Russia has threatened to retaliate if British warships sail again through the disputed waters around Crimea.
Moscow claimed that warning shots were fired by Russian vessels at HMS Defender as it passed through the contested part of the Black Sea on Wednesday – an assertion dismissed by the UK Government, which said only that a routine “gunnery exercise” took place.
Cabinet minister George Eustice said Moscow may have been trying to make a point, but stressed that the Royal Navy would be prepared to send another vessel through the waters, restating the UK’s position that Crimea is Ukrainian territory.
Dramatic eyewitness accounts revealed the Type 45 destroyer was buzzed by Russian military jets and the sound of naval gunfire could be heard as it sailed from Odessa in Ukraine to Georgia on Wednesday.
Russia also claimed that four bombs were dropped in the path of the destroyer – something the Ministry of Defence said it did not recognise.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said “the inviolability of the Russian borders is an absolute imperative”, adding that it will be protected “by all means, diplomatic, political and military if needed”.
Asked what Russia would do if a similar incident happened again, he said: “We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law.
“If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target if colleagues don’t get it otherwise.”
Mr Eustice told Sky News: “Under international law you can take the closest, fastest route from one point to another.
“HMS Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters, I think on the way to Georgia, and that was the logical route for it to take.
“This is a very normal thing, it’s quite common actually. What was actually going on is the Russians were doing a gunnery exercise, they had given prior notice of that, they often do in that area.
“So, I think it’s important people don’t get carried away.”
Asked if the Government would do it again, he said “of course, yes”, adding: “We never accepted the annexation of Crimea, these were Ukrainian territorial waters.”
He said while the gunnery exercise was the “official reason” given for the Russian activities, “whether that was cover for them to try and make some point, we don’t know”.
“Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied the claims from Moscow that shots were fired by a Russian patrol boat towards HMS Defender, and that a warplane dropped four high-explosive fragmentation bombs in its path during its passage through the Black Sea.
The move has put a further strain on already difficult diplomatic relations between London and Moscow.
British ambassador Deborah Bronnert was summoned to the ministry of foreign affairs in Moscow after Russia accused the Type 45 destroyer of straying into its territorial waters.
Former Royal Navy chief Admiral Lord West accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of “playing to the home audience”.
The former first sea lord told LBC: “The bottom line is Putin is an expert at disinformation and his actions are very reckless, and we’ve seen that now for three or four years.”
He said Mr Putin’s behaviour is “appalling” and “there’s no doubt the Defender was asserting her right of innocent passage from one port to another”.
He added: “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.
“As per usual, I’m afraid, Putin’s organisation is lying about that.
“I would say it’s the behaviour of a rogue state, but Russia shouldn’t be a rogue state.”
Former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt, said Mr Putin is “testing the will of the West”.
He told Sky News: “I’m a little bit surprised that the Ministry of Defence is playing it down.
“It was unreasonable of the Russians to challenge HMS Defender in the way that they did.
“The underlying point is that there are international laws that must be upheld by everyone and HMS Defender had the absolute right to be where she was yesterday.”
The latest flare-up comes amid months of tension between Moscow and the West following a build-up earlier this year of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine.
The Kremlin, which annexed Crimea in 2014, has been riled by the movement of Nato warships in the Black Sea seen as offering support to Ukraine.
The Russian ambassador to the UK, Andrei Kelin, described the incident as “regrettable” and claimed HMS Defender had been 3km inside Russian territorial waters.
He told Channel 4 News: “He did not respond to several warnings, at least the warnings were issued every 10 minutes while he was going into water, deep into the waters. And then it was stopped by means that were available.”
To underline Moscow’s point, the Russian embassy chose a picture of the Crimea as its daily post of a “Russian” landscape.