Johnson said Putin made the remarks during a “very long” and “extraordinary” call in early February last year, as Russian troops were massing along the Ukraine border. Johnson, who was prime minister at the time, had recently visited Kyiv to show Western support for Ukraine.
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“He sort of threatened me at one point and said, ‘Boris, I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile, it would only take a minute,’ or something like that. You know… jolly,” Johnson said.
Russia has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, including longer-range missiles, but Johnson suggested that he didn’t regard Putin’s comments as a serious threat.
“From the relaxed tone that he was taking, the sort of air of detachment that he seemed to have, he was just playing along with my attempts to get him to negotiate,” Johnson said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin threatened Johnson with a missile attack and said that the former prime minister was either deliberately not telling the truth, or had misunderstood the Russian president.
“It’s a lie, there were no threats of missiles,” he told reporters during a press briefing. “Speaking about challenges to the security of the Russian Federation, President Putin noted that if Ukraine joined NATO the potential deployment of NATO or American missiles near our borders would mean that any missile would reach Moscow in minutes. If this passage was perceived in this way, it is very embarrassing,” he said.
For his part, Johnson said that in the conversation, he had warned Putin that tougher sanctions would follow if there was an invasion and that it would bolster Western support for Ukraine, resulting in “more NATO, not less NATO” on Russia’s borders.
“He said, ‘Boris, you say that Ukraine is not going to join NATO any time soon. … What is any time soon?’ and I said, ‘Well it’s not going to join NATO for the foreseeable future. You know that perfectly well,’” Johnson recalled of the exchange. Three weeks after their call, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Johnson has sought to position himself as one of Ukraine’s most outspoken supporters. He made a surprise visit to Kyiv just over a week ago — despite having no official role in the British government after being ousted from office in September after a string of scandals — and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, pledging that Britain would “stick by Ukraine as long as it takes.”
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In separate comments from excerpts of the documentary “Putin vs the West,” set to air Monday evening, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also spoke about exchanges with Russian officials during a visit to Moscow in February last year.
Referring to conversations with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the military’s General Staff, he said: “I remember saying to Minister Shoigu ‘they will fight,’ and he said, ‘my mother is Ukrainian, they won’t!’ He also said he had no intention of invading.”
“That would be ‘vran’e’ in the Russian language. ‘Vran’e’ I think is sort of a demonstration of bullying or strength: I’m going to lie to you. You know I’m lying. I know you know I’m lying, and I’m still going to lie to you. He knew I knew, and I knew he knew. But I think it was about saying: I’m powerful.
“It was the fairly chilling but direct lie of what they were not going to do that I think to me confirmed they were going to do it. I remember as we were walking out, Gen. Gerasimov said, ‘Never again will we be humiliated. We used to be the fourth army in the world, we’re now number two. It’s now America and us.’ And there in that minute was that sense of potentially why [they were doing this].”
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.