Russian President Vladimir Putin has called to de-escalate the situation. Picture: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called to de-escalate the situation. Picture: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool.

Inside Russia’s alternate reality

INSIDE the luxurious ambassadorial residence in London's Kensington Gardens, an alternate reality exists.

The vast property is home to Russia's top UK diplomat, Alexander Yakovenko, and one of several immaculate buildings on a privately guarded street where diplomats from France, Nepal, Norway, Slovakia and Romania live with a view of Kensington Palace, neighbours to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

But while Russia's top man in London might share the same police guards, 'no photo' signs and manicured gardens as his European compatriots, that is where the similarities end.

Inside the briefing room laden with chandeliers, parquetry floors and gilded oil paintings, Ambassador Yakovenko outlined his concern about the dual crisis that have plunged Western relations with Russia to lows not seen since the Cold War this week to the world's press.

Speaking about the Skripal poisoning and looming decision over air strikes against the Syrian government, he accused humanitarian groups of staging the chemical attack and blasted the UK for a lack of "transparency" during the Salisbury investigation.

"We are very concerned about the decision of the cabinet to 'take action' in Syria," Mr Yakovenko said. "The preparations are being made despite lack of evidence as regards to what happened on the ground."

President Trump is still weighing his options on Syria. Picture: AFP PHOTO / Olivier Douliery
President Trump is still weighing his options on Syria. Picture: AFP PHOTO / Olivier Douliery

 

On the alleged chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma where an estimated 70 people died, he said Russian security services "did not find any traces of chemical substances. No persons treated for chemical poisoning were found in local hospitals."

That's despite the World Health Organisation stating an estimated 500 people presented at medical facilities with the effects of chemical weapons in the area, according to local agencies. The UN has previously found "clear and convincing evidence" chemical weapons were used in Ghouta in 2013.

On the pending decision on air strikes, Mr Yakovenko said military action could be a pretext to "cover up all the evidence or lack thereof on the ground," and likened it to former Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

"It's clear that the goal of these unsubstantiated lies … is to discredit the Syrian government and to justify the use of force by external actors."

"We're witnessing very dangerous developments in Syria," he said, adding US policies are becoming a "threat to peace in the region and beyond."

Yulia Skripal has refused consular help from Russia so far and has been under police protection after being poisoned with a deadly nerve agent, but Russia has questioned whether she is being held against her will. Picture: Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP.
Yulia Skripal has refused consular help from Russia so far and has been under police protection after being poisoned with a deadly nerve agent, but Russia has questioned whether she is being held against her will. Picture: Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP.

 

The comments illustrate just how polarised Russian and Western world views have become in a seemingly intractable conflict mired in accusations of misinformation and fake news. With repeated admonishments of "don't twist my words", the Ambassador laid out a view diametrically opposed to that of the UK government, where Russia only wanted "transparency" and was the victim of a Russophobic media agenda against them.

On the case of Yulia and Sergei Skripal, both still recovering from the effects of nerve agent Novichok, Mr Yakovenko questioned whether Yulia's recent statements, made via the Metropolitan police, were done under duress.

"We're not allowed to see our citizens, talk to doctors, we have no idea about the treatment Russian nationals receive," he said. "We cannot be sure that Yulia's refusal to see us is genuine."

Yulia Skripal is being held in a safe house and has so far refused Russian offers of consular assistance.

Mr Yakovenko also accused the UK of deliberately classifying documents to obfuscate investigations and denied Russia had ever produced Novichok, the deadly nerve agent that Britain has named as the source, which has been backed by the OPCW as one of "high purity."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the chemical weapons attack in Syria was staged by humanitarian groups. Picture: Yuri KADOBNOV
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the chemical weapons attack in Syria was staged by humanitarian groups. Picture: Yuri KADOBNOV

 

The UK has placed the blame for the Skripal poisoning firmly at Russian feet, saying it's the only country with the means, motive, and technical ability to carry out the attack on UK soil.

On Friday, UK National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg the UK believes Russian intelligence services were monitoring the Skripals for at least five years before the March 4 poisoning took place.

"We have information indicating Russian intelligence service interest in the Skripals, dating back at least as far as 2013, when email accounts belonging to Yulia Skripal were targeted by GRU cyber specialists," he said, referring to Russia's foreign military intelligence agency.

It comes after UK Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with President Trump and the pair agreed "the Assad regime had established a pattern of dangerous behaviour in relation to the use of chemical weapons."

"They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regimen," a spokesman said, adding that they were still working on an international response.



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