Putin says Russia could have sunk UK warship, hits out at US

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an annual televised phone-in with the country's citizens dubbed "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin" at the Moscow's World Trade Center studio in Moscow on June 30, 2021. (PHOTO / AFP)

Russia's President Vladimir Putin accused the US of involvement in what he termed a “provocation” by a British destroyer in the Black Sea last week, while saying the Russian navy could have sunk the vessel without igniting a new world war.

Hours before the HMS Defender engaged in a stand-off with Russian ships and fighter jets off the coast of Crimea, a US reconnaissance plane took off from Greece to observe the Kremlin’s reaction, Putin told his annual “Direct Line” call-in show on Wednesday. The aim of the exercise was to test Russian defenses, he said.

“This provocation was full-scale, it was carried out not only by the British but by the Americans too,” he said. Still, “even if we sank this ship, it is difficult to imagine that the world would stand on the verge of a third world war” that the West knows it couldn’t win, he said.

This provocation was full-scale, it was carried out not only by the British but by the Americans too. Even if we sank this ship, it is difficult to imagine that the world would stand on the verge of a third world war.

Vladimir Putin, President, Russia

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The June 23 incident came a week after Putin’s summit meeting with US President Joe Biden aimed at de-escalating the worst tensions in years between Russia and the West. Russia said it used bombs and gunfire as “warning shots” to force the British vessel to leave waters it claims off the coast of Crimea.

The UK rejected that, saying the warship pursued its planned voyage along an international shipping route. Britain doesn’t recognize Crimea as Russian territory after Putin’s 2014 annexation of the strategic peninsula from Ukraine.

“At a minimum the Pentagon was aware of the British plan to sail through the contested area, so we can assume it was a joint operation,” said Igor Korotchenko, head of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow. Putin’s comments on sinking the warship reflect the “worst-case scenario,” he said.

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State television reported that Russians submitted 2.3 million questions for the show, which has been a fixture of Putin’s presidency since 2001.

State media said Putin answered 68 questions during the nearly four-hour marathon. 

The show took place as Russia reported record-high deaths in the past day from COVID-19 amid a resurgence in infections that has strained hospitals and pushed daily new cases above 20,000, the most since January.

Putin said he backs measures by Moscow and other regions to require vaccination for millions of state workers and employees in consumer-facing businesses, even as he ruled out ordering compulsory inoculation of the population.

“The actions of our colleagues in 10 regions are aimed at avoiding the need for a national lockdown,” Putin said.

He disclosed for the first time that he was inoculated with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine earlier this year, having previously refused to say which shot he took.