Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that a US reconnaissance aircraft was operating in sync with a British destroyer last week when the ship sailed through the Black Sea 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 Britain's Defender on June 23 to force it from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters. Britain insisted its ship wasn't fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
The episode was the latest to raise tensions between Russia and the West since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move not recognised by most countries but one that gives it access to a long Black Sea coast.
The US Defence Department had no immediate comment Wednesday on Putin's claim that one of its aircraft was with the British ship last week.
Asked if the events could have triggered World War III, 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 during his annual live call-in show when Russians ask him questions.
Russian officials have warned that if a Western warship enters the waters again, the military could fire to hit. Since it annexed Crimea, Russia has chafed at NATO warships visiting the area as destabilizing.
Britain has insisted the Defender was making a routine journey through an internationally recognized travel lane and remained in Ukrainian waters. The U.K., like most of the world, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula's annexation by Russia.
Putin charged that the US 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 US President Joe Biden in Geneva earlier this month. “Why would they make such provocations?” he said.
Putin insisted that Russia would firmly defend its territory.
“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.”
Putin emphasised that Moscow is concerned about NATO troops coming to Ukraine for training, reaffirming that a permanent Western military presence on the Ukrainian territory would challenge Russia's vital interests and represent a red line.
He also reiterated, as he often does, that there is a close kinship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but accused the Ukrainian leadership of being hostile towards Russia. Putin expressed 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.
Earlier this year, Russia beefed up its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene if they tried to use force to reclaim the areas in the east controlled by Russia-backed separatists since conflict there erupted in 2014. Moscow later pulled back some of its troops, but the Ukrainian authorities said that the bulk of them have remained close to the border.
The Russian president spent most of the four-hour marathon call-in show speaking about domestic issues — as is typical for the tightly choreographed annual rite that helps Putin polish the image of a strong leader caring for people's needs. It didn't feature any questions about Russia's beleaguered opposition and the most prominent of Putin's political foes, Alexei Navalny, who is in prison.