Two Russian men’s claims that they were innocent tourists wrongly accused of an attempted assassination in Britain raised eyebrows on Friday – even in Russia’s usually patriotic media.
The men said that far from plotting to poison a turncoat spy with a deadly nerve agent, they were actually just in England to admire the Gothic architecture in the city of Salisbury.
In an interview aired by Russian broadcaster RT on Thursday, the men identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov said they had nothing to do with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
In Russia meanwhile, Kommersant newspaper questioned why the men were not able show identification or give further details about their work or private lives.
Petrov and Boshirov said they worked as entrepreneurs in the fitness and supplements industries, but business paper RBK said it had found no business registered under their two names in Russia.
The paper also noted they showed no evidence they had ever made it to Salisbury cathedral, which they cited as the city’s main draw.
The newspaper Vedomosti headlined its report on the broadcast: “An interview, but no information”.
Yet some on the streets of Moscow took the men’s claims at face value.
“I think they’re telling the truth… They’re a normal pair who just got into trouble, I’m sure they feel pretty bad now,” said Leonid, a 58-year-old entrepreneur.
“They explained everything simply and clearly yesterday, why they went there, what they were doing there, what the weather was like,” he told AFP.
The men raised eyebrows when they said they had been to the cathedral city twice in two days because heavy snow forced them to turn back on their first visit.
They reeled off facts about the “beautiful city” and the friends’ recommendations that had inspired them to visit.
RT head Margarita Simonyan, who conducted the interview, hinted the men could be a gay couple during the broadcast and later on Twitter.
But Maria Kazimi, a student in Moscow, rejected the idea the pair were either a gay couple or spies on a killing mission.
“Why can’t two friends go to a city and spend time together?” the 18-year-old asked.
“I think they’re just two guys who have been blamed for this – now they’re in shock, they’re scared, they don’t know what to do.”
The Kremlin dismissed as “absurd” London’s claim that the interview contained lies.
London accuses the two men of putting the nerve agent Novichok on the front door handle of former double agent Skripal in the poisoning attack on March 4.
He and his daughter Yulia became seriously ill, while a police officer on the case was also hospitalized.
They all recovered but a fake perfume bottle containing Novichok was picked up by a local man. He gave it to his girlfriend, who later died.
The poisoning dragged Moscow’s relations with London and other Western powers to a low point not seen since the Cold War.
London said the two men were Russian agents, which Moscow denies.
Their interview prompted scorn and mockery in Britain.
“The last time Russian military claimed to be on holiday was when they invaded Ukraine in 2014,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted.
“What a bold move, to rely on Sunday trains to get themselves to Salisbury and back and then to Heathrow,” one Twitter user noted, in reference to Britain’s unreliable weekend rail services.
“The Spy Who Went Home Because It Was Cold,” another wrote.