Vladimir Putin on ‘Direct Line’ today: HMS Defender and the start of WWIII

Vladimir Putin’s annual “Direct Line” television program in which he takes questions addressed to him from the Russian public via their audio-video apps was held today.  As usual, it received a great deal of promotion on all state television channels days in advance. As usual, a special Kremlin call center received and analyzed questions sent beforehand so as to get a firm idea of which questions were most common and so select from among them for the live session today.

Otherwise, the format was changed, perhaps most significantly in that both moderators sitting on either side of Putin were women.  That was surely a calculated decision corresponding to the predominantly domestic – family budget nature of the incoming questions from the audience.  Big economic or foreign policy questions would be only a minor part of the planned program.

However, the organizers were very kind to international observers, like me, whom they knew had little interest in the local community or home economics side of the Direct Line questions.  Accordingly, less than 30 minutes into the program we heard exactly the question pitched to Vladimir Vladimirovich which made it worthwhile for us to tune in.  He was asked whether the clash with the cruiser HMS Defender inside Russian territorial waters off the coast of Crimea could have touched off World War III.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Putin said “no,” there was no such chance. Then he went on to give information about the event which had not previously come out in Russian media and which puts much of the commentary that has appeared in the West, even from highly experienced if not cynical observers, in a new light.

Specifically, he said that the event had both military and political dimensions.  On the military side, there was the fact that the British cruiser’s misadventure came hours after the United States completed a reconnaissance flight over the area via a spy plane based in Greece. The Russians followed that plane from start to finish, noted what information it was tasked to extract about the preparedness and operating efficiency of Russian coastal defenses and, said Putin with a mischievous smile, “we fed them what was their due.”

The British naval mission was, on the other hand, strictly political, to demonstrate non-acceptance of the referendum which Russian authorities held before the union of Crimea with the Russian Federation in 2014 and so to reject Russian rule in Crimea and its coastal waters.

Putin went on to say that there was no chance of this confrontation touching off World War III, even if the Russians had sunk the Defender.  Why?  Because “they knew it would be a war they could not win.” Turning around Putin’s phrasing from diplomatic to Realpolitik language:  “because they knew it was a war they would lose.”

There are several interesting points here.  First, we note the Russian leader’s unhesitating confidence in Russian strategic superiority over the Collective West and his belief that they ‘get it.’  Second, we see the involvement of Washington in this mission from the get-go.  The advice to the U.S. government a couple of days ago by none other than Pat Buchanan that they make clear to Britain it would not enjoy U.S. protection if this provocation ended badly for them was advice that missed entirely the reality of who is calling the shots. Third, this incident puts in question the ability of Biden to override the Russophobes in his administration and in Congress and negotiate successfully a new strategic deal with Russia that puts an end to dreams of executing a first nuclear strike and enshrines Mutually Assured Destruction once again.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021