DOMINIC LAWSON: Putin's threat to murder Boris is typical of gangster

DOMINIC LAWSON: Vladimir Putin’s threat to murder Boris Johnson is typical of a gangster who runs his country like a criminal enterprise

You would not normally expect the president of one of the five permanent member nations of the UN Security Council to threaten to wipe out a colleague, personally. But if that national leader is a gangster, it is less surprising — even predictable.

That was my reaction on learning that last February, Vladimir Putin menaced the then British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in exactly this manner.

During a telephone call, Mr Johnson warned that if President Putin invaded Ukraine, there would be unprecedented sanctions imposed on Moscow.

In a BBC Two documentary to be screened tonight, Johnson recalls: ‘He sort of threatened me at one point and said: “Boris, I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile it would only take a minute.” ’

During a telephone call, Boris Johnson warned that if President Putin invaded Ukraine, there would be unprecedented sanctions imposed on Moscow

Johnson well understood Vladimir Putin’s lethal combination of murderousness and insouciance

This threat was perhaps not serious; just an attempt to disconcert. But Johnson had been Foreign Secretary when Putin’s goons had attempted to murder a British citizen, the defector Sergei Skripal, with the chemical agent Novichok. It was mere chance that just a single Salisbury resident died in the aftermath, as the Novichok in the discarded bottle could have killed hundreds.


So Johnson well understood Putin’s lethal combination of murderousness and insouciance. It would be interesting to know the exact words that President Putin used in that ‘discussion’, as the poisoner in the Kremlin has become known for resorting to the crude language of the Russian underworld when he wants to make his point.

As the Russian émigré Leon Aron observed: ‘My Moscow friends refer to him as “a small-time hoodlum from the streets of St Petersburg”.’

Paramedics carry an injured Ukrainian serviceman who stepped on an anti-personnel land mine at a stabilization point for emergency treatment 

That, actually, is an accurate description of Putin’s childhood exploits. And Putin’s first job in what we might describe as public administration, in 1990, was when he was given the role of authorising licences and contracts for companies in St Petersburg wanting to engage in foreign trade. Guess how such companies gained licences from Vladimir Putin: ‘commissions’ would be a polite term.

Criminal investigations into Putin’s shady dealings were abandoned when he entered the Kremlin as President in 2000. In that role, Putin has become the capo di tutti capi of a mafia state.

I do not speak with hindsight. In 2006, I warned: ‘Mr Putin has been welcomed as a friend by both George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Both men, I suspect, feel he is a colleague in every respect. This is a great illusion. Government in Russia, like most of Russian business, is dominated by gangsterism.’

Or, to quote Bill Browder, whose Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was tortured to death by government ‘officials’ after he discovered how they and their associates had stolen tax paid by Browder’s Moscow firm: ‘Putin is the mafia boss. All his ministers are — look at The Sopranos — like the New Jersey Mafia and the Brooklyn Mafia, the Philadelphia Mafia. They can all take as much money as they can steal, and they’ve got to pay a tribute to the mafia boss, which is Vladimir Putin.’

The most spectacular demonstration of this is the palace built for Putin on the Black Sea coast, at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion. It has an underground rink for ice hockey (Putin’s favourite sport) and vineyards, among other assorted luxuries.

All was revealed by the Russian anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, in his film Putin’s Palace. Putin attempted to get Navalny ‘whacked’ — also by Novichok poisoning. He survived but is now incarcerated in a box-like ‘punishment cell’: a sort of living coffin.

Real criminals, however, are coming to Putin’s aid, as fodder in his war of attrition against Ukraine. Last week, the Russian government admitted what had been known for months: that convicts have been freed (and pardoned) if they agree to serve at least six months on the frontline as part of the Wagner group, a militia founded by Putin’s former personal chef and ex-convict Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Among the estimated 40,000 released were notorious killers, including Alexander Tyutin, sentenced in 2021 to 23 years for hiring hitmen to kill his business partner’s entire family — and his own niece.

Having done his six months on the battlefield, Tyutin is now free and last seen sunning himself on holiday in Turkey.


Even more grotesquely, Russian TV viewers recently saw an interview with the country’s most heinous serial killer, Mikhail Popkov, jailed in 2012 for the rape and murder of 83 women (involving the use of hammers, axes and spades).

Asked by the TV interviewer, ‘What is your dream?’, Popkov replied: ‘To get into the army … even though I have been in prison for ten years, I don’t think it would be so hard to learn new skills.’

Given the rapes and murders Russian troops carried out in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, it may be that Popkov would also have licence to display his old skills.

That such an interview would be thought suitable for peak-time TV viewing is a mark of a nation in the grip of depravity from the very top.

Remarkably, some British firms, as Guy Adams revealed in Saturday’s Mail, still think it fine to do business in Russia. Notably Sir Paul Smith, who continues to sell his menswear at his Moscow boutique.

Last year, Sir Paul went to Buckingham Palace for elevation to membership of the Order of the Companions of Honour, the highest award the Crown bestows. Dishonour would be a more appropriate word for what he has displayed.

As for Vladimir Putin, he should be accorded the honour and respect that we would any gangster: none at all.

 Sheikh’s ‘duties’ shouldn’t trump justice

The family of a deceased recently retired railway signalling manager from Hertfordshire, Charles Roberts, are suing Sheikh Hassan Nasser Al-Thani for £200,000 in damages.

It made the news last week, probably because the Qatari is a member of the country’s hugely wealthy ruling family. This particular Al-Thani had mowed Roberts down in London’s Mayfair while travelling at an estimated 53 mph — almost twice the speed limit — in his purple 2,440kg Rolls-Royce Wraith.

The 66-year-old didn’t stand a chance. Of course, this was not in the least deliberate: Al-Thani braked as Roberts crossed the road. But the judge in the case observed: ‘I am entirely satisfied that if you had been driving at or within the speed limit, his death would have been avoided.’

Clear enough. But I am puzzled by two further aspects of the case. Most reports say that Al-Thani was convicted of causing ‘death by careless driving’.

Yet the criminal guidelines indicate that fatalities caused when a driver has been speeding fall into the more serious category of ‘death by dangerous driving’ — when the sentences are considerably higher. The lowest permissible, according to official sentencing rules, is a two-year jail sentence.

Anyway, as the Qatari was convicted of the lesser crime of causing death by ‘careless driving’, the judge gave him a sentence of just eight months — and then declared that he would not have to serve the term: it was ‘suspended’.

Why? According to The Times: ‘The Old Bailey was told that a spell in jail would put him at a higher risk from health conditions and prevent him from fulfilling official duties for Qatar.’

What on earth do his ‘official duties’ have to do with justice? Can anyone get their sentence suspended because jail will interfere with their ‘duties’? As for the Sheikh’s health, it transpires that his ‘condition’ is ‘morbid obesity’. I would have thought that a prison diet would actually have done him some good.

But this business leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

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