Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, interviewed with Savannah Guthrie of the “Today Show” on Friday. He said he can’t remember a period of worsening relations between Washington and Moscow. These comments came in the wake of both countries expelling dozens of diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy.
In the exclusive interview, Antonov also reiterated Russia’s denial of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He said it was “impossible to imagine” that the Kremlin was responsible.
He also declared that special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals on suspicion of interfering in the voting process was “not a proof” of responsibility.
“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.”
He added that “there is great mistrust between the United States and Russia” at present.
“Today Russia’s responsible for everything, even for bad weather,” he said. “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.”
This tension is likely to increase now that President trump has appointed to foreign policy hard-liners for key roles on his team. Mike Pompeo will be Secretary of State and John Bolton will be National Security Adviser.
Antonov also said that Russia had nothing to do with the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England earlier this month. But the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany issued a joint statement blaming Russia for the attack. Twenty-six countries expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning.
After the U.S. kicked out 60 diplomats, Russia responded by removing 58 employees of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and two from the U.S. consulate in Yekaterinburg.
Antonov explained, ”If anybody slaps your cheek, your face, what will be the reaction from your side?” he said. “You will retaliate. It goes without saying.”
Putin decried the allegations that his government was behind Skripal’s poisoning as “nonsense.” Ambassador Antonov echoed this, 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 a Russian jail. So it was enough time for us to know everything that he knew,” the ambassador said. “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 said he was prepared to sit down and talk with his U.S. counterparts.
“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.”
Antonov also described the controversial phone call in which Trump congratulated Putin on winning the election. It was a “warm conversation” where the two leaders “discussed the real problems we face today.”
He summed up the present relationship by saying, ”When we dance, it means both parties are responsible,” he said. “If the United States does not want to dance tango, what should I do?”
Watch a clip of the interview below: