Boris Johnson wants us to understand how brave he is. As the former British prime minister recently recounted a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin in early February last year – around three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine – he made sure to mention how the Russian president had (allegedly) casually threatened to kill him.
“He threatened me at one point,” Johnson recalls in an interview for a new BBC documentary Putin vs the West. “He said, ‘You know, Boris, I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile it would only take a minute,’ or something like that.” He pauses, half-smiling, apparently impressed with his own anecdote. “You know… jolly.”
Presumably the point of this story is to let us know how cool Johnson had been under pressure, how implacably he had withstood Putin’s threats. As Johnson recounts the Russian leader’s supposed warning, he gestures dismissively towards the camera as though this is the kind of thing he deals with all the time. He also totally misses the point.
If Putin really did threaten Johnson with a missile strike, even jokingly (the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov insists that he did not), then he was not just threatening to kill him but to start World War III.
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It is true that the Russian president is believed to have authorised the assassination of British citizens on UK soil in the past. The former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered with radioactive polonium-210 in central London in 2006. Russian assassins attempted to poison the former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, using a chemical nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018, killing a local woman in the process. But this is not the same as ordering an attack on a serving British prime minister, with a missile, no less.
A Russian missile strike against the UK, no matter who it was targeted against, would not just be an unprovoked attack on a nuclear power but an attack on a Nato member. This would risk drawing all 30 member states, including three nuclear powers – the United States, France and the UK – into a war with Russia under the alliance’s commitment to collective defence. Putin knows this. Johnson knows this too. Yet the former prime minister cannot help but make this about himself.
Johnson appears to be afflicted by a classic case of main character syndrome, which is less an actual syndrome and more a social media phenomenon, whereby “a person sees themselves as the leading character and everyone else around them as simply extras”. One could argue that his entire political career has been an exercise in this approach, with the consequences of his actions for others secondary to the political benefits he derives for himself (see, for instance, Brexit). He has, as the expression goes on TikTok, serious #maincharacter energy.
To be fair we only have excerpts of the interview to go on, so it is possible that in the wider clip, Johnson prefaces these comments with something like, “look, this is not about me, but…” or, “bear with me while I focus on myself for a moment here…” This would, however, be a significant departure from form. It is more likely that he was simply showing off, without pausing to think about what the consequences of such an attack would be and why, even if he didn’t think that Putin was being serious about lobbing missiles at the UK, he didn’t think to mention it to the British public at the time. Hopefully someone else on the call was taking good notes.
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