Putin's forces warn Royal Navy: Bring your ships near Crimea again and your sailors will get hurt
A senior Russian security official tonight warned Britain not to sail its warships near Russian-annexed Crimea again unless it wanted its sailors to get hurt.
The warning, issued by Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, follows an incident in which Russia fired warning shots at HMS Defender off the coast of Crimea.
The British warship, a Type 45 Destroyer, exercised what London said were internationally recognised freedom of navigation rules in Ukrainian territorial waters.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and says the waters around it belong to Moscow now - despite most countries continuing to recognise the peninsula as Ukrainian.
It protested strongly against the British move at the time with a coastguard vessel firing warning shots and summoned the British ambassador for an explanation.
Popov, in an interview in the state Rossiiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, said Britain's behaviour and its subsequent reaction to the incident was 'bewildering'.
In particular, he criticised suggestions from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, the foreign minister, that the incident could be repeated.
'Similar actions will be thwarted with the harshest methods in future by Russia regardless of the violator's state allegiance. We suggest our opponents think hard about whether it's worth organizing such provocations given the capabilities of Russia's armed forces,' said Popov.
'It's not the members of the British government who will be in the ships and vessels used for provocational ends,' he added.
'And it's in that context that I want to ask a question of the same Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab - what will they say to the families of the British sailors who will get hurt in the name of such 'great' ideas?'.
His comments come following a similar warning by Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov.
He warned British warships could be bombed the next time they sail too close to Crimea following the incident involving HMS Destryoer.
The British Type 45 destroyer sailed within the 12-mile limit of Crimea near Cape Fiolent in the Black Sea.
After the flashpoint, which saw 20 Su-24s buzzing over the Royal Navy vessel, Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov warned: 'What can we do? We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law.
'If this does not help, we can bomb not only in the direction but also on target, if our colleagues do not understand.
'I warn everyone violating the state borders of the Russian Federation under the slogan of free navigation, from such provocative steps, because the security of our country comes first.'
Backing up his comments, the Kremlin said Moscow that would respond harshly to any similar actions in the future and warned against any further 'provocations'.
Despite their warnings, British minister George Eustice said 'of course' Royal Navy ships will continue to sail through the disputed waters around Crimea, saying: 'We never accepted the annexation of Crimea, these were Ukrainian territorial waters.'
Meanwhile Britain's Chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, admitted there is a prospect of an engagement flaring up with Britain's 'dangerous game' of sailing in disputed waters.
The former Defence Secretary told BBC 4: 'There's huge scope for an accident to occur, misinterpretation, leading to an actual kinetic engagement and it could be a bit of time before somebody grabs that red phone and calms things down.'
Britain has denied the Russian version, and insists HMS Defender was either in Ukrainian or international waters at all times.
Many Western countries do not accept Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea by military force as being legitimate in law.
Speaking in the aftermath of the incident last month, cabinet minister George Eustice told Sky News: 'Under international law you can take the closest, fastest route from one point to another. HMS Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters, I think on the way to Georgia, and that was the logical route for it to take.
'This is a very normal thing, it's quite common actually. What was actually going on is the Russians were doing a gunnery exercise, they had given prior notice of that, they often do in that area.
'So, I think it's important people don't get carried away.'
Asked if the Government would do it again, he said 'of course, yes', adding: 'We never accepted the annexation of Crimea, these were Ukrainian territorial waters.'
He said while the gunner exercise was the 'official reason' given for the Russian activities, 'whether that was cover for them to try and make some point, we don't know'.
'Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn't,' he told ITV's Good Morning Britain.
Won by conquest, given away as a 'gift', now occupied by force: Russia's history in Crimea and the Black Sea
The Black Sea - and the Crimean peninsula which juts into it - are a strategic crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia which has been contested by Empires and nations for centuries.
The sea itself contains vital trading routes, is bordered by five of Russia's near-neighbours, and today hosts vital energy pipelines and fibre optic cables.
For Russia to assert power in the waters, control of Crimea - which contains its main Black Sea port at Sevastopol and controls the Kerch Strait leading to the nearby Sea of Azov - is essential.
Crimea has, at one time or another, come under the control of the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans.
It was not until 1783 that it fell fully under the control of the Russian Empire when Russian generals Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kamensky led a force of 8,000 men to victory against an Ottoman army of 40,000 at the the Battle of Kozludzha.
Russia's Prince Grigory Potemkin quickly established the Russian Black Sea Fleet at the port of Sevastopol, from where he asserted naval power over the Black Sea, it neighbours including Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey, and projected power further into the Mediterranean.
Crimea also turned into a key trading post. On the eve of World War 1 in 1914 - some 50 per cent of all Russia's exports and a full 90 per cent of its agricultural exports passed through Bosphorus Strait which leads out of the Black Sea.
In 1954 Crimea was given as a 'gift' by Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine, ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's merger with Tsarist Russia, but more likely to secure Ukraine's support for Khrushchev's leadership and to cement Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union.
Because Ukraine was then part of the Union, Moscow maintained control over Crimea and its vital ports - at least until 1991 when the union collapsed and Ukraine became and independent county.
Following Ukraine's independence, access to the peninsula became a bargaining chip between the two nations, with Ukraine recognising Russia's right to the port at Sevastopol in return for concessions such as writing off debts and taking control of part of the Black Sea fleet.
But in 2014, the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a popular uprising that wanted to draw the country closer to Europe.
Fearing the loss of the port at Sevastopol, Putin marched troops into Crimea and seized control of it - later holding a 'referendum' which showed majority support for the region to become part of Russia, though the result is viewed as far from credible.
Today, Moscow is in control of the peninsula and refers to it as part of its territory, though most world bodies refer to the region as 'occupied Crimea'.
The Black Sea Fleet remains one of Russia's largest and most formidable, thought to comprise a total of 47 ships, seven submarines and 25,000 troops, mostly marines.