Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has compared Russia’s hosting of this year’s World Cup to Adolf Hitler’s notorious Berlin Olympics.
The comparison was made as Mr Johnson issued a warning to Russia that it had a duty to ensure England fans travelling to the World Cup are properly protected.
Giving evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he compared Russia’s hosting of the tournament to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, describing it as an “emetic prospect”.
Following the plunge in diplomatic relations in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, Mr Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” as to how the travelling England fans would be treated.
Mr Johnson was challenged by Labour MP Ian Austin if he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin intended to use the event “in the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics” as a propaganda exercise to “gloss over” Russia’s “gross human rights abuses”.
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.
“I think it’s an emetic prospect, frankly, to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event.”
The Foreign Office has so far stopped short of advising fans not to go to the tournament starting in June.
But Mr Johnson said the Government was monitoring the situation “very, very closely”.
“It is up to the Russians to guarantee the safety of England fans going to Russia,” he said.
“It is their duty under their Fifa contract to look after our fans.
“We are watching it very, very closely. At the moment we are not inclined actively to dissuade people from going because we want to hear from the Russians what steps they are going to take to look after our fans.”
Even before events in Salisbury, there were concerns that England fans could be targeted by violent Russian hooligan gangs.
Mr Johnson said the UK authorities had been co-operating with Russians at a “policing level”, but there were now questions as to how that would continue.
He said so far there had been 24,000 applications from England fans to attend the World Cup, well down on the 94,000 applications at the same stage of the Rio World Cup in 2014.
“The numbers are well down, but that does not mean we are not deeply concerned about how they may be treated,” he said.
“My challenge to the Russian authorities is to show how the 24,000 UK applicants for tickets to the football World Cup are going to be well treated, are going to be safe.”
Russia has accused Britain of deliberate concealing evidence in the escalating war of words over the incident.
But giving evidence to MPs, Mr Johnson suggested the timing of the nerve agent attack was probably linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign.
He said: “As we saw in the case of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the trail of responsibility for such assassinations and assassination attempts does lead inexorably back to the Kremlin.”
Mr Johnson told MPs there had been speculation there might have been “some reaction in Moscow, in the Kremlin to the very considerable loss of Russian life” among the Wagner group of mercenaries in Syria.
“But I think the timing is probably more closely connected with the recent election in Russia,” he said.
“As many non-democratic figures do when facing an election or some critical political moment, it is often attractive to conjure up in the public imagination the notion of an enemy.
“That is what I think it was an attempt to excite amongst the Russian electorate.”
The Russian foreign ministry head of non-proliferation and arms control insisted Moscow bore no responsibility for the incident and dismissed British demands for an explanation as “absurd”.
At a briefing for foreign diplomats in Moscow, Vladimir Yermakov questioned whether the incident, which left former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fighting for their lives even involved a nerve agent.
“All the facts are being concealed intentionally and the real evidence could (have) vanished,” he said. “This has happened before in Great Britain, repeatedly.”
But Mr Johnson said it was becoming “clearer and clearer how reckless” the would-be assassins were “in their contempt for human life”.
Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats after military scientists at Porton Down found the Skripals had been poisoned by a Russian made Novichok nerve agent and the Kremlin then failed to respond to Theresa May’s demand for an explanation.
The Russians in turn announced the expulsion of 23 British diplomats as well as the closure of the British Council and the British consulate in St Petersburg.
Mr Johnson said he did not think Russia would have expected the response it got from the UK.
“It has been a mixture of a very firm diplomatic response - the biggest expulsion of undeclared Russian agents since the 1980s - coupled with a series of measures designed to push back on Russia in all sorts of ways,” he said.
“I don’t believe that that would have been factored in, priced in, when the decision was made to make this assassination attempt.”
Mr Johnson said: “We do not wish to engage in a new Cold War and I deprecate that term.
“I remember the old Cold War and it was a pretty miserable time. I grew up genuinely worrying that our country was going to be evaporated in a thermonuclear strike.
“I don’t think we face that kind of existential threat, but it is a threat nonetheless and we have to be tough and resolute.”
Mr Yermakov complained the Russians had been denied consular access to Ms Skripal, who remains a Russian citizen, and said it was up to the UK authorities to explain what had happened.
“This took place on the territory of Great Britain,” he said.
“The simple logic here tells us there are two possible options: the British authorities are either unable to insure protection against such terrorist acts on their territory or they themselves directly or indirectly, I am not accusing anyone of anything, have directed this attack against a Russian citizen.
“There is simply no other third option here. In these circumstances requiring any explanations from the Russian side is simply absurd.”
Mr Yermakov added: “It is becoming more and more obvious that this attack against the Skripals in Salisbury is most probably a blatantly framed illegal adventure.
“Only one thing is clear, Russia has nothing to do with this. We do not benefit from it in any way.”
But appearing before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Mr Johnson said: “I think it is our view that when it comes to the use of a Novichok type nerve agent in Salisbury to attempt to assassinate somebody who had been identified by the Russian state as a target for liquidation, not long after President Putin himself has said that such people would choke on their own 30 pieces of silver or deserve to be poisoned, 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.”
Asked what Mr Putin’s motive for attacking Mr Skripal might be, Mr Johnson said: “I think first of all it was a sign that President 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.
“The reason why they picked the UK is very simple. It is because this is a country that does have that particular set of values, that does believe in freedom and democracy and the rule of law and has time and again called out Russia over its abuses of these values.”