Russia promises to ‘hit target’ if UK warship operation repeated

 (PA)
(PA)

On the day after the sharpest maritime confrontation in recent memory, Russia’s deputy foreign minister sent out a message that it would take out any foreign warship that tested its territorial claims.

"We can call people to respect common sense and international law," Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday morning, "but if that doesn’t help, we can bomb not only the path [of a ship], but hit the target."

In its first public response since the incident, the Kremlin described the operation by HMS Defender as a “deliberate act of provocation”.

Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it would “not rule anything out... in the legal defence of Russian borders”.

Speaking with journalists in his daily briefing, Mr Peskov said Russia was “very worried” about the significance of such operations. They were, he claimed, “unacceptable and inconsistent” with international law.

The routing of HMS Defender from Ukraine to Georgia via a shipping channel off Cape Fiolent in Crimea on Wednesday has been the subject of claim and counterclaim.

Russia says it forcibly removed the British ship from its waters after firing warning shots and dropping highly explosive munitions from the air. The UK has refuted such claims, saying no such firing took place, and that the Defender was sailing in Ukrainian waters.

The essence of the dispute is the legal status of Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. Russia claims not only the land, but maritime territory around the peninsula.

In April, Moscow also announced it was closing much of those waters to foreign shipping in a move that has raised suspicions about its future military intentions.

Britain, like most of the international community, does not recognise Russia’s claims to Crimean waters. The royal navy was, in effect, asserting that interpretation in a freedom of navigation operation that was always likely to anger the Russians.

Jonathan Beale, a BBC journalist embedded on board the Defender confirmed that the operation was a "deliberate move," entering Crimean territorial waters to "defend a recognised international shipping lane."

The reporter conceded Russian forces had — not unexpectedly — taken a different view, with as many as 20 fighter jets hovering above the British ship at one point. He also seemed to confirm warning shots were fired by Russian coastguards, albeit supposedly out of range, contradicting official UK Ministry of Defence claims.

In comments to journalists, deputy foreign minister Ryabkov said such differences of opinion would have severe consequences in the future.

"The territorial integrity of the Russian Federation is inviolable, an absolute imperative," he said. "We will stand guard over all this by diplomatic and political, and, if necessary, military means."

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