In a BBC documentary, former UK prime minister Boris Johnson alleged that a threat of a missile strike on his country was made to him by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call. Alluding to the possibility of such a strike, and speaking of strike timeframes, although in an exaggerated manner, Mr Putin is claimed to have stated something that could and should not have been left unaddressed by an official British response. Moreover, as this conversation allegedly occurred before the invasion of Ukraine last February, the Russian President’s choice of phrase, if true, would have amounted to disregard for diplomatic protocol still being observed by the two states at the time.
Mr Johnson alleged that Mr Putin said: “Boris, I don't want to hurt you but, with a missile, it would only take a minute.” And while some will suggest that the revelation reaffirms the Kremlin’s way of thinking, the familiarity and the seemingly light-hearted nature of the exchange give an impression, false or not, of the value its leadership places on the lives of others. But such treatment of another state’s leader could also be telling about how Mr Putin might have viewed Mr Johnson.
The BBC statement on the alleged phone call says: “No reference to the exchange appeared in accounts released to the media of the call by Downing Street. But with all officially arranged phone calls, there are always detailed minutes taken by a Number 10 official and retained for the archive.” And while the Kremlin’s denial of the conversation does not allow for any conclusion, it is possible that the details of the call have not been made public due to their sensitive nature. However, this does pose the question whether information of such calibre is indeed in the interest of the public, and from whom else it may have been withheld.
As critics may view Mr Johnson’s reaction as a demonstration of British resolve in the face of aggression, or masterful manoeuvring in front of an adversary, the apparent lack of action leaves more questions on its impact on the UK’s national security, and perhaps even the war in Ukraine. Setting aside the comment over the threat to the life of the British prime minister, and by default an attack on Britain, no matter if we are talking about a nuclear or conventional missile, we are faced with the question whether there was enough competence to recognise the exchange with Mr Putin as disregard for diplomatic norms. Was London too weak to face the repercussions of the actions that may have followed from standing up to this alleged bullying, and too unaware to see how irrelevant the UK had become in the eyes of its adversaries? We might, for example, have difficulty imagining such a scenario vis-a-vis the US.
At the start of the invasion, we saw a great push from Mr Johnson against Moscow’s aggression, and a near cult status in Ukraine. As he continues to support Kyiv’s cause, it is also perhaps due to his withholding of the details of his conversation with Mr Putin that we still have sceptics in the UK, and elsewhere, over the need to help Ukraine. Even as the deaths of tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of children, may seem distant news to the British public, an alleged threat to their country would have given them a tangible reason to get overwhelmingly behind the war, or at the very least offering a choice – to accept the status quo or to support allies in their conflict with Russia.
The war does have broad-based support in the UK, but economic stagnation and a possible recession, coupled with the growing clamour against support for Ukraine among the far right in other states, could dampen that support. Moreover, some already view Mr Johnson’s support for Ukraine as a means to distract the public from his own underwhelming performance as prime minister.
While details of the alleged exchange haven’t been made public yet, we might not be able to conclude if Mr Johnson withheld information in the public interest, or whether he lied about the whole thing. However, the repercussions of keeping mum may go beyond a short line in a film about the threat Europe perceives from Moscow. An allegation such as this, involving the heads of two nuclear states that are not the best of friends, would be considered just short of a declaration of war. That we only learnt about it a year later throws up a number of questions. Who did Mr Johnson keep this from? Did the intelligence and military communities know of it? Is it even legal to withhold such information?
The British public deserves answers to at least some of these questions.
Dr Stepan Stepanenko is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, Russia and Eurasia centre