Russian interview with alleged spies just a 'distraction'

The men, identified as Mr Ruslan Boshirov and Mr Alexander Petrov, in a screen grab taken off the interview footage last Friday.
The two men claimed in the Kremlin-backed RT interview last Friday that they were in Salisbury, England, to see the spire atop the cathedral around the time that Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned on March 4. But Russian business paper RBK noted that the men showed no evidence that they had ever made it to Salisbury Cathedral.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The two men claimed in the Kremlin-backed RT interview last Friday that they were in Salisbury, England, to see the spire atop the cathedral around the time that Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned on March 4. But Russian business paper
The men, identified as Mr Ruslan Boshirov and Mr Alexander Petrov, in a screen grab taken off the interview footage last Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Kremlin-backed TV focuses on pair's sexuality as they deny poisoning ex-double agent in UK

WASHINGTON • When Mr Alexander Petrov and Mr Ruslan Boshirov went on Kremlin-backed channel RT this week to defend themselves from British allegations that they attacked a former Russian double agent and his daughter with a nerve agent on British soil, the interview wasn't only about whether they poisoned anyone.

Instead, it raised questions about whether the two men are gay.

The pair claimed in the RT interview that they were in Salisbury, England, around the time that Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.

They said they were there on holiday to see the spire atop Salisbury Cathedral.

In the interview, they claimed friends had recommended Salisbury as a tourist destination.

But when they were asked about the bottle of perfume that British man Charlie Rowley claims he found and gave to his girlfriend, Ms Dawn Sturgess, who later died of Novichok poisoning, one of them replied by asking: "Don't you think it's silly for straight men to have women's perfume with them?"

"Speaking of straight men, all footage features you two together," the interviewer, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, replied.

PERFUME BOTTLE

Don't you think it's silly for straight men to have women's perfume with them?

MR RUSLAN BOSHIROV, when asked about the Nina Ricci vial that British authorities said contained the poison.

ALWAYS TOGETHER

Speaking of straight men, all footage features you two together. You spent time together, you lived together, you went for a walk together. What do you have in common that you spend so much time together?

MS MARGARITA SIMONYAN, the interviewer, in reply.

CARRYING POISON

Delighted to see that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were able to see the world-class attractions that Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage.

MR JOHN GLEN, the MP for Salisbury, tweeted.

LACKING DETAILS

An interview, but no information.

RUSSIAN NEWSPAPER VEDOMOSTI, commenting on the interview.

"You spent time together, you lived together, you went for a walk together. What do you have in common that you spend so much time together?"

When the men tried to deflect the question away from their personal lives, she continued by saying: "No need to justify yourselves. Whether you had a single or double bed is the least of the world's concerns right now."

The intrusive questions about their sexuality raised speculation that the host was trying to deflect attention from the alleged poisoning and instead focus viewers' attention on how exactly the two men know each other.

Observers warned against seeing the inquiry as anything more than a distraction mechanism. British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman called the interview "an insult to the public's intelligence".

"The last time Russian military claimed to be on holiday was when they invaded Ukraine in 2014," Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted.

Mr Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at US think-tank Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, called the interview "a piece of political theatre".

Radio Free Europe wrote that Russia 24 news channel later presented a piece on Salisbury, describing it as a place that embodies "modern European tolerance". The presenter stood in front of a screen that said "Salisbury Pride", with an image of the much-discussed steeple painted as a rainbow.

Mr John Glen, the MP for Salisbury, tweeted: "Delighted to see that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were able to see the world-class attractions that Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage."

The poisoning of the Skripals on March 4 dragged Moscow's relations with London and other Western powers to a low point not seen since the Cold War.

In Russia, Kommersant newspaper questioned why the Russian pair accused of the poisoning were not able show identification or give further details about their work or private lives.

Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov said they worked as entrepreneurs in the fitness and supplements industries, but business paper RBK said it had found no business registered under their two names in Russia. The paper also noted they showed no evidence they had ever made it to Salisbury Cathedral.

The newspaper Vedomosti headlined its report on the broadcast: "An interview, but no information".

The Kremlin, meanwhile, dismissed as "absurd" London's claim that the interview contained "lies and blatant fabrications".

Memes and comments about the pair's potential relationship began to circulate on social media.

On one Russian language Donald Trump parody account, the user posted a screenshot from Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 film about a same-sex relationship, with the caption, "Let's go to Salisbury! I'll show you the spire!"

  • Timeline of duo's visit to Britain

  • FRIDAY, MARCH 2

    3pm: Arrive at Gatwick Airport via Aeroflot flight from Moscow. Check into City Stay Hotel in London.

    SATURDAY, MARCH 3

    • 2.25pm: Arrive in Salisbury.

    • 4.10pm: Leave Salisbury for London. Stay at City Stay Hotel, where later swab tests show traces of nerve agent Novichok.

    • 6.30pm: Board London Underground train for Heathrow Airport.

    • 10.30pm: Depart for Moscow on Aeroflot flight.

    SUNDAY, MARCH 4

    • 4.15pm: Mr Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia are found slumped on a park bench. Policeman Nick Bailey is also injured.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The woman who interviewed the Russian pair wrote on Twitter that she doesn't know "if they're gay or not".

"They're fashionable guys, as far as I can tell, with cute beards and haircuts, tight pants, biceps bulging under their sweaters," Ms Simonyan wrote.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 16, 2018, with the headline 'Russian interview with alleged spies just a 'distraction''. Print Edition | Subscribe