bronnert and “strongly protested” the ship’s actions. “In the event of a repetition of such provocations, all responsibility for their possible consequences will rest entirely with the British side,” it warned in a website statement.
Russia said it used bombs and gunfire in “warning shots” to force the HMS Defender to leave waters it claims off the coast of Crimea on Wednesday, but the U.K. rejected that, saying it was likely a “gunnery exercise” that didn’t affect the ship’s planned voyage.
The U.K. and its allies don’t recognize Crimea as Russian territory after President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of the strategic peninsula from Ukraine. The incident highlighted growing tensions between the U.K. and Russia even as Putin and the U.S. move to patch up ties.
Johnson rejected suggestions the incident marks a new low in U.K.-Russian relations, saying, “I can remember times in my life when things have been far worse.” His comments came as the leaders of France and Germany Thursday called for dialog with Russia after last week’s summit between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden.
The Kremlin spokesman declined to specify what other measures Russia might take against North Atlantic Treaty Organization ships in the future. But Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, said if the U.K. didn’t listen to “common sense,” then Russia might bomb “not only the course of the vessel but the target itself,” the state-run Tass news service reported.
The sudden escalation in rhetoric doesn’t mean that Russia is prepared to sink a British ship but reflects concern in Moscow at the growing risk that NATO membership may be offered to Ukraine, said Maxim Shepovalenko, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a defense industry consultancy.
Russia said the Black Sea incident lasted about half an hour, with the Defender ignoring radio warnings. The ship continued even after a Russian Coast Guard vessel fired its cannon, leaving the area when an Su-24 aircraft dropped four bombs on its course, the Defense Ministry said. The U.K. rejected that account.
Reporters for the BBC and the Daily Mail who were on the Defender at the time of the incident described a tense scene during which the crew donned protective equipment and Russian ships approached within 100-200 meters.
U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told The Times newspaper the British navy “will not be impeded on innocent passage” through the disputed waters.
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