The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told NBC's Today that he can't remember a period when relations between Washington and Moscow were worse, after both countries expelled dozens of each other's diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy.
"It seems to me that atmosphere in Washington is poisoned — it's a toxic atmosphere," he said. "It depends upon us to decide whether we are in Cold War or not. But ... I don't remember such [a] bad shape of our relations."
Pointing out that "there is great mistrust between the United States and Russia" at present, Antonov said that "today Russia's responsible for everything, even for bad weather."
"It's high time for us to stop blaming each other. It's high time for us to start a real conversation about real problems."
Then again, with the wave of anti-Russia hysteria sweeping the US today at levels not seen since the days of Joe McCarthy, that is unlikely. It is even more unlikely considering Trump's two recent neocon cabinet picks: Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser.
In the interview, Antonov echoed Putin's denial that Russia is behind the Skripal poisoning, saying there was "no evidence" Russia was responsible, even suggesting a conspiracy by noting that the attack happened "very close to U.K. military chemical laboratory." He asked: "Do we have a motive to kill [Skripal] on the eve of [the] Russian presidential election? … Where is the motive?"
"Skripal spent five years in Russian jail. So it was enough time for us to know everything that he knew. Why we should make revenge? You see that he was in our jail. And you'll see that he was in our hands. And for us, it's clear that he's empty. He knows nothing."
Antonov also repeated Russia's denials that it meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, saying it was "impossible to imagine" that the Kremlin was responsible, and said that the recent indictment by Robert Mueller of 13 Russian nationals on suspicion of interfering in the vote was "not a proof" of responsibility.
Meanwhile, on Thursday and also overnight Moscow responded to recent expulsions of Russian diplomats from Western nations with its own tit-for-tat retaliation. Yesterday, the Kremlin announced it was kicking out 58 employees of the U.S. embassy in Moscow and two of the U.S. consulate in Yekaterinburg.
On Friday morning, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the heads of diplomatic missions from countries that had either already expelled or decided to expel Russian diplomats “in solidarity” with the UK over the Skripal case. All of them were handed notes of protest. Among those summoned was UK envoy to Russia Laurie Bristow, who was told that within one month, the British side must cut its diplomatic staff in the embassy and its consulates across Russia to the same size as the Russian diplomatic mission in the UK, after the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats last week.
While no exact numbers were provided to the public, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, "the UK must cut more than 50 embassy staff in Russia."
Moscow also expelled two Italian diplomats and gave them a week to leave the country, the Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed in a statement. The list included a number of Swedish, Finnish and Polish diplomats as well. They were given several days to leave the country.
The map below lays out the number or Russian diplomats expelled...
... and here is the breakdown following today's tit-for-tat by the Kremlin. What is notable is that while the mutual expulsions are equal for virtually all countries, the number of UK diplomats to be expelled is more than double the 23 Russians that were kicked out last week, suggesting more retaliation from London is inevitable"
- UK -27: 23 Russians Out, 50 Brits Out
- US 00: 60 Russians Out, 60 Americans Out
- Germany 00: 4 Russians Out, 4 Germans Out
- Poland 00: 4 Russians Out, 4 Poles Out
- Denmark 00: 2 Russians Out, 2 Danes Out
- Spain 00: 2 Russians Out, 2 Spaniards Out
- Ireland 00: 1 Russian Out, 1 Irish Out
- Croatia 00: 1 Russian Out, 1 Croatian Out
Not all European countries joined "in solidarity" with the UK: Austria said it won’t be joining the punitive measures against Russia. “Indeed, we want to keep the channels of communication to Russia open,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl said. Czech President Milos Zeman called the London claims “a bit superfluous,” and demanded the UK deliver proof of its allegations that Russia had a hand in the Skripal poisoning. Turkey also refused to expel Russians, with its Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag saying that "Turkey isn’t considering taking any decisions against Russia" and explained that the current crises in US-Turkish relations is a large factor in their decision not to alienate Moscow at a time when “there is a positive and good relationship between Turkey and Russia.”
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Back on NBC, Antonov explained why Russia had responded by expelling U.S. diplomats: "If anybody slaps your cheek, your face, what will be the reaction from your side?" he said. "You will retaliate. It goes without saying."
Antonov said despite the tit-for-tat exchanges, he was prepared to sit down and talk with his U.S. counterparts. U.S. officials have said similar, however the Russian ambassador claimed he has been unable to arrange any meetings.
"I have offered my colleagues from the State Department from [the Department] of Defense, to sit together, to come to my residence," he said. "If they are scared, I say that, 'Come on, we can meet in a restaurant and to discuss all outstanding issues.' It was four or five months ago. And I got [an] answer: silent."