‘You’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry’: Russia attacks Britain at UN and again denies poisoning former double agent
Britain says the attack was carried out with a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union
Russia unleashed a blistering war of words against Britain at the UN Security Council on Thursday, deflecting accusations of poisoning a former double agent in England with denials, Alice in Wonderland and Russian literature.
“It’s some sort of theatre of the absurd. Couldn’t you come up with a better fake story?” Vassily Nebenzia, Russian Ambassador to the UN, told the council. “We have told our British colleagues that ‘you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry.’”
Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, and his daughter Yulia were found in a critical condition on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.
London blames Russia but the Kremlin denies any involvement. Britain says the poisoning was carried out with a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union.
The row has triggered a wave of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and inflamed tensions between Russia and Western governments.
Nebenzia claimed “a propaganda war” against Russia was being waged that sought “to discredit and even delegitimise Russia.”
“This is all using the method of Dr Goebbels,” he added in reference to Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief.
Russia requested the UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday, the same day that Moscow failed in its bid to join a probe into the Salisbury incident by global chemical watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In response, British Ambassador Karen Pierce said London had conveyed Russia’s demand for consular access to the spy’s daughter Yulia Skripal and that the British government had acted entirely properly within international convention.
“I won’t take any lectures on morality or on our responsibilities,” said Pierce, “from a country that, as this council debated yesterday, has done so much to block the proper investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
“It’s yet another attempt by Russia to use this Security Council for political gains,” said US diplomat Kelley Currie. “This is not a tactic that is appropriate for this body,” she said of the Goebbels reference.
In lengthy, rhetorical flourishes, the Russian envoy referenced popular British television series Midsomer Murders – set in the bucolic countryside – and Russian literary masterpiece Crime and Punishment.
“It’s not a crime novel as the British [foreign] minister thinks, but rather a deep philosophical work of literature,” he said. “I would suggest that Mr [Boris] Johnson read some other novels by Dostoevsky or at least get to know their names.”
He then mused on the whereabouts of reported Skripal pets, two cats and two guinea pigs.
“What happened to these animals? Why doesn’t anyone mention them? Their condition is also an important piece of evidence,” he said.
A British government spokeswoman said on Thursday that both guinea pigs had died and that a cat found in a distressed state was euthanized. She did not mention a second cat.
Nebenzia also reached for a copy of Alice in Wonderland and read aloud an extract about the white rabbit.
“It suits Russia to turn the whole business into a farce. By playing up the melodrama at the UN, Nebenzia succeeds in distracting from the seriousness of the crime,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“By turning it into a game, Russia aims to make the UK look a bit silly. A lot of other countries might like to let the matter drop before it worsens relations with Russia further, so Moscow’s strategy may not be a joke.”
But even before the meeting, the British ambassador kicked off the literary allusions by taking aim at her Russian counterpart’s purported fondness for a Sherlock Holmes analogy.
Allowing Russians scientists “into an investigation where they are the most likely perpetrators of the crime … would be like Scotland Yard inviting in Professor Moriarty,” she told reporters of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional criminal mastermind.