As It Happens

Accused nerve agent attackers' tourist story 'obviously scripted,' says Russian journalist

Two Russian men accused of poisoning a former military intelligence officer and his daughter in the U.K. tell Russian state-funded TV they only visited Salisbury to see a church and its tall spire.

2 men accused in Skripal poisoning told Russian state TV they were in Salisbury on vacation

In this video grab provided by the RT channel , Ruslan Boshirov, left, and Alexander Petrov attend their first public appearance in an interview with the Kremlin-funded RT channel in Moscow. (RT channel via Associated Press)

They're just two ordinary guys from Moscow, working in the sports nutrition business. And they really had a hankering to go see a cathedral in a small U.K. town. 

That's the story two men put forward on Russian-funded state television station RT today in a bizarre interview.

They're the same two men accused by the U.K. of travelling to Salisbury in March and poisoning ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the deadly nerve agent Novichok.

The father and daughter survived, but the affair returned to the headlines in July when British woman Dawn Sturgess died and her partner, Charlie Rowley, fell ill after Rowley found a counterfeit bottle of perfume containing Novichok and brought it home.

Alexey Kovalev, managing editor of Russian news site Codaru, spoke with As it Happens host Carol off about the Russian counternarrative. Here is part of their conversation. 

Alexey, when you hear these men talk about this as though they were innocent bystanders that have been swept up in international intrigue, what do you make of that?

You really have to see this to get the grasp of how absurd and bizarre this whole thing is.

I mean, it's so awkwardly and so obviously scripted. And badly-rehearsed. Obviously these are their fake names, they are so generically Russian. It's like John Smith and Joe Doe or something like that.

It's really hard for me to comprehend how anyone could believe, anyone could fall for this.

Petrov and Boshirov on CCTV at Salisbury Station on March 4. (London Metropolitan Police via Reuters)

It's interesting that this is state-funded TV in Russia. This should be the most sympathetic interview these two men could get. And yet you can hear Margarita Simonyan, the interviewer, chuckling through this, because she seems to see this as rather absurd as well.

Well, this must be difficult, even for her, to maintain the facade that this is a serious interview, and totally not-scripted by her higher-ups in the Kremlin.

She went to great lengths on her social media trying to explain, where did these two guys find her phone number? She claims that they called her directly, and they only wanted to talk to her. There was no explanation as to why they did that, and not any other media outlet in Russia.

There are so many inconsistencies and glaring omissions. I don't even know where to begin.

They tell Margarita at RT that they went to Salisbury, England, on a little vacation. They wanted to see the very impressive cathedral. Was that convincing?

It's quite obvious that they are just reading the top couple of lines in the Wikipedia article that they Googled just a couple of minutes before this interview. 

If you listen to the original Russian clip, they mispronounce the name of the cathedral in quite a hilarious way. They heard it for the first time, probably, just minutes before this interview.

And if you track their movements up there, they are nowhere near this cathedral. So this is a really poor excuse.

A screenshot of the Wikipedia entry for the Salisbury Cathedral. (Wikipedia)

They say they're there to see this impressive cathedral. And then they say they went back again. So what's their explanation as to why they made these two trips?

OK, so this is really getting to the uncanny valley.

Their explanation as to why they had to return twice to the same town in a matter of two days is that on the first day, there was snow and slush everywhere.

They're from Moscow. For God's sake, we have eight months of winter. And the slush goes all the way up to your ankles. Nobody's deterred by that [laughs].

As far as I understand, on the second trip, they didn't even go anywhere near the cathedral. They just wandered around into the middle of nowhere.

And Salisbury is a quiet little town, and there's literally nothing else to see except this cathedral. They walked in a completely opposite direction on empty roads leading to nowhere. They offered no explanation for the curious route to this site of Salisbury.

Petrov and Boshirov captured on CCTV on Fisherton Road in Salisbury on March 4. (London Metropolitan Police via Reuters)

If this was part of some sophisticated intelligence operation — a hit that they were sent out to do by Vladimir Putin himself, ordered out of the Kremlin — why would they be such clowns? Why would they even be up on state TV?

I wish I had an explanation for you. A pretty obvious one would be that they really are incompetent clowns who botched up this operation and were forced to humiliate themselves on national television as some sort of punishment. That's the only semi-plausible I can offer you.

How is this interview playing in Russia?

There's a lot of memes now. It's perfect meme material. Everybody's just making fun of these guys, because what else can we do? I'm seeing on social media that even the state loyalists are like, how can anyone take this seriously?

This is really a screw-up of such monumental proportions that it's really hard to defend, even if it's literally your job to do so.

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.