Ben Wallace – 2021 Statement on Exercises in the Black Sea

The statement made by Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 24 June 2021.

On Wednesday 23 June 2021, HMS Defender (a Type 45 destroyer), left the Ukrainian port of Odessa en route to the Georgian port of Batumi in the Black sea. HMS Defender conducted innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters via a direct route using a traffic separation scheme (TSS), as is the right of the United Kingdom (and all nations) under international maritime law. This TSS is governed by the International Maritime Organisation and is designed to assist vessels in safely transiting congested waterways. The United Kingdom does not recognise any Russian claim to these waters, nor do we recognise the assertion from the Russian Ministry of Defence that HMS Defender was in violation of the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS).

At 0950 BST, HMS Defender entered the TSS, inside Ukrainian territorial waters. At 1000 BST, a Russian coastguard vessel warned that Russian units would shortly commence a live fire gunnery exercise. At 1008 BST, HMS Defender noted gunnery astern and out of range of her position. This posed no danger to HMS Defender. During her transit, HMS Defender was overflown by Russian combat aircraft at varying heights, the lowest of which was approximately 500 feet. These aircraft posed no immediate threat to HMS Defender, but some of these manoeuvres were neither safe nor professional. HMS Defender responded by VHF radio to the Russian units on several occasions and was, at all times, courteous and professional.

HMS Defender maintained a safe course throughout her innocent passage, on one occasion manoeuvring to avoid a hazard presented by a Russian coastguard vessel before re-assuming her intended course. HMS Defender completed the passage safely and in accordance with her intended route, departed Ukrainian territorial waters at 1026 BST. At no point were warning shots fired at HMS Defender, nor bombs dropped in her path as has been asserted by the Russian authorities.

Later on Wednesday 23 June 2021, the United Kingdom’s defence attaché was invited to a meeting in the Russian Ministry of Defence at which he received a note verbale. This will be considered and addressed in due course.

Under Article 19 of UNCLOS, HMS Defender had the right to exercise innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in the manner she did without giving any notice of her intention to do so. This is a right the United Kingdom affords to Russia and other states in the context of the UK’s territorial waters, including the Dover TSS in the English channel.

The Royal Navy, as well as other NATO and partner nations, have enjoyed a routine maritime presence in the Black sea for many years. At the time of this interaction, there were both Dutch and US warships operating elsewhere within the Black sea. The Royal Navy’s presence is about co-operating with our partners and allies to advance regional security, stability and freedom of navigation.

HMS Defender continues with her planned deployment and programme of visits. The Royal Navy will always uphold international law and will not accept unlawful interference with innocent passage.