Diplomatic war comes to Dublin as Russians invite media to embassy

Envoy says reports of spying in Ireland part of ‘hype’ around nerve-agent attack in UK

Russian ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov criticises UK prime minister Theresa May's decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats from Britain in response to a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Salisbury. Video: Simon Carswell

 

The diplomatic war of words between Russia and the UK over the poisoning of a former spy in Salisbury, England spread to Dublin on Thursday as Moscow’s ambassador to Ireland accused London of “absurd, hostile action”.

Russian envoy Yury Filatov took the unusual move of inviting members of the Irish media to his country’s embassy on Orwell Road, Rathgar to condemn the British government’s expulsion of 23 diplomats.

The UK, backed by the US, France and Germany, has claimed that Russia was “culpable” for the chemical toxin attack in Salisbury that has left a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal (66) and his daughter Yulia (33) in a critical condition.

Mr Filatov invited reporters to hear first-hand of Russia’s plans to build a new embassy in the Rathgar area in response to a report in last weekend’s Sunday Times which cited concerns within the Garda’s intelligence unit that Russian security or military bodies may be using the embassy for spying operations.

Mr Filatov claimed that reports of increased Russian spying in Dublin was “part of the whole hype around the Skripal affair” and an “overall effort to launch a massive propaganda campaign against Russia”.

It was reported, citing Garda information, that Russia’s intelligence services had increased their activities in Ireland to spy on companies involved in the technology, engineering and scientific sectors.

Surveillance

Embassy spokesman Vasily Velichkin, on a tour of the embassy’s grounds, denied that the new buildings were for surveillance purposes. He said they were for receptions, consular services and for accommodating Russia’s staff. Planning permission had been granted and construction would start soon, he said.

Mr Velichkin asked where was the new ESB substation, as reported by the Sunday Times, that was “built to increase our capability to increase our spying or things like that”. He dismissed the report as “fake news”.

He said the Russians bought the Orwell Road property, built in the 1890s, more than 40 years ago and said they needed new buildings as the embassy was “very old and small inside, and very hard to accommodate staff”.

There had been no increase in staff numbers at the Orwell Road complex in recent years, he said, but he declined to disclose how many people worked there.

Asked what a large antennae and satellite dish on the embassy building was for, Mr Velichkin said that it was for receiving TV signals.

He declined to answer further questions from reporters, directing them instead to the ambassador.

After Mr Velichkin’s whistle-stop tour, the ambassador himself emerged from the embassy a short time later and descended the stone steps to address reporters. He accused the British of handling the investigation into the attack involving a Russian-made nerve agent in a “highly irresponsible way”.

‘Absurd’

The UK government’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats was an “absurd, hostile action against our diplomatic representation in the United Kingdom”, he said.

“It is a very worrisome situation when we have a government who are a nuclear power behaving in a most irresponsible, aggressive way,” he said.

The ambassador declined to answer a question from Sunday Times journalist John Mooney, who wrote last weekend’s story on the embassy, about whether the Russian government sought formal permission from the Irish Government to operate its foreign intelligence service in the State in 2016.

“If there are issues for the Irish Government with us, we have a way to discuss things. We have normal channels of communication,” he said.

“We enjoy a stable, open and constructive dialogue with the Irish Government. If there are issues, there are ways to discuss them other than talking to you guys, with all due respect.”

He would not respond to further questions and walked back up the granite steps into the embassy.