Boris Johnson has claimed Vladimir Putin told him “I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile, it would only take a minute”, in a call ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The former prime minister said the “extraordinary” conversation took place in February after he had visited Kyiv in a last-ditch attempt to show Western support for Ukraine amid growing fears of a Russian assault.
Mr Johnson, who would emerge as a vocal backer of Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration in the months after Russia invaded, made the claim in a new three-part series for BBC Two looking at how the West grappled with Mr Putin in the years leading up to the war in Ukraine.
The former PM, who left Downing Street in September after being forced from office, made the visit to Kyiv in early February to warn Russia that an invasion would prove disastrous.
Mr Johnson recalled that he warned Mr Putin there would be tougher Western sanctions if he ordered an invasion of Ukraine.
He also said he told the Russian leader that the escalation would only see Western states increase support for Ukraine, meaning “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 perfectively well,’” Mr Johnson said of the call with Mr Putin.
“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,” Mr 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.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also spoke to the Putin vs The West programme, set to air on Monday evening, about his journey to Moscow in February as he sought to reach a breakthrough and see off war.
He recalls speaking to Russia’s minister of defence Sergei Shoigu, as well as chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov.
“And 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,” Mr 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].”
The programme also hears from Mr Zelensky about his efforts to win over Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“I told him: ‘Jens, I want to join Nato, do you see us in Nato?’ Because nothing would defend our country except for actual membership,” Mr Zelensky said.
“I said: ‘It’s just unfair and not nice. You don’t see us as equals.’ I told him that our army is ready, our society is ready, and I believed that Nato is not ready.”
Mr Zelensky details his frustration with the Nato position in advance of the conflict.
“If you know that tomorrow Russia will occupy Ukraine, why don’t you give me something today I can stop it with? Or if you can’t give it to me, then stop it yourself.”