Dominic Raab raised concerns about the Ministry of Defence’s plans for a Royal Navy warship to sail through contested waters around Crimea this week, The Telegraph has learned.
The Foreign Secretary warned in advance that Moscow could seek to exploit HMS Defender’s voyage through the Black Sea under the route proposed by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, it is understood.
Defence sources claimed the decision was escalated to Downing Street for the Prime Minister to make the final call. Instructions were passed to the Type-45 Destroyer on Monday.
The discussions within Government show that risks were identified in the proposed mission, although all parties are said to have supported the right of a British warship to conduct a legal innocent passage through the sea.
A diplomatic row flared up between London and Moscow on Wednesday over the warship’s route within 12 miles of the Crimean shoreline.
Russia, riled by the presence of Nato navies in the Black Sea, claimed HMS Defender sailed through its territorial waters in a “provocation”.
Britain does not recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and considers the sea around the peninsula’s coast to be Ukranian territorial waters.
Regardless of the conflicting claims, international law allows for any vessel to travel through territorial waters if on a direct route between two points on “innocent passage”.
Mr Wallace highlighted to Parliament on Thursday that HMS Defender took such a “direct route using a traffic separation scheme” during the incident.
Boris Johnson also weighed in, declaring that HMS Defender was “entirely right” to voyage through the contested waters around Crimea.
The Prime Minister’s intervention came as Moscow threatened to retaliate if there was a repeat of the incident.
The Russian Government has accused the warship of a “dangerous move” and claimed Russian forces fired warning shots and dropped four bombs nearby as it came within the contested waters.
The Moscow authorities also summoned the UK defence attaché to receive a formal castigation on Wednesday, then released footage of the meeting, as well as a film shot from the cockpit of a military aircraft flying over the British warship.
Dramatic eyewitness reports from on board HMS Defender, seen here arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa, described Russian fighter jets buzzing the ship
Credit: Sergey Smolentsev/REUTERS
Downing Street rejected Russia’s characterisation of events at sea, insisting it was wrong to say firing shots were fired at the Royal Navy ship or that bombs were dropped in its path. No 10 also said Russia had provided advance warning of its plans for a “gunnery exercise” in the area.
Dramatic eyewitness reports from on board HMS Defender described Russian fighter jets buzzing the ship and two Russian coastguard vessels harassing it.
Mr Johnson on Thursday evaded confirming whether he had personally authorised HMS Defender’s voyage. Speaking to reporters at a barracks in Aldershot, he said: “These are a matter for the MoD but if you want my view I think it was wholly appropriate to use international waters.”
Freedom of navigation
He added: “It was entirely right that we should indicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did, take the shortest route between two points, and that’s what we did."
His official spokesman also refused to be drawn on whether Mr Johnson personally authorised the mission, telling reporters: “I’m not going to get into operational military decision-making.”
A defence source claimed that a “dust up” had erupted because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had raised concerns about HMS Defender sailing through contested waters.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov: 'We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law. If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target if colleagues don’t get it otherwise'
Credit: Marat Abulkhatin/TASS via Getty Images
The insider told The Telegraph: “The whole dispute was between Raab and Wallace, then it went to the PM for a decision. The decision was sent to Defender on Monday that she was to take innocent passage through those waters.”
Whitehall insiders on Thursday night insisted there had been no disagreements within Government over the proposed mission and suggestions to the contrary were “unfounded”.
An MoD source said: “We are all one big happy family.” An FCDO source said Mr Raab “is supportive of HMS Defender’s right of innocent passage through Ukrainian waters”.
A Government spokesman said the warship’s route was “long planned and entirely in accordance with international law”, adding: “The route taken was the most direct, via an internationally recognised route between Ukraine and Georgia.”
‘We may drop bombs’
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said on Thursday that “the inviolability of the Russian borders is an absolute imperative”, adding that it will be protected “by all means, diplomatic, political and military if needed”.
Asked what Russia would do if a similar episode happened again, he said: “We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law.
“If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target if colleagues don’t get it otherwise.”
Tensions in UK-Russia relations simmered this week just as France and Germany were reported to be seeking to build bridges between the European Union and Moscow.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was “a matter for Germany and France”, but added: “We would obviously support engagement with Russia in order to deliver tough messages and encourage a change in their behaviour.”
Tobias Ellwood: UK becoming ‘risk averse’
'The South China Sea, the Black Sea, the Arctic, all require constant patrolling so that civilian vessels feel safe to use them as they are legally permitted to'
Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Meanwhile, Tobias Ellwood has warned the UK is becoming “risk averse” as he called on the Royal Navy to have a larger surface fleet, writes Danielle Sheridan.
The former defence minister told The Telegraph there was international “determination to step forward and challenge contested waters” around the world, although he cautioned the Navy was too small in size to carry out such a gargantuan task.
“The South China Sea, the Black Sea, the Arctic, all require constant patrolling so that civilian vessels feel safe to use them as they are legally permitted to,” Mr Ellwood said.
However, he cautioned that to do so the Navy needed to “double the size of our vessels”, as failing to do so leaves the force “overstretched”.
Mr Ellwood said it was “so important that the West starts to regroup” as he cautioned that the UK has become “risk averse”.
The Telegraph previously revealed that HMS Queen Elizabeth would not be sailing through the contested Taiwan Straits on her operational maiden voyage.
Speaking to the Today programme Mr Ellwood said while he did not believe the aircraft carrier should sail through those waters, he did believe the Navy should send a destroyer in order to stand up to China.
It comes as a former United Nations commander warned Britain has "cut off our nose to spite our face" by reducing the number of British soldiers in the Integrated Review. Conservative MP Bob Stewart, who led peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, condemned the Government’s move to cut the size of the Army by 10,000 to 72,500 soldiers by 2025.
Speaking in the Commons on Thursday afternoon, Mr Ellwood said: "The ability to seize and hold ground, to separate warring factions, to deliver humanitarian aid, to assist with civil authorities – such as tackling Covid-19 – to win over hearts and minds, to restore law and order and to respond to natural disasters, and to carry out countless other diverse tasks, that requires people, it requires professionals, it requires soldiers, sailors and air personnel, and it’s wrong to reduce those numbers."
Mr Stewart said he entirely agreed with Mr Ellwood, adding: "What we need, and we have operation after operation, is manpower. We’ve just cut it by 10,000.
"I can tell you having commanded soldiers on the ground in peacekeeping, we have actually cut off our nose to spite our face.
"We require boots on the ground, we require soldiers and I entirely endorse what he [Mr Ellwood] has said."