Russia does not need access to the victims of the Salisbury poisoning as long as its ambassador has access to Britain's army of useful idiots

Mr Yakovenko complained about a ‘lack of evidence’ in the Salisbury poisoning case, but was happy to take as ‘evidence of British public opinion’ the results of his own Twitter poll

Russian ambassador to the UK: 'we have a lot of suspicions about Britain'

It is scarcely a contested point that Vladimir Putin seeks to exploit the opportunities offered to him by the open nature of countries he considers his enemies.

It is a relatively new phenomenon that the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, guaranteed in functioning democracies like Britain, are via new technologies now extended to those in other countries where such rights do not exist.

If a news outlet criticises Russia, criticises Putin, it almost cannot do so without inadvertently extending the invitation to online Kremlin troll farms to add their dubious side of the story, dozens of times over, via either the comments section or the link to the story on Facebook.

If modern Britain were ancient Athens, there would be Russians in our public square. If modern Russia were ancient Athens, there would be no public square. It would have fallen long ago.

Every would-be despot since Lenin has known well enough the need to take control of public conversation.

It is why the hallmark of a modern coup d’etat is the arrival of a man in military uniform on the state broadcaster.

The central question currently under discussion, be it in the Salisbury poisoning, the election of Donald Trump, the Cambridge Analytica revelations on the Brexit referendum and so on, is whether Western countries, having shifted their public conversations online, have inadvertently opened the doors to Russian men in combat fatigues. Whether an invisible coup d’etat is underway in our phones and laptops.

And with that we turn to the second 90-minute long press conference at the Kensington home of Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Mr Alexander Yakovenko.

The battle lines in this escalating conflict are well established now. On one side there is British intelligence, which remains secret but which has been sufficient to convince a further 20 countries that the Russian state is behind the attack.

On the other, there is the Russian propaganda war, seeking to exploit, as it has always done, the opportunities afforded to it by open societies.

And so we have, again, the spectacle of Ambassador Yakovenko, block booking the nation’s news channels for a full hour and a half, laughing and patronising his way through allegations of the utmost severity, taking another opportunity to repeat wild claims that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has already rejected.

For the second time in as many weeks, he bemoaned the lack of Russian consular access to the victims, a request the independent OPCW expressly ruled out yesterday. He spoke over and over again about “the lack of evidence”.

He was asked how Russia’s own investigation into the poisoning was progressing. “We have no investigation,” he replied. “Because we don’t have any access, we don’t have any facts. We have nothing to investigate.”

Just imagine for a moment: some British double agent, some Kim Philby type, the victim of an attempted assassination in a St Petersburg pizza parlour, and the international finger of blame is pointed directly at Theresa May. A month later, Britain’s ambassador to Moscow calls a press conference and says that he isn’t even investigating what happened. No one is even attempting to look into it.

At one point, Mr Yakovenko referred to the “evidence” of “British public opinion”, which he said “does not agree” that Russia is behind the poisoning. This “evidence” for this came in the form of the Russian Embassy’s own poll, conducted on Twitter. “This is British opinion I am talking about,” he said, as if A) the people who follow the Russian Embassy on Twitter are representative of British public opinion and B) no one from outside Britain has access to a poll conducted by the Russian Embassy.

It is palpable nonsense. It is radioactive garbage. And yet, Mr Yakovenko only need say the word to have full, unrestricted, live broadcast access to this nation’s willing army of cranks and conspiracy theorists, most of whom have #JC4PM in their Twitter biographies and are simply too dense to understand their roles as Putin’s useful idiots.

“Our people are in trouble,” he said towards the end. “We don’t know what’s happened to them. We want to help them.”

Trouble is, the rest of the world has taken a very firm view on what’s happened to them. And all Mr Yakovenko can do is laugh about it.

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