Russia’s ambassador to Australia has rejected Australia’s expulsion of two diplomats and tried to cast doubt on whether a former double agent was attacked with a nerve agent.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met with ambassador Grigory Logvinov on Wednesday afternoon and delivered a public dressing down over the attack on Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
The pair were found unconscious on a park bench in the UK city of Salisbury earlier this month and the British government claims they were attacked with the nerve agent Novichok, a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Ms Bishop met the Russian ambassador at Parliament House to outline Australia’s position, and allowed cameras to film the start of the meeting.
“Mr Ambassador, I hope we can have a discussion today and you can provide these answers that the Australian people want from you: a credible explanation as to how this nerve agent was deployed in this attempted assassination,” she said.
“We did not take this step lightly, but we share the deep concerns, indeed the outrage, that a chemical nerve agent could be deployed in this circumstance.”
But Mr Logvinov on Wednesday morning questioned the world’s case against Russia and what exactly happened to Mr Skripal.
“My gosh, who has seen the Skripals after their alleged poisoning?” he asked reporters at a lengthy press conference.
The Skripals are said to be in a stable but critical condition in a local hospital and reportedly have suffered lasting brain damage.
Mr Logvinov was pressed on whether he thought the situation had been completely made up.
“If we start analysing anything, well we can come to such conclusion,” he said. “At least it is very primitively fabricated.”
The ambassador’s comments led to several questions from journalists about whether he saw the accusations as part of a conspiracy against Russia.
This is a well-orchestrated campaign … It is now up to the West to finally stop and understand that the anti-Russian campaign has no future.”
Journalists used the Russian briefing to press the ambassador to justify his claims, including that there were no spies operating out of the Russian embassy in Canberra.
“Do you realise how stupid you sound when you say there are no Russian spies in Australia?” he was asked.
“Well I don’t feel stupid, because I know what I am saying,” Mr Logvinov said.
Mr Logvinov also denied any wrongdoing by Russia in relation to the annexation of Crimea and the downing of Malaysia Airlines jet MH17 over eastern Ukraine.
Asked whether the world was on the brink of another Cold War, Mr Logvinov said: “If the West wants it.”
Ambassador says expelled diplomats are not spies
The two Russian diplomats, now identified as intelligence officers, have less than a week to leave Australia.
Mr Logvinov on Wednesday repeated his earlier denial that the diplomats were spies. “Zero minus zero is still zero,” he said.
He declined to identify the two officials who have been asked to leave the country, but said they were “absolutely legal career diplomats”.
The jovial ambassador continued to crack gags throughout an hour-long grilling, that at times got heated.
He alleged a grand conspiracy to discredit Russia and suggested it started when the country became more independent following the 1990s.
“If the west would follow this line, I’m afraid we will be deeply in a Cold War situation,” he said.
Mr Logvinov accused Australian spies of bad behaviour in 2016 and 2017 – without providing any evidence.
“We have a bad history of improper behaviour of Australian authorities,” he said.
Would he provide any details?
On the Skripal case that reignited the international push back against Russia, the ambassador said there was no reason for Russia to be interested in the double agent.
“He was sentenced, he served his sentence, he was free,” Mr Logvinov said.
“He’s of no interest to Russia any more.”
Meanwhile, NATO is slashing the number of Russian diplomats at its headquarters by a third as part of the global response to the nerve agent attack.
Seven diplomats have been told to leave the alliance’s Brussels headquarters, while three more have been denied accreditation.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the expulsions sent, “a clear message to Russia that there are costs and consequences for its unacceptable pattern of behaviour”.
-with ABC, AAP