Russian forces could sink a British warship without triggering a “world war,” according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who predicted Moscow would prevail if shooting broke out.
“You said the world teetered on the brink of a world war. No, of course not,” Putin said during an annual question-and-answer session moderated by state media. “Even if we had sunk that ship, it would still be difficult to imagine that this would have put the world on the brink of WWIII, since those who are doing this, they know that they cannot emerge victorious from this war.”
Putin adopted that tone in an apparent effort to downplay fears of a conflict while maintaining an aggressive posture in a controversy over the United Kingdom’s deployment of a destroyer to the Black Sea. Russian officials claimed to have fired warning shots and even dropped bombs near the vessel, but the U.K. countered that Moscow was lying about an uneventful encounter.
“I don’t think that we would have been happy, either, with this development, but at least we would know what we were fighting for — our territory and our future,” Putin said, acknowledging the Kremlin also doesn’t want a real war. “We were not the ones who came to them from thousands of kilometers away. They came to our borders.”
British officials sent the HMS Defender to the waters off the coast of Crimea as a show of support for Ukraine, which lost control of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 when Russian special forces invaded and annexed the territory. Putin touts a subsequent referendum as proof that the Crimean people voted to leave Ukraine, but U.S. and European officials reject that vote as an “illegal” fig leaf for an unprovoked war of conquest.
“We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a report to British lawmakers. “No shots were directed at HMS Defender, and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.”
Putin’s government is trying to strike a tough pose as the United States and Ukraine co-host a major annual naval drill in the Black Sea. “Though dramatic this Russian sparring is par of the course,” British lawmaker Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defense committee, wrote on social media. “But this intimidation is as much about fueling a dis-information campaign … & getting us to talk about Putin than a genuine escalation in hostilities.”
Russian officials published updates on submarine “combat training” in the Black Sea in response to the U.S. and European exercises. Putin, for his part, claimed that the HMS Defender was working in conjunction with the U.S. on a surveillance mission to test Russian responses.
“It was comprehensive and was staged not only by the British but also by the Americans because the British warship ventured into our territorial waters in the afternoon while early in the morning, at 07:30, a U.S. strategic reconnaissance plane took off from a NATO airfield in Greece, from Crete, I believe,” he said. “It was obvious that the destroyer intruded in pursuit of military aims, trying to find out with the help of a reconnaissance plane what our armed forces’ countermeasures to this sort of provocations might be. … Possibly, I’ve blabbed out a secret, my apologies to the military.”
The Western naval drills come on the heels of a major Russian military buildup that raised the specter of a new major invasion into Ukraine, which has been embroiled in a Russian-led conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
“Ukraine already has an eastern border they have to defend, and Russia has recently sent over 100,000 troops to that region, including equipment, which would indicate that they have designs to come back since they left the equipment there, and now they have to worry about their northern border as well,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on June 9.
Putin, however, protested that Western officials should have been gratified by Russia’s drawdown. “But instead of reacting to this positively and saying: ‘Good, we have seen your response to our anger,’ what did they do? They showed up on our borders,” he complained.
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke