The two Russian intelligence officers accused of poisoning Sergey Skripal in Salisbury are ready for their close-up. On Thursday, in a piece of televised political theater astonishing even by the Kremlin’s usual standards, Russia’s foreign propaganda channel RT aired an exclusive interview with the two men charged with a chemical attack on British soil. Everything about this video is unusual: from who pitched the idea in the first place, to who carried out the interview, and when, to the substance of what was said—and left unsaid—during the interview itself.
On September 5, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that two Russian nationals who travelled under the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were responsible for the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey with the nerve agent Novichok. The government concluded, said May, that the two Russian nationals were officers from the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. The Brits presented surveillance camera footage from London’s Gatwick Airport, where the two arrived from Moscow, as well as footage “of the two men which clearly places them in the immediate vicinity of the Skripals’ house” just moments before the attack.
A week later, on September 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on Boshirov and Petrov at the Vladivostok Economic Forum.
“Of course, we took a look at who those people are. We know who they are, we’ve found them,” said Putin, barely hiding a smile. “I hope they’ll come out voluntarily and speak out. It’d be better for everyone. There’s nothing special or criminal in there, I assure you. We’ll see in the nearest future,” Putin predicted. When the moderator asked if Boshirov and Petrov were civilians, Putin replied in the affirmative: “Of course, they are civilians.”
The very next day, RT aired an interview with the two men conducted by RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Simonyan commented on the interview on her personal Telegram channel, claiming that the two had called her on her cell phone (“everybody knows my cell phone number”), that they refused to come to a studio or to any other crowded place and insisted that it be filmed at her office, with only one camera.
At the start of the interview, Boshirov and Petrov admit that they are the ones caught on British surveillance cameras. Answering why they went to Salisbury, they say that they initially planned to “get laid in London,” but their “friends recommended visiting this wonderful city” to see the famous Salisbury Cathedral. The two suspected assassins then rave about the cathedral, saying it “is not only famous throughout Europe, but in the whole world,” before rattling off facts about its “123-meter high steeple” and its housing of the oldest working clock in the world. (They failed to mention the best-kept surviving copy of the Magna Carta, also kept in Salisbury Cathedral).
When Simonyan asks if they have any pictures taken at the cathedral, they say yes. But when she suggests they provide the pictures, they get confused and the video is clearly cut off. This is one of many lies surrounding this interview, which Simonyan announced would be aired uncut.
Boshirov and Petrov claim to be medium-size business owners who work in the “fitness industry,” but refuse to go into further details so as “not to harm their clients.” Alexander Petrov, the brawnier of the two, is eager to talk about dietary supplements, a topic he returns to throughout the interview.
When Petrov talks, he always looks at Boshirov, as if looking for his approval or permission to speak. Boshirov, on the other hand, often dismisses or interrupts his partner to qualify his answers. Of the two men, Boshirov appears to be the brain, and Petrov the muscle.
When asked why they traveled to Europe so often, the two visibly flounder. At first they say they went mostly for business; seconds later, they claim it was for leisure. They claim to have stayed mostly in Switzerland. When Simonyan asks why they stayed in the same hotel rooms, they obliquely hint at homosexuality, asking her not to intervene in their private lives.
The two men offer a meandering explanation as to why they left Salisbury on March 3rd for London, supposedly due to bad weather and “muddy slush” on the streets of Salisbury. (Needless to say, this is hardly convincing coming from two Muscovites.) The interview culminates when Boshirov and Petrov say “we came back to Salisbury on the 4th in order to finish this matter.” “Which matter?” asks Simonyan. “Well, to visit these…these landmarks.”
When asked if they passed by the Skripals’ house, as the surveillance footage shows, they say they don’t know where the house is and might have passed by it unknowingly. Simonyan fails to challenge this statement in any way—even though the Skripals’ house is located 1.6 miles away from the Cathedral, in a residential area without any tourist attractions.
Both men deny having had Novichok on them or working for the GRU.
Besides Simonyan’s lies about not cutting the interview, there have been several other false statements surrounding the segment. For one, the interview was not shot in Simonyan’s office, as she claims. Months before she hosted Swedish journalists in her office for an interview, and it looked totally different. The tiny room where the interview with Boshirov and Petrov was conducted doesn’t have a single TV screen—very abnormal for the head of a major television network.
Nor can Simonyan’s cell phone number be found in open sources, as she claims. The Bell, one of Russia’s few independent media outlets, asked scores of investigative journalists to try and find the number and came up dry.
Simonyan also failed to ask obvious questions of the two men: where they were issued their travel passports and why the documents’ serial numbers differ by only one digit; why they had tickets back to Moscow on two dates, March 4 and 5, as some media reported; why they don’t have profiles on social media and there is almost no information about them on the Internet; and whether they’ve been questioned by Russian law enforcement, since Putin said the two “have been found.” On the contrary, at some points Simonyan rushed to help them out when they stumbled over their answers, prompting them about what their business has to do with Europe.
And finally, in the video Simonyan refers to the time of Putin’s remarks as “today”—which means the interview was shot the very same day, September 12.
What can be concluded from this whole charade? First of all, Ruslan Boshirov and Andrey Petrov are undoubtedly Russian intelligence officers, who are now being brought to light for some mysterious reason as part of a larger Kremlin plan. And secondly, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has shown once again that she is not a journalist but a simple Kremlin operative—one who appears to have willingly played her role in the cover-up of an attempted murder. It is hardly a secret that RT is a Russian state propaganda organ; the TV channel was recently forced to register as a foreign agent in the United States. But for those few viewers who still claim to see journalistic value in RT, this interview should come as a reminder that its real work is far more sinister.