KYIV, Ukraine — The British destroyer H.M.S. Defender was supposed to sail near the coast of Crimea on Wednesday, quietly demonstrating that the waters legally belonged to Ukraine despite Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula seven years ago, which has never been recognised internationally.
The ship’s course, however, was an intolerable provocation to Russia, which claims those waters as part of its territory.
The conflicting narratives erupted into an international incident after the Russian Navy claimed it fired warning shots and dropped bombs on the British destroyer in an attempt to sway its course. The British government quickly denied both claims, claiming that the Russians were simply conducting naval exercises nearby.
And things might have ended there if a BBC correspondent, Jonathan Beale, hadn’t been on board the Defender and hadn’t published video footage of up to 20 Russian warplanes buzzing the ship and a Russian Coast Guard vessel drawing close alongside.
A Russian officer could be heard over the radio threatening to open fire if the Defender did not change course, and gunfire could be heard in the background, though the shots appeared to be well out of range.
In an interview with the BBC, the Defender’s captain, Cmdr. Vince Owen, stated unequivocally that the ship purposefully sailed close to the Crimean coast to assert Ukraine’s legal ownership of Crimea and the waters surrounding it.
“Our deployment, along with the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy, is here to maintain international order and uphold that for global peace and security,” Commander Owen told the BBC.
“The Royal Navy and the United Kingdom will always call out states that do not adhere to international law,” he added. “That is our goal.”
The annexation of Ukraine by Russia in 2014 sparked international outrage and economic sanctions. In the seven years since, the Black Sea has become a flashpoint for Ukraine, Russia, and NATO members.
“Russians are extremely sensitive politically when it comes to Crimea,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They want to bully the West into recognising Crimea and moving on.”
That is why, according to Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, Britain and the West “exactly need to keep reaffirming and reminding that Crimea has not been accepted as a fait accompli.”
Britain described Russia as its most acute and direct threat in a foreign and defence policy review earlier this year, which defence secretary Ben Wallace reiterated on Wednesday.
“Russian activity poses a threat to stability, and we all require stability to be secure,” he told lawmakers.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Thursday that Britain does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and that the vessel’s passage through Ukrainian waters was entirely legal.
Mr. Galeotti stated that the exercise revealed “a post-Brexit British determination to affirm that if America is back, so is Britain, in its own way,” referring to President Biden’s recent trip to Europe.
However, there was a sense that Russia was “working to isolate Britain and exacerbate that post-Brexit decision,” according to Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
In Moscow, Russian officials reaffirmed their version of events and warned that the country’s military would be ready to take decisive action if such incidents occurred again.
Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, told reporters on Thursday that the British ship’s actions were “a deliberate and premeditated provocation” and that “no options will be ruled out in terms of legally defending Russia’s borders” in the future.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, was more specific, saying on Thursday that Russia “may drop bombs, not just in the path, but right on target” the next time.
“Those who try to test our strength are taking great risks,” Mr. Ryabkov said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, and suggested that Britain rename the destroyer H.M.S. “Aggressor.”
Mr. Ryabkov’s remarks, according to Mr. Galeotti, represented a rhetorical escalation. “It’s very difficult to turn these things down,” he said. “Will the Russians feel compelled to be more bullish the next time — and there will be a next time?”
Even as the standoff raged on Wednesday, France and Germany proposed that the European Union convene a summit with Russia to work on thawing relations, the first such meeting since 2014. Leaders of some EU member states were outraged by the suggestion, including Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, who told the Financial Times it was a “irresponsible” case of “historic myopia.”
The Black Sea will be the site of the Sea Breeze military exercise in a few days, a land, sea, and air training operation hosted by the United States and Ukraine with 30 other countries participating.