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Vladimir Putin’s surreal threat

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The phone call was almost surreal. It was like a scene out of “Dr. Strangelove.” Or maybe “Groundhog Day,” because the call took place on February second.

First, recall that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s vicious and unprovoked assault on the sovereign nation of Ukraine did not happen out of the blue. NATO leaders knew something serious was going down and the rest of the world was alerted to the imminent danger of Russian troops massing on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

So in an effort to head off a conflict, the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got the Russian president on the phone. They spoke for a few minutes.

Putin’s English is actually superb, a thing he usually tries to hide to his advantage by employing translators when speaking with western leaders. That way Putin can later “carefully misunderstand” anything he wants to. He also likes to eavesdrop on conversations in English when he thinks the speakers don’t think he’s istening.

That day Putin spoke directly to Johnson. Putin spoke in an oddly friendly and offhand manner. It was later clear to the prime minister that Putin was enjoying himself.

At first Johnson struck a friendly note. He didn’t think that Putin needed to worry. He told Putin that Ukraine would not be joining NATO any time soon. He then added that a war with Ukraine could involve NATO troops, and would be an “utter catastrophe” for Russia. It was at that point Putin said words to the effect, “Boris, I don’t want to hurt you but, with a missile, it would only take a minute.”

The extraordinary threat was unheard of in conversations between world leaders. Putin in effect threatened Johnson with nuclear war for telling him what he didn’t want to hear. He was, in essence, telling the British PM that he would destroy the lives of millions of people if he didn’t get his way. The prime minister was stunned. Nine days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Since the invasion, Putin has occasionally warned other countries that may try to interfere that Russia’s response would be immediate. He has clearly hinted that the use of nuclear weapons is on the table, without actually coming out and saying it in so many words.


Moscow denies that Putin said any such thing to Johnson during that conversation nearly a year ago. Of course, Putin has long established himself as a pathological liar, so his denials mean little. It’s unfortunate that Johnson is himself a man notoriously casual about the truth.

But in this case such a remark is consistent with the kind of man Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be, and the kind of thing he has demonstrated that he’s quite capable of. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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