Boris Johnson has predicted the Russian president Vladimir Putin will glory in the World Cup this summer in the same way that Adolf Hitler did over the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, and suggested the UK will need to advise English soccer fans not to travel to Russia for their own safety.
Johnson’s warning came as Anglo-Russian relations plummeted in the wake of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian agent poisoned in Salisbury.
Johnson revealed the number of fans currently expected to travel to Russia are about a quarter of the number who travelled to watch England in Brazil in 2014. He said only 24,000 people had purchased tickets, as opposed to 94,000 at the same point in the run-up to Rio.
He also revealed the British diplomat responsible for liaising with UK fans had been expelled as part of the diplomatic tit-for-tat expulsions.
Russia is also closing the British consulate in St Petersburg, restricting the ability of the UK embassy to help visitors in the event of violence.
Johnson said he would be seeking urgent assurances from Russia that it would fulfil its obligations under the World Cup contract to ensure the safety of fans. “I think it is up to the Russians to give us an undertaking that they will be safe,” he said.
Both Russia and England have a history of violent football fans, but the prospect of fierce fighting between the two sets of fans is increased by the atmosphere of political tension between the two countries.
Johnson was speaking to the all-party foreign affairs select committee, and responding to remarks from the Labour MP Ian Austin, who called for the UK to pull out of the World Cup altogether. “Putin is going to use it in the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics,” Austin said.
The Foreign Secretary replied: “I think that your characterisation of what is going to happen in Moscow, the World Cup, in all the venues – yes, I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right.” However, he said he did not think it would be fair to the English team to ban them from competing.
Austin described Putin as a KGB thug who had enriched himself. Johnson added he did not believe Putin had been elected in a free and fair election, adding there had been no competitive choice.
Johnson again rejected Moscow’s assertion that it had nothing to do with the attack on Skripal and his daughter on 4 March.
He said: “No matter how exactly it came to be done, the pathway, the chain of responsibility seems to me to go back to the Russian state and those at the top.”
The foreign office also seized on a Russian admission that it would not accept the results of an inquiry into the source of the poison being undertaken by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, insisting it wanted a joint inquiry with the UK.
Asked why Moscow would feel it could carry out such an attack, he said: “It was a sign that president Vladimir Putin, or the Russian state, wanted to give to potential defectors in their own agencies that this is what happens to you if you decide that you support a country with a different set of values such as our own: you can expect to be assassinated.
“I think the reason that they picked the United Kingdom is very simple: it’s because this is a country that does have that particular set of values, it does believe in freedom, and in democracy and in the rule of law, and has time and again called out Russia over its abuses of those values.
“As many non-democratic figures do when facing an election or facing some critical political moment, it is often attractive to conjure up in the public imagination the notion of an enemy.
“And that is what it was an attempt to excite among the Russian electorate.”
Johnson added: “The boundaries of Moscow’s dominions have been rolled back and I think Vladimir Putin feels that very keenly and he feels Russia lost out, so he wants to cause trouble wherever he can.”