Talk of nuclear weapons is a 'distraction' from 'barbarism' in Ukraine, says PM

24 March 2022, 18:02

Boris Johnson has said talk of nuclear weapons is to divert attention away from Russian assaults in Ukraine
Boris Johnson has said talk of nuclear weapons is to divert attention away from Russian assaults in Ukraine. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Boris Johnson has said talk of nuclear weapons by Russia is a tool to distract from what is going on in Ukraine.

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Speaking at a Nato press conference in Brussels, the Prime Minister said the use of conventional weapons in Ukraine is "absolutely barbaric" when asked how concrete the nuclear threat was.

He then said Putin was wrong to try and frame the war as a confrontation between nuclear powers, saying it is "a savage attack with conventional means on innocent people".

Any use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by Russia would be "viewed with utter horror" by world leaders, he added.

"There is a visceral horror of the use of these weapons of mass destruction.

"I think that if Putin were to engage in anything like that, the consequences would be very, very severe."

He added: "I think it would be catastrophic for him if he were to do that, and I think that he understands that."

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Boris Johnson also told the press conference there was not "a single person around the table" in Nato or the G7 who "is against Russia or the Russian people", following claims by the Kremlin that he was the most active anti-Russian leader.

"Absolutely not, least of all me," he said, when asked about the claim.

"I think I'm probably the only Prime Minister in UK history to be called Boris, I think I have that distinction, and I'm not remotely anti-Russian."

He said: "But I think what we all agree is that what Vladimir Putin is doing, the way he's leading Russia at the moment, is utterly catastrophic, that his invasion of Ukraine is inhuman and barbaric.

"And the conduct of that invasion is now moving into the type of behaviour that, as I said before, we haven't seen in the continent of Europe for 80 years, and it's horrific.

"So you can be sympathetic towards ordinary Russians, who are being so badly led, but you can be deeply hostile to the decisions of Vladimir Putin."

Downing Street said earlier that the Prime Minister was "among the most active anti-Putin leaders", as sought to rally leaders at a Nato summit in Brussels to provide more defensive military support to Ukraine.

In a virtual address to the allies on Thursday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for "1 per cent of all your planes, 1 per cent of all your tanks" but it appeared his demand would not be met.

Mr Johnson had instead committed a new package of 6,000 more missiles and announced sanctions against a further 65 individuals and entities.

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Among those hit with travel bans and asset freezes were the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation accused of plotting to assassinate Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Speaking to broadcasters after landing in Belgium's capital, Mr Johnson said: "We've got to tighten the economic vice around Putin, sanctioning more people today, as we are, sanctioning the Wagner Group, looking at what we can do to stop Putin using his gold reserves, and also doing more to help the Ukrainians defend themselves."

The Foreign Office said a total of 1,000 fresh sanctions have been handed out since the invasion begun, with the new round including Russian billionaire Eugene Shvidler and Galina Danilchenko, who was installed by Moscow as the mayor of occupied Melitopol in south-east Ukraine.

Britain's response in particular appeared to be riling Mr Putin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by the state-owned RIA news agency as saying: "As for Mr Johnson, we see him as the most active participant in the race to be anti-Russian.

"It will lead to a foreign policy dead end."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman firmly denied Mr Johnson being "anti-Russian".

"The Prime Minister is among the most active anti-Putin leaders," he said.

"We have no issue with the Russian people and in fact we have seen many bravely protest - not least (jailed opposition leader) Alexei Navalny - against Putin's regime and call on them to cease this war," the spokesman said.

Praising him as "one of the most extraordinary war leaders of recent times", Mr Johnson said Mr Zelensky wants tighter sanctions on Mr Putin's regime and "very specific defensive military support" for his armed forces.

"And that, we're determined to provide," Mr Johnson said.

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He also hit out at Moscow's bid to host Euro 2028, saying Russia should withdraw its forces and the football tournament should be handed to Ukraine.

"The idea of Russia holding any kind of football tournament or any kind of cultural event right now is beyond satire," he said.

"The best thing possible would be for the entire Russian armed forces to retire forthwith from Ukraine and to hand it to them, of course."

However, those remarks came just a day after the UK and Ireland football associations submitted their joint formal interest in staging the tournament.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson was responding to a question about Moscow's "brazen and sorely misjudged" attempt to obtain a platform on the international stage by hosting the tournament.

"Clearly we remain entirely committed to the UK and Ireland bid for Euro 2028 which retains the Government's full backing," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

During his virtual address to leaders including US President Joe Biden, Mr Zelensky was understood not to have reiterated his plea for Nato to install a no-fly zone above Ukraine, following fears it would provoke a wider conflict.

A western official speaking after the summit did not rule out individual leaders providing tanks or planes as requested by the Ukrainian leader, but said "there was no direct discussion about allies providing that sort of equipment now".

They said leaders agreed Russia using chemical weapons in Ukraine would mark a "fundamental change" in the Ukrainian conflict that would be met with a "very severe response".

The western official said it was "highly unlikely" that would cause allies to send their troops to the conflict, but would not outline what the response would be, saying "we need to keep Putin guessing."

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Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg did announce an agreement to provide assistance in the cyber-security sphere and equipment to protect against biological, chemical and nuclear threats.

Leaders also approved the deployment of new Nato battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia to shore up the defence alliance's eastern flank.

Six more banks were among those being sanctioned with asset freezes and travel bans, as was one of the world's largest diamond producer Alrosa, and Polina Kovaleva, the stepdaughter of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Ahead of the summit getting under way, Russian hoaxers, suspected of working for the Kremlin, released a full version of their video call with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

The MoD has warned the footage being trickled out, in which Mr Wallace thought he was talking to Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal, is doctored and propaganda.

The hoaxers went on to release another video featuring Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Britain has already sent more than 4,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, including next-generation light anti-tank weapons systems (Nlaws) and Javelin missiles.

It is also supplying and training Ukrainian troops in the use of Starstreak high-velocity anti-air missiles as well as providing body armour, helmets and combat boots.

The Government will provide an additional £4.1 million to the BBC World Service to counter disinformation in Russia and Ukraine as well as new support for the International Criminal Court (ICC).