Former prime minister’s comments about call to Russian president just before invasion come in new BBC documentary
Boris Johnson has said Vladimir Putin claimed he could have sent a missile to hit Britain “within a minute”, in a call shortly before the invasion of Ukraine.
The former prime minister’s comments came in a three-part documentary for BBC Two on the conflict and the lead-up to Russia’s invasion in February last year.
It had been in a conversation about hypothetical support for Nato on Russia’s borders if Putin decided to invade, as Johnson tried to talk Putin down.
He told the makers of Putin vs the West that he did not regard Putin’s comments as a threat. He went on to become one of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s biggest supporters and has visited Kyiv since resigning as prime minister.
The show will air on BBC Two on Monday at 9pm.
“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,” Johnson said.
“I think from the very 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 had warned there would be tougher western sanctions if Russia invaded, and support for Nato would increase – even if Ukraine was not close to becoming a member.
“He said, ‘Boris, you say that Ukraine is not going to join Nato anytime soon … What is anytime soon?’, and I said, ‘Well it’s not going to join Nato for the foreseeable future. You know that perfectly well,’” Johnson said of the call with Putin.
Responding to the claim, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that what Johnson said was not true, or “more precisely, a lie”.
Peskov said: “There were no threats of missiles. It is either a deliberate lie – so you have to ask Mr Johnson why he chose to put it that way – or it was an unconscious lie and he did not in fact understand what Putin was talking to him about.”
Peskov said Putin had explained to Johnson how, if Ukraine joined the Nato alliance, US or Nato missiles placed near Russia’s borders would mean any missile could reach Moscow in minutes, and suggested that there may have been a misunderstanding.
“If that’s how this passage was understood, then it’s a very awkward situation,” Peskov said.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, also spoke in the documentary about a visit to Moscow in February in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate and avert war. He met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, as well as the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov.
“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,” Wallace said.
“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].”
Downing Street's readout last February of the call when Boris Johnson says Vladimir Putin threatened to kill him in a missile strike