In a move that defence sources claim was a staged ploy of misinformation by the Russians, HMS Defender and its Dutch ally HNLMS Evertsen were recorded sailing straight for the military HQ in Sevastopol, southwest Crimea.
Alleged to have happened last weekend, automatic identification system (AIS) signals appeared to show the vessels – which form part of the UK’s carrier strike group – lurking about two nautical miles from the Russian naval hub.
But at the time, live-streamed footage from the Ukrainian port of Odessa – almost 200 miles to the north – showed both vessels alongside there.
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International relationship experts have claimed this ‘spoofed’ GPS data was part of a ‘narrative’ being constructed by Moscow ahead of its showdown with Defender on Wednesday morning.
The Portsmouth-based destroyer was swarmed by about 20 military jets and Russian coastguard vessels, who repeatedly demanded the ship to change course.
Footage captured by a BBC reporter on the £1bn guided-missile destroyer recorded the moment gun fire could be heard in the distance.
However, the Ministry of Defence said the fire was nothing more than a pre-planned gunnery exercise by the Russians, which it had warned the maritime community of in advance, and insisted no shots were fired near Defender, which passed through the Black Sea safely.
Speaking to The News, a spokesman from the Royal Navy added: ‘We are aware of manipulation of AIS tracking data at the weekend which indicated HMS Defender was at sea when she was actually alongside in Odesa. There was no operational impact on HMS Defender.
‘AIS is the International Maritime Organisation’s commercial global safety system for all marine traffic. Any manipulation could result in a serious incident.’
The situation has worried Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey, who said he found Russia’s recent actions deeply concerning.
Speaking to The News during a visit to Portsmouth today, the Labour MP said: ‘This is a matter of huge concern. The government has rightly identified Russia as our major threat, with its increasingly aggressive action - not just in the traditional and typical military fashion but continuous below-the-threshold disinformation and cyber warfare.
‘So the faking of the HMS Defender position by the Russians as part of a public relations propaganda relation exercise is part and parcel of what our forces have to face.’
Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and has occupied parts of the region, mostly in the Crimean peninsula, ever since.
The UK and other Nato allies do not recognise Ukraine as enemy-held territory and insist the the ship had the right to freely navigate through shipping channels there.
Dr Paul Flenley, an expert in international politics at the University of Portsmouth, said: ‘The situation around the invasion of Crimea was covered in all kinds of deceptions.
‘There were Russian forces masquerading as local militia at the time. It does not surprise me that they would try to employ tactics of misinformation to create their own narrative.’
HMS Defender is now on its way to rejoin the rest of the UK carrier strike group.