Russian President Vladimir Putin has made dozens of nuclear threats since the start of the war in Ukraine but they should only be seen as “saber-rattling,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said.
In an interview on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, Johnson told British radio station LBC on Thursday that Putin was seeking to shift his invasion of Ukraine into a fight with the alliance.
When asked about the view by the former U.K. ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch that NATO needed to be ready for a nuclear strike, Johnson replied: “There’s an analysis that I think has been done by somebody recently, a think tank, that they’re looking at about 35 mentions or perhaps it’s a little bit more now.”
Johnson did not mention the think tank in question and Newsweek has contacted the press office of Number 10 Downing Street for clarification.
Soon after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin did raise alarm in the West when he put his nuclear forces on high alert. While the Kremlin has said that Russia would only use conventional weapons in Ukraine, the specter of nuclear arms has been a constant theme on Russian state television, which pushes Kremlin messaging about the Ukraine war.
Panelists on propaganda programs often refer to Russia’s successful test of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which Putin said would be ready for deployment by the end of 2022. They also regularly talk up the prospect of a battle between Russia and NATO.
But Johnson said that whatever Putin’s rhetoric, “it’s very, very important that we shouldn’t…allow ourselves to be side-tracked by this kind of saber-rattling.
He said that “fundamentally, what Putin is trying to do is to reframe this” as something “about Russia versus NATO…it’s not.”
“It’s about his attack on an entirely innocent country, with conventional weapons, with artillery, bombardments with planes, shells and so on and it’s about the Ukrainians’ right to protect themselves.”
Newsweek has contacted the Kremlin for comment.
Johnson told LBC host Nick Ferrari that the NATO summit showed that the alliance was “determined” to give Ukraine “the means to protect themselves,” and pointed to their success in the Black Sea where Russian troops withdrew from Snake Island.
“Plainly, the Ukrainians can recapture ground,” he said, “look at what’s just happened in Snake Island today [Thursday].
“Putin has had to cede that and what that shows is, and there’s a lesson from this. He is in the end going to find it impossible to hold down a country he doesn’t own.”
Moscow on Thursday described the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill” that shows Russia is “not impeding [United Nations] efforts to organize a humanitarian corridor to ship agricultural products from Ukraine,” and avoid catastrophic global food shortages.
Kyiv pushed back against Russia’s statement, saying that it drove Putin’s troops from the island with military force in an overnight assault.
This week’s NATO summit saw the alliance formally invite Finland and Sweden to abandon their neutrality and join. The U.K also pledged £1bn ($1.21bn) in further military support for Ukraine, on top of the £1.3 billion ($1.57bn) already given.