The Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied shots were fired by a Russian patrol boat towards Portsmouth-based HMS Defender and that a warplane dropped four high explosive fragmentation bombs in its path during its passage through the Black Sea.
The British ambassador Deborah Bronnert was later summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow after Russia accused the Type 45 destroyer of straying into its territorial waters.
But appearing before the Commons defence committee, defence secretary Ben Wallace insisted the ship had stuck throughout to an internationally recognised ‘traffic separation route’.
He acknowledged it had been ‘shadowed’ by Russian forces during its transit from Odessa in southern Ukraine towards Georgia but played down the incident saying it was ‘routine’ practice.
However, a BBC reporter aboard HMS Defender said at times there had been 20 Russian warplanes monitoring its progress and that the sound of gunfire had been heard, although it was believed to be out of range.
Defence correspondent Jonathan Beale said throughout its passage the crew had been on high alert, at one point donning their ‘white flash’ protective equipment in case there was an exchange of fire.
He said a Russian coastguard vessel had attempted to make it change course but it stayed with the recognised shipping lane and that even after it was past Crimea, Russian jets continued ‘buzzing’ it.
In a statement, the MoD said the shots heard by the crew appeared to have related to a gunnery exercise of which the Russians had given advance notice to the maritime community.
Mr Wallace said it was not the first time the Russians had made false claims about British warships operating in the area, having previously claimed to have ‘chased out’ another Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dragon.
‘These are the things that come and go with Russia. Disinformation, misinformation is something that we have seen regularly. We are not surprised by it,’ he said.
Dr Paul Flenley, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Portsmouth, said Russia had a ‘tradition’ of ‘exaggerating’ its military powers and use of them.
He said: ‘The narrative in Russia is that it’s a great power and wants to be seen as such. It’s really using its military to assert that.
‘It’s grand-standing really and posturing. And that they won’t be ignored. They want people to know they’re in the Black Sea and to show that they can use their military to protect it.’
In a statement reported by the Interfax news agency, the Russian Defence Ministry said: “The destroyer was warned in advance that weapons would be fired in case of a violation of the Russian state border. It disregarded the warning.
‘As a result of joint actions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Border Service of the Russian Federal Security Service, HMS Defender left the territorial sea of the Russian Federation.’
Admiral Lord Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy was not convinced by the statement and told The News: ‘I would hope the Russians wouldn’t have fired guns nearby or dropped bombs when a ship was exercising its right of innocent passage. That would be beyond the pale and I would be shocked.
‘But I’m afraid that if one looks at Russia’s behaviour over a number of years I’m much more likely to believe what HMS Defender and the MoD says happened than a Russian news agency. They have been guilty of false news.’