Boris Johnson has claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin threatened to kill him in a missile attack, saying “it would only take a minute” in a call ahead of the 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 an assault.
Mr Johnson, who would emerge as a staunch backer of Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, 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 invasion.
The former PM, who left No 10 in September after being forced from office, made the visit to Kyiv in early February to warn Russia that an invasion would prove disastrous and lead to tough Western sanctions.
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,” he added.
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.
Mr Wallace said it was a Russian “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.”
“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.’”
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.”
Mr Johnson’s remarks come as cabinet minister Michael Gove defended the former PM over reports that he was told to stop asking Richard Sharp for “advice” about his personal finances just days before the latter was announced as the new BBC chair.
According to The Sunday Times, Mr Johnson was warned by cabinet secretary Simon Case on 22 December 2020 to stop discussing his financial arrangements with Mr Sharp, whose appointment to the BBC role was due to be announced on 6 January 2021.
The levelling up secretary was pressed on the matter on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, rejecting any suggestion that Mr Johnson is becoming a “liability” to the government.
“I know – and I’ve seen it happen in the past – that there’s a letter here, a note there, a comment there. It points towards one conclusion. Once you know all the evidence, actually, another conclusion can fairly be drawn,” Mr Gove said.
He added: “I think Boris Johnson was a very good prime minister, and I think that he has a lot to contribute to public life in the future.”
A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said Mr Sharp has “never given any financial advice to Boris Johnson, nor has Mr Johnson sought any financial advice from him”.