Moscow: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that a US reconnaissance aircraft was operating in sync with a British destroyer during last week's Black Sea incident in what he described as a “provocation” to test Moscow's response.
Moscow said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of British destroyer Defender on June 23 to force it out of an area near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Britain denied that account, insisted its ship wasn't fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
Asked if the incident could have triggered World War III, Putin said that it was hardly possible even if Russia had sunk the British warship because Western powers knew they couldn't emerge as winners in a global conflict.
Speaking during a live call-in show, Putin said that the US aircraft's apparent mission was to monitor the Russian military's response to the British destroyer. He added that Moscow was aware of the US intentions and responded accordingly to avoid revealing sensitive data.
In Wednesday's incident, Britain insisted the Defender had been making a routine journey through an internationally recognised travel lane and remained in Ukrainian waters near Crimea. The UK, like most of the world, recognises Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula's 2014 annexation by Russia.
Russia denounced the Defender's move as a provocation and warned that next time it could fire to hit intruding warships if they again try to test Russian military resolve.
Relations with Ukraine
Responding to a question about Russia's tug-of-war with Ukraine, Putin emphasised his long-held claim of close kinship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but accused the Ukrainian leadership of maintaining a hostile course toward Russia.
The Russian president spent most of the marathon call-in show speaking on domestic issues.
He voiced hope that the country could avoid a nationwide lockdown amid a surge of new infections. Putin argued that decisions by local authorities in a number of regions who made vaccination mandatory for some workers should help contain the new wave of infections and avoid a lockdown.
The “actions of our colleagues in certain regions are aimed at avoiding the need for a lockdown, when entire enterprises shut down and people are left without their jobs, without their salaries,'' Putin said.
Sputnik V for Putin
He also revealed that he chose Sputnik V - the domestically developed coronavirus vaccine Russia hailed as the first in the world to be authorised for use - for his vaccination. 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 domestically developed ones available at the time he chose.
The Russian president 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 against the virus. He added that he initially didn't name the vaccine he took to avoid offering an advantage to its maker
Russia gave Spuntik V regulatory approval last August and faced criticism both at home and abroad, as the shot had only been tested on a few dozen people at the time. However, the criticism has been blunted by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet this year that said large-scale testing showed it to be safe, with an efficacy rate of 91% against the virus.
Surge in infections
Russia has struggled to cope with a surge in infections and
deaths in recent weeks that comes amid rather slow vaccination rates. Coronavirus deaths in Russia hit a new daily record Wednesday, with the authorities reporting 669 new deaths.
Russia has been registering over 20,000 new coronavirus cases and around 600 deaths every day since last Thursday. 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 necessary precautions, the growing prevalence of more infectious variants and low vaccine uptake, which experts attribute to widespread vaccine hesitancy and limited 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.
Russia's coronavirus task force has reported more than 5.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the pandemic and 135,214 deaths.
‘Vaccination should be voluntary’
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, such as government offices, retail, health care, education, restaurants and other services. The move has helped speed up the pace of vaccinations.
While reaffirming his position that vaccination should be voluntary, Putin emphasised that the decisions by local authorities were based on law and necessary to prevent tougher measures.
Putin noted that some people still get infected with COVID-19 even after being immunised, but emphasised that the disease takes a milder course.
Along with his annual marathon news conference, carefully choreographed call-in shows are intended to cast Putin as a strong leader caring about people's daily needs and attentive to their problems. Most of the questions asked related to the pandemic, social payments, rising consumer prices and other domestic issues. Overall, more than 2 million questions were sent to the show's hotline.
Key remarks from Russian President Putin's annual phone-in
ON GETTING VACCINATED AGAINST COVID-19
"I thought that I needed to be protected as long as possible. So I chose to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. The military is getting vaccinated with Sputnik V, and after all I'm the commander-in-chief."
ON UKRAINIAN COUNTERPART VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY
"Why should I meet with Zelenskiy if he has given up his country to full external control? Vital issues for Ukraine are not resolved in Kyiv, but in Washington and partly in Berlin and Paris. What is there to discuss? I'm not refusing (to meet him), I just need to understand what to talk about."
ON BRITISH NAVY DESTROYER IN BLACK SEA
"This is of course a provocation. That's absolutely clear. What did they want to show and which goals did they want to achieve? First of all, it (the provocation) had several components. It was not only carried out by the British but also the Americans, because the British destroyer entered our territorial waters during the day, and early in the morning, at 7:30, I think an American strategic reconnaissance aircraft flew out of a NATO military in Greece, in Crete. This was reported to me... We saw it well, observed it. It was clear that the destroyer (entered our waters) first of all to pursue military goals, attempting with the help of the reconnaissance aircraft to reveal the actions of our military to stop such provocations..."
"There was also a political component. A meeting (with US President Joe Biden) had just taken place in Geneva. One must ask why it was necessary to carry out such a provocation. Why is all this being done? In order to emphasize that these people do not respect the choice of Crimeans to join the Russian Federation."
"Even if we had sunk the British destroyer near Crimea it is unlikely that the world would have been on the verge of World War Three. Because I know that those who do this cannot emerge victorious from this war. This is very important. I don't think that we would have been happy with that development... But at least we know what we are fighting for. We are on our territory, we fight for ourselves, for our future. We were not the ones to go to them, flying thousands of kilometres and arriving by waterways. They were the ones who came to our borders and violated our territorial waters."
ON FOREIGN SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS
"We don't plan on blocking anyone, we plan to work with them. But there are problems. They tell us to buzz off and don't comply with our demands and Russian laws."
"We tell them 'you are spreading child pornography, instructions on how to commit suicide and prepare Molotov cocktails and so on, you need to take that down.' They don't even listen to what we are saying. This is wrong."
"We have to suppress inflation, which is why the central bank slightly raised the key rate for there not to be an excess supply of money in the economy. I hope that inflation will return to the 4% target but we are unlikely to achieve that this year. I think it will reach 5%."