The details of last week's Royal Navy HMS Defender incident near Crimea in the Black Sea which saw "warning shots" fired by the Russian side continue to be shrouded in mystery and accusations and counter-accusations between the Kremlin and the West.
On Wednesday Russian President Vladimir Putin inserted a new bombshell allegation regarding the dangerous June 23 encounter which could have sparked open conflict. During a live call-in news show, an annual tradition where the Russian leader fields ordinary citizens' direct questions, Putin said that a US reconnaissance aircraft was present during the incident.
Putin slammed the "provocation" which he said both the UK and US were behind, but at the same time downplayed a questioner's assertion it could have led to WWIII. "Even if we sank that ship, it wouldn’t put the world on the brink of World War III because those who do it know that they can’t emerge as winners in that war, and it’s very important," the Russian president explained.
He charged for the first time that the American military was also involved in a reconnaissance capacity, according to the Associated Press:
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was operating in sync with a British destroyer last week when the ship sailed through the Black Sea...
Putin charged that the U.S. aircraft’s apparent mission was to monitor the Russian military’s response to the British destroyer.
"It was clearly a provocation, a complex one involving not only the British but also the Americans," he said, adding that Moscow was aware of the U.S. intentions and responded accordingly to avoid revealing sensitive data.
To recount, during the incident Russia fired "warning shots" from a patrol boat and dropped bombs from an attack aircraft to deter the British Navy destroyer, which may have breached Russian waters.
Footage of Russian Black Sea Fleet and Border Service of the Federal Security Service's prevention of the breach of the Russian Federation state border committed by the UK Navy destroyer «Defender» pic.twitter.com/4VnAlMjK4Y— Минобороны России (@mod_russia) June 23, 2021
Below is a timeline of what happened that Wednesday afternoon:
- At 1152 local time, HMS Defender sailed across "the Russian border and entered the territorial sea at Cape Fiolent for three kilometers," RIA said.
- Around 1206 and 1208, the Russian patrol ship fired warning shots. The Defender failed to heed radio warnings after it entered Russia's territorial waters off Crimea.
- After nine minutes, a Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft dropped four bombs in waters near the British vessel. The Defender then reversed course after the bombing and exited the area.
- Reuters noted the Su-24 dropped "four high explosive fragmentation bombs as a warning in the British destroyer's path."
The incident area occurred south of Russia's naval base in Sevastopol, and there's since been controversy over whether the UK ship violated Russia's sovereign waters.
So far in he hours after Putin's allegations of US indirect involvement via the reconnaissance aircraft, the Pentagon has neither confirmed nor denied. "The Hill has reached out to the Pentagon for comment on Putin’s claim of U.S. involvement in last week’s incident," one report notes.
AIS data shows that HMS Defender was at it's closest around 10 nautical miles (18.5km/11.5mi) from the Crimean coast. The UN state that territorial waters can be up to 12 nautical miles. This would put HMS Defender 2 nautical miles or 3.7km inside 'Russian' waters around Crimea. pic.twitter.com/nLUZ96Qs04— Kyle Glen (@KyleJGlen) June 23, 2021
It's unlikely that the US would divulge what was undoubtedly a classified mission, however. Given the likelihood of US involvement, the whole incident shows just how close Russia and the West are to a war footing, given also the ramped up levels of rival military drills in the region.