Boris Johnson on whether Putin would use nuclear weapons
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A new three-part BBC Two documentary, entitled Putin vs The West, explores the Russian leader’s journey over the past decade, from his illegal annexation of Crimea to the war in Ukraine. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Norma Percy’s programme features interviews with several world leaders and special advisors, including David Cameron. But it is one of the former Prime Minister’s special advisors who provide insight into what the behind-the-scenes discussions with Vladimir Putin are like, including the strange comments he once made about himself.
John Casson, who was formerly Mr Cameron’s most senior foreign policy advisor, told the documentary that Putin was brought up to the then-Prime Minister’s study at one point during an official visit to Britain.
Within this office hangs a painting of the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Putin examined this while muttering “truly, she was an iron lady”. He and Cameron then turned to discuss matters, Mr Casson recalled.
He recalled how the two world leaders were speaking about the crisis in Syria, and President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons — Mr Cameron stated that there was evidence that these weapons were being used, which Putin denied. Mr Cameron allegedly explained that if it was the case, and it appeared as if it were, then the West could not simply “stand by”.
Then, Mr Casson said Putin suddenly “lost patience”, turning to the now 56-year-old Mr Cameron, speaking in a “very quiet voice”.
According to Mr Casson — who kept a notebook detailing Putin’s exact tone and words — the Russian President began by being complimentary about the UK before making assumptions about how the British perceive him.
Mr Casson, quoting Putin, said: “’I know you’re a great country with a great history. You all think I’m not democratic like you. I won’t argue with you — I’m an ex-KGB man.
‘I’m wicked and scary with claws and teeth, and you’re all so well-bred and so well-educated. But you remember Abu Ghraib, David? Did you see those pictures? It was medieval, what happened there. To get what you want in Syria, it will have to be the same again’.”
Putin was referencing the torture and prisoner abuse that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison, an American detention centre, during the beginning of the Iraq War. In 2003, one detainee died during interrogation.
The controversy later came to light when pictures of guards abusing those inside the prison emerged — 11 guards were later convicted of their crimes relating to the scandal.
Although Putin had lost his patience with Mr Cameron, the pair had bonded previously over the Olympics. The former Prime Minister told how the President was delighted to watch the judo with his team then thinking they had begun to “de-ice” Putin. But it appears Putin soon froze over once again.
Mr Cameron was not the only British world leader Putin allegedly sought to intimidate.
After Boris Johnson went to visit the Ukrainian capital in February last year, he said Putin threatened to kill him.
Speaking on the documentary, the 58-year-old revealed that he had a “very long, most extraordinary call” with the 70-year old President who reminded him just how quick and easy it would be to do the deed.
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When hearing about the sanctions that were due to be imposed if indeed Putin did invade Ukraine, Putin allegedly said: “Boris, I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile, it would only take a minute.”
Mr Johnson continued: “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.”
The former Prime Minister has been vocal in his support of Ukraine which has continued long after he resigned from office in the summer of 2022. Last month, it was reported that Mr Johnson would be travelling to Kyiv this year.
While the Ukraine authorities said there was no “concrete information” on dates as yet, he and President Volodymyr Zelensky regard each other as “friends”.
All episodes of Putin vs the West are available on BBC iPlayer.
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