Russia’s ambassador to Australia has had the smile wiped from his face after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hauled him into her office for a tongue lashing, in full view of the media.
The unusual dressing down occurred on Wednesday afternoon, several hours after Grigory Logvinov held a lengthy press conference at the Russian embassy in Canberra where he laughed off accusations of spying and assassination.
Seated in front of Ms Bishop and a bay of cameras, several of them broadcasting live across the nation, Mr Logvinov was far more subdued.
“Mr Ambassador, we seek a credible explanation from Russia as to how its nerve agent could have been deployed in these circumstances,” Ms Bishop said.
Behind her, a dozen cameras clicked away, the lights of TV cameras blazed, and photographers dashed around the room to get a better angle.
The minister’s staffers had kindly placed a bowl of sweets in the middle of the table. Mr Logvinov did not help himself.
“The United Kingdom authorities have advised Australia that a Russian military-grade nerve agent, Novichok, was deployed in an attempted assassination in the United Kingdom,” Mr Bishop said, employing her infamously steely gaze.
As she spoke, a scarf bearing the colours of her beloved West Coast Eagles was clearly visible on a bookshelf in the background.
If Mr Logvinov was bemused by the spectacle, he did not show it. Nor did he interrupt to contradict any of the minister’s explosive claims, even as she spoke of Australia’s “outrage” that Russia would stoop so low as to use chemical weapons.
His first response was to thank the minister for inviting him to her office. No mention was made of the waiting media, though occasionally his eyes darted to the cameras.
Mr Logvinov went on to agree that Russia bore “a special responsibility” to maintain “world stability and security” by reason of its membership on the United Nations security council.
Rather than protest Russia’s innocence, he merely said his motherland would insist on an “absolutely proper investigation” of the incident under the auspices of the UN prohibition on chemical weapons.
At this point, Ms Bishop asked the media to leave “so we can get down to deeper details”.
The performance befuddled many experts. Why the public spectacle? Why would the ambassador agree to it? Did he know the media would be waiting? No satisfying answers were forthcoming.
It was but the latest drama in days of diplomatic theatre aimed at Russia.
Several Western nations, including Australia, have co-ordinated to expel alleged Russian spies and excoriate the Russian government for its alleged role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former KGB agent turned British informant, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK. Both remain in a coma.
Amusingly, New Zealand did not join the expulsion because, allegedly, it could find no Russian agents on its soil. The New Zealand government is yet to clarify if it thought the Russian spies were crafty enough to evade detection, or if the New Zealand mainland was devoid of intelligence worthy of the Kremlin’s notice.
The alleged poisoning of the Skripals coincided with the Russian elections, where Vladimir Putin was easily reelected, in the absence of any strong opposition candidate.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Logvinov put in a far more exuberant defence of Russia’s claims to have had nothing to do with the attempted assassination.
“[Mr Skripal] was sentenced, he served his sentence, he was free,” he told reporters at the embassy, referring to the time the former agent spent in Russian prison as punishment for turning traitor.
“He’s of no interest to Russia any more.”
Of photographs of alleged spies published by the Australian media, Mr Logvinov, laughing, said they were merely a technician, a driver and a wife of the embassy cook.
The two diplomats Australia had chosen to expel were definitely not spies, he said. “They are absolutely legal, career diplomats.”
Mr Logvinov denied there were any intelligence officers working from his embassy. He even accused Australian spies of “improper behaviour” inside Russia “in 2016 and 2017”.
Would he elaborate? “Nope.”
And there was an ominous warning.
“If the west would follow this line, I’m afraid we will be deeply in a Cold War situation.”