MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that an incident involving a British destroyer in the Black Sea couldn’t have triggered a global conflict even if Russia had sunk the warship because the West knows it can’t win such a war.
Speaking in a marathon call-in show, Putin also revealed that he received the domestically produced Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine and urged Russians to get vaccinated as the country battles a devastating surge of cases and deaths amid widespread hesitancy to get the shot.
Putin was asked about the June 23 incident in the Black Sea, in which Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of Britain’s HMS Defender to force it from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters. He said a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft had also joined what he described as a “provocation” to test Russia’s response.
Britain, which like most other nations didn’t recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, insisted the Defender wasn’t fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters. The U.S. Defense Department had no immediate comment on Putin’s claim that one of its aircraft was operating in concert with the British ship.
Asked if the events could have triggered a global war, Putin responded that the West wouldn’t risk a full-scale conflict.
“Even if we sank that ship, it wouldn’t put the world on the brink of World War III because those who do it know that they can’t emerge as winners in that war, and it’s very important,” Putin said. The statement followed Russian officials’ warning that if a Western warship enters the waters again, the military could fire on it.
Putin charged that the U.S. aircraft’s apparent mission was to monitor the Russian military’s response to the British destroyer.
“It was clearly a provocation, a complex one involving not only the British but also the Americans,” he said, adding that Moscow was aware of the U.S. intentions and responded accordingly to avoid revealing sensitive data.
The Russian leader lamented that the move closely followed his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva this month.
“The world is undergoing a radical change,” he said. “Our U.S. partners realize that, and that’s why the Geneva meeting took place. But on the other hand, they are trying to secure their monopolist stance, resulting in threats and destructive action such as drills, provocations and sanctions.”
Putin insisted that Russia would firmly defend its interests.
“We are fighting for ourselves and our future on our own territory,” he said. “It’s not us who traveled thousands of kilometers (miles) to come to them; it’s them who have come to our borders and violated our territorial waters.”
He reaffirmed his claim of a close kinship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but accused the leadership in Kyiv of hostility toward Russia and voiced doubt about the value of a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, describing him as a Western pawn.
“Why meet Zelenskyy if he has put his country under full foreign control and key issues for Ukraine are decided not in Kyiv but in Washington, and, to a certain extent, Paris and Berlin?” Putin asked.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba retorted by tweeting that Putin wishes Ukraine’s issues were decided in Moscow. “This is our country and it’s only up to us to decide our fate,” he added.
Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv it could intervene if it used force to reclaim areas in the east controlled by Russia-backed separatists since a conflict there erupted in 2014. Moscow later pulled back some of its troops, but Ukrainian authorities said the bulk of them remain close to the border.
Putin spent most of the four-hour “Direct Line” show discussing domestic issues — typical for the tightly choreographed annual rite that helps him polish his image as a strong leader caring for people’s needs. It didn’t feature any questions about Russia’s beleaguered opposition and Putin’s most prominent political foe, Alexei Navalny, who is in prison.
He voiced hope the country could avoid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown amid a surge of new infections. Reported deaths in Russia hit a daily record Wednesday, with authorities reporting 669, but Putin argued that decisions by local officials in regions who made vaccination mandatory for some workers should help contain the surge.
Russia has been registering over 20,000 new coronavirus cases and around 600 deaths every day since June 24. On Wednesday, 21,042 new infections were recorded.
Russian officials have blamed the surge, which started in early June, on Russians’ lax attitude toward taking precautions, the growing prevalence of more infectious variants and low vaccinations, which experts attribute to widespread hesitancy to get the shot and limited vaccine production capacity. Although Russia was among the first countries to announce and deploy a coronavirus vaccine, just over 15% of the population has received at least one shot.
Amid this hesitancy, Putin revealed that he received the Sputnik V vaccine. Putin got his first coronavirus shot in late March out of the public eye and has remained tight-lipped about which vaccine out of three developed in Russia that were available at the time he chose.
He said he wasn’t consulting with his doctors about this but rather looked at choices his acquaintances made, and went for Sputnik V, as it provided the longest protection. He added that he initially didn’t name the vaccine he took to avoid offering an advantage to its maker.
Amid the surge, about 20 Russian regions — from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the remote far-eastern region of Sakhalin — have made vaccinations mandatory this month for employees in certain sectors.
While reaffirming his position that vaccinations should be voluntary, Putin emphasized that the decisions by local authorities were based on law and “aimed at avoiding the need for a lockdown, when entire enterprises shut down and people are left without their jobs, without their salaries.”
On other issues, Putin said Russia has no intention of banning Western social media platforms but emphasized that the government merely wants them to abide by the law, promptly remove inappropriate content and open offices in Russia.
Earlier this year, officials levied heavy fines on social media platforms over their alleged failure to remove banned content such as child pornography, information about drugs and calls for protests as they sought to pressure them to heed the demands.
“We tell them: ‘You’re spreading child pornography, or instructions on (how to commit) suicide, or how to create Molotov cocktails. … You must take it down,’ and they simply don’t listen, don’t want to listen to what we tell them,” Putin said. “But this is wrong.”