The Russian government really wants the world to believe it had nothing to do with poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in the UK earlier this year — even though experts, as well as the leaders of the US, UK, France, and Germany, all agree that Russia was almost certainly behind the attack.
Even President Vladimir Putin has tried to deflect blame by saying two suspected Russian agents were actually just civilians. But the latest attempt really takes the cake.
On Thursday, the Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet RT published an “exclusive” interview with two men claiming to be the two suspects the UK government has charged with perpetrating the attack. The men professed their innocence.
The British government has identified two men — Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — as Russian intelligence agents sent by the Kremlin to assassinate Skripal using Novichok, a Russian-made nerve agent.
The RT interview features two men claiming to be Petrov and Boshirov. And their story is, uh, let’s go with “interesting.”
They claim they’re not intelligence officers at all, but rather tourists who were visiting the town of Salisbury, where the attack occurred, on vacation.
Their main reason for going to this completely random British town where a former Russian spy just happened to be living? They really, really wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral, which boasts the tallest spire in Britain.
The cathedral is “famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world,” the pair told RT.
It gets better: They said they ended up having to cut their visit short because there was too much snow on the ground. In the UK. In March.
Let’s just unpack this a bit, shall we?
The interview makes no sense
First, it’s unclear whether the two men in the interview are even the same two men the UK has identified as suspects. They look somewhat similar.
Here are the photos the UK released:
Railroads were closed, intense snowfall caused transport system collapse once we got to London, why aren’t media outlets showing this? -Suspects in #Skripal case #Skripalhttps://t.co/18EqeN4zGX pic.twitter.com/SIG860LkFt— RT (@RT_com) September 13, 2018
And here are the two men who appeared in the interview:
Alleged Skripal assassins "Alexander Petrov" and "Ruslan Boshirov" are actually telling RT that they came to the UK because their friends told them to see the "famous Salisbury cathedral" pic.twitter.com/rvDEYNjydh— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) September 13, 2018
But let’s just say for the sake of argument that they are the same guys. What about the rest of their story?
Well, the UK also released CCTV footage showing the two suspects walking side by side in Salisbury, unencumbered by the weather. In fact, there’s almost no snow on the ground, except for a very few bits on the edge of the sidewalk.
They seem to be getting around in that massive blizzard pretty well.
To be fair, the Salisbury Cathedral is beautiful. Indeed, the cathedral smartly decided to capitalize on the increased attention from the two men’s story, sending out a promotional tweet just a few minutes after the RT interview came out:
Salisbury Cathedral’s spire is the tallest in Britain, reaching the impressive height of 123m! It is no wonder that it can be seen for miles around and plays such a significant part of the surrounding landscape.— Salisbury Cathedral (@SalisburyCath) September 13, 2018
Photograph by Ash Mills pic.twitter.com/NbfcSwGjVg
So, sure. Maybe these two Russian men are innocent tourists who just really dig architecture and hate snow and happened to be in the same place at the same time as two other men who tried to assassinate a former Russian spy.
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t actually matter if you believe their story or not. All that matters is that there’s enough vaguely plausible doubt out there now that the Russian government can use to distract from the truth.
This is the Russian playbook
The UK called the two men’s comments “lies” after the interview came out. But that, in a way, is the point: Russia created the narrative that the two suspects were just innocent tourists, forcing the British government to respond to the claims.
Russia’s manipulation of the media doesn’t just muddy up the facts; it also turns the truth into a joke.
It’s the perfect encapsulation of Russia’s entire fake news propaganda strategy, which they’ve also used in Syria to deny chemical attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Russian troop presence in Ukraine, and interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.
It’s just ridiculous enough to work. And it does.