LONDON — Former British prime minister Boris Johnson says Russian President Vladimir Putin personally threatened him with a missile attack in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a claim quickly denied by the Kremlin.
Johnson said Putin made the remarks during a “very long” and “most 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 been in Kyiv the previous day to show Western support for Ukraine.
“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 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.
Johnson is a master at seizing the limelight — in this instance, he made sure to let everyone know that Putin had singled him out personally as a target — and his critics say his words should be taken with a pinch of salt given his track record for embellishing or evading the truth.
Whether it was as a columnist writing half-truths about the European Union or later as prime minister giving his version of the pandemic parties at Downing Street — for which he’s under investigation — Johnson has earned a reputation.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin threatened Johnson with a missile attack and said 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,” Peskov 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.
There was no mention of a missile threat in the official statement issued by Downing Street after the call.
Johnson said that in the Feb. 2 conversation, he had warned Putin that an invasion would be followed by tougher sanctions and that it would bolster Western support for Ukraine, resulting in “more NATO, not less NATO” on Russia’s borders.
Johnson recalled: “He said, ‘Boris, you say that Ukraine is not going to join NATO anytime soon,’ he said it in English. … ‘What is anytime soon?’ and I said, ‘Well it’s not going to join NATO for the foreseeable future. You know that perfectly well.’”
Three weeks after their call, 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 since he was ousted from office in September — and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, pledging that Britain would “stick by Ukraine as long as it takes.”
Anglo-Russian relations have been frosty for years — plunging in 2018, when Russian agents were accused of poisoning former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
In separate comments from the three-part “Putin vs the West” series, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace 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, General 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.