Liz Truss has branded Bernie Ecclestone a "shocking apologist" after he said he would "take a bullet" for Vladimir Putin.
The 91-year-old former Formula One boss provoked widespread outrage with an extraordinary defence of the Russian president during a live interview on breakfast television.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if he still regards Putin as a friend, Mr Ecclestone replied: “I’d still take a bullet for him. I’d rather it didn’t hurt, but if it does I’d still take a bullet, because he’s a first-class person.
“What he’s doing is something that he believed was the right thing he was doing for Russia.
“Unfortunately, he’s like a lot of business people, certainly like me – we make mistakes from time to time. When you’ve made the mistake, you have to do the best you can to get out of it."
‘I’d still take a bullet for him.’ pic.twitter.com/jZ1hLnrYTU
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) June 30, 2022
Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary, reacted angrily to the comments, which have been seized upon in Russia and played repeatedly on state television.
"I think those comments are extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary," she said, adding of Putin: "This is a man who has perpetrated an appalling war involving the systematic rape of women , the targeting of civilians in shopping centres.
"I find those comments absolutely extraordinary by Bernie Ecclestone. Clearly, Vladimir Putin is toxic. I just find the apologists for Putin – when people can see on their TV screens the appalling things that are happening on the ground in Ukraine … absolutely shocking."
In an interview with Piers Morgan on Thursday night, Mr Ecclestone went further, appearing to refer to the Ukrainian population as "Russians".
Speaking on TalkTV, he said: "How many Russians were there in Ukraine when he [Putin] invaded?… They were all Russian people." When Morgan disagreed, Mr Ecclestone responded: "No, they were Russians."
Formula One has distanced itself from Mr Ecclestone, who stepped down as its chief executive in 2017 after selling the business. A spokesman for the sport said: "The comments made by Bernie Ecclestone are his personal views and are in very stark contrast to the position of the modern values of our sport."
Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion, said Mr Ecclestone should be banned from the airwaves and not given the platform to voice his views.
Mr Hamilton said: “We don’t need any more of it, to hear from someone that believes in the war, and the displacement of people and killing of people , and supporting that person is beyond me. I cannot believe I heard that."
Mr Ecclestone has been a long-time admirer of Putin. Mr Ecclestone flew to Sochi to sign a seven-year deal for a grand prix in the Russia resort, worth $40 million a year to the sport.
Mr Ecclestone told Tom Bower, the investigative journalist and his biographer, "how much he liked Putin". Mr Bower said: "They discussed how to control employees and countries."
Mr Ecclestone has met Putin on several occasions since their first encounter in 2010. They have accompanied each other at races, including during the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and just a few months after the Malaysian passenger jet MH17 was shot down by Russian separatists. Ecclestone resisted calls to scrap the Russian Grand Prix.
In February of this year, just a day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr Ecclestone described Putin as “honourable”, and seemingly refused to criticise his decision to start the war.
Mr Ecclestone told Times Radio: “As a person I found him [Putin] very straightforward and honourable. He did exactly what he said he was going to do without any arguments.”
Mr Ecclestone also told The Times in 2019 that he felt the Russian should be “running Europe” and seemingly supported his anti-democracy ideology.
“He’s a good guy," said Mr Ecclestone. "He’s never done anything that isn’t doing good things for people. I would like him running Europe. We haven’t got anybody, so it couldn’t be any worse.”
“He does what he says he is going to do … I am not a supporter of democracy. You need a dictator. As a dictator, you say: ‘This is what I’m going to do’. In a democracy, it gets watered down.”
It is not the first time Mr Ecclestone has been condemned for supporting a dictator. In a newspaper interview in 2009, he appeared to praise Adolf Hitler, saying: "Terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was – in the way that he could command a lot of people – able to get things done.” Mr Ecclestone later apologised for those comments.
Bernie Ecclestone criticises Volodymyr Zelensky
In his ITV interview on Thursday, Mr Ecclestone also criticised Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president and a former comedian – saying "he seems as if he wants to continue that profession".
He added that if Mr Zelensky had "thought about things, he would have definitely made a big enough effort to speak to Mr Putin".
Mr Ecclestone insisted the war in Ukraine was not “intentional”, adding: “I’m quite sure Ukraine, if they’d wanted to get out of it properly, could have done.”
Asked what he thought of the Russian Grand Prix being removed from the Formula One calendar and the ban on Russian drivers, Mr Ecclestone said: “I’m not in the position now to have done anything about that. I’m not sure I would have stopped that.
"I think it’s wrong to stop Russian athletes, including obviously drivers , taking part in their sport.
“They didn’t get involved in this in the first place. They shouldn’t be punished.”
In an interview with Piers Morgan on Thursday, Mr Ecclestone went further – appearing to refer to the Ukrainian population as “Russians”.
“Why would you say that you would still take a bullet for Vladimir Putin, given that he’s putting bullets into thousands of innocent people’s heads?” @piersmorgan asks Bernie Ecclestone the question we’ve all been wondering since his comments on GMB this morning. @TalkTV pic.twitter.com/ufhhKYYI2j
— Piers Morgan Uncensored (@PiersUncensored) June 30, 2022
Speaking on TalkTV, he said: “How many Russians were there in Ukraine when he invaded? They were all Russian people.”
When Morgan disagreed, Mr Ecclestone responded: “No, they were Russians.”
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