It was a triumph of obfuscation.
Few would have envied Russian ambassador Grigory Logvinov this morning.
The Federal Government had just declared that two Russian spies would be booted from the country.
Australia wasn’t acting alone — more than a dozen nations have now expelled Russian officials to punish the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack on a former double agent in the British city of Salisbury.
Now Mr Logvinov had decided that it was time to give his side of the story.
That meant staring down a troop of sceptical Australian journalists at the Russian embassy in Canberra, while armed with nothing more than a glass of water.
The ambassador was seated at a desk which seemed almost comically small, surrounded by a thicket of microphones.
But Mr Logvinov didn’t seem daunted. He had a job to do — and he had no intention of abandoning his script.
‘Do you realise how stupid you sound?’
His first declaration — the two officials which Australia declared persona non grata were not, in fact, spies.
They were “career diplomats”, cruelly ejected by a capricious Australian government which had been hoodwinked by its close ally, the United Kingdom.
You could almost hear stifled snorts of disbelief in the room.
Canberra might not be a hive of international intrigue — but the reality is that all major powers employ intelligence agents. Australian government officials say it’s absurd to suggest there are no spies nestled within the Russian embassy.
“Do you realise how stupid you sound when you say there are no Russian spies in Australia?” asked one scribe.
The ambassador did not bat an eyelid.
“I do not feel stupid,” he declared baldly.
“I know what I am saying.”
That wasn’t all. Pictures of Russian embassy staff were plastered across newspapers this morning. Mr Logvinov chuckled.
“It is very funny,” he said. The pictures made the staffers look “very spy-ish”.
But the reality, he said, was more prosaic. One of the men was just a driver. One of the suspicious looking women was actually their chief accountant. The second was the wife of the embassy’s cook.
And the third person? He couldn’t remember.
Other than that, Mr Logvinov had an explanation for everything.
UK authorities say there is convincing evidence that the double agent poisoned in Britain, Sergei Skripal, was attacked with a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Mr Skripal — as well as his daughter, Yulia — remain in a critical condition.
Western intelligence agencies say there is no doubt Russia is behind the attack.
But the ambassador insisted Russia wasn’t guilty. In fact something was deeply suspicious about the entire furore.
“My gosh, who has seen the Skripals after their alleged poisoning?” he asked.
It seemed to be a rhetorical question. The ambassador opened his arms slightly and paused theatrically while journalists tried to digest it.
Eventually, a question — “are you saying they are healthy?”
“I am not saying anything!” the ambassador replied.
But it was clear what was happening. The United Kingdom must have manufactured the whole nerve agent attack — in concert with the United States — as part of a vast conspiracy to isolate Russia.
Avoiding uncomfortable ground
For Kremlin watchers, it was a familiar cadenza of grievance about connivance by “Euro-Atlantic” powers.
The downing of MH17 by Russian-backed rebels in the Ukraine?
There was “not a single piece of evidence” that Russia was responsible.
“Listen. Listen. You are not familiar with the real situation,” he told journalists, almost pleadingly.
Journalists became frustrated by Mr Logvinov’s indifference to facts.
They tried to get him onto uncomfortable ground, asking why some of the Russian Government’s political opponents back home found themselves in jail — or worse.
Mr Logvinov had no idea what they were talking about. There were no political assassinations in Russia. Certainly no poisonings.
“Well, maybe food poisoning,” he conceded.
Australia accused of ‘improper behaviour’
The ambassador had been fielding questions for more than 40 minutes, but he seemed to be enjoying himself more and more.
Then, rather suddenly, he zagged from defence to offence.
“We have a bad history of improper behaviour of Australian authorities,” he said darkly
“I would not like to elaborate but it happened in 2016. It happened in 2017.”
The press pack went still. What improper behaviour? Harassment? Something worse?
No, no, no. The ambassador did not want to elaborate. It was not a matter for the press.
Then why make the allegation in front of a score of journalists?
“I am not going to elaborate.”
Mr Logvinov’s energy didn’t flag. He fielded questions for almost an hour, until journalists ran out of them.
Reporters didn’t know whether to shake their heads or applaud.
He never even touched the glass of water.