Russia Denies Putin Threatened Boris Johnson With Missile Attack in Pre-War Phone Call

By Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
January 30, 2023Updated: January 31, 2023

Russia has denied former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that President Vladimir Putin threatened him with a missile strike in a call ahead of the invasion of Ukraine.

In a new BBC documentary series, Johnson said the “extraordinary” conversation took place in February 2022, days before Russia launched an assault on Kyiv on Feb. 24.

The former prime minister said he warned Putin that if he ordered an invasion of Ukraine, there would be tougher sanctions and the West would increase its support for Ukraine, meaning “more NATO, not less NATO” on Russia’s borders.

Recalling the phone conversation, Johnson said Putin asked him: “Boris, you say that Ukraine is not going to join NATO any time soon. What is any time soon?” to which he replied: “Well it’s not going to join NATO for the foreseeable future. You know that perfectly well.”

“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 made the claim in “Putin vs. the West,” a new three-part documentary series on BBC Two looking at the West’s relations with the Russian leader in the years leading up to the war in Ukraine.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a U.N. Security Council meeting via videoconference in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2022. (Pavel Byrkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

‘A Lie’

But the Kremlin suggested that Johnson’s claim in the documentary is “a lie.”

Asked about Johnson’s allegation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that his account was untrue, “or, more precisely, it was a lie.”

“It is either a deliberate lie—in which case 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.

“There were no threats with missiles.

“While talking about security challenges to Russia, President Putin said that if Ukraine joins NATO, the potential deployment of U.S. or other NATO missiles near our borders would mean that any such missile could reach Moscow in minutes.”

Relations between Moscow and London had sunk to their lowest level in decades even before Russia invaded Ukraine, on the back of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK city of Salisbury in 2018.

As prime minister, Johnson sought to position London as Kyiv’s top ally in the West, visiting Kyiv several times and calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy frequently.

Since he was forced to step down in September 2022 in the wake of a series of scandals, Johnson has continued to offer support to Zelenskyy and has called on Western allies to arm Ukraine with the resources it needs.

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Ben Wallace, secretary of state for defence of the United Kingdom, observes as Ukrainian soldiers take part in a military exercise in the north of England, United Kingdom, on Nov. 9, 2022. (Andy Commins – Pool/Getty Images)

Pre-War Talks

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also spoke in the BBC documentary about his journey to Moscow in February 2022 as he sought to reach a breakthrough and stave off war.

He recalled speaking to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces 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,” 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 heard from Zelenskyy 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,” Zelenskyy 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.”

Zelenskyy recounted 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.”

PA Media and Reuters contributed to this report.