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Britain's Johnson Likens World Cup In Russia To Hitler's Olympics


British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in Parliament on March 21.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson agreed with a lawmaker who said that President Vladimir Putin will use the World Cup in Russia this summer as a "PR exercise" just like Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The exchange came on March 21 as a committee of British legislators discussed the poisoning of an ex-spy with a nerve agent in England.

Johnson reiterated Britain’s accusations that Putin's government was behind the attack, saying that the trail of responsibility leads to "those at the top" of the Russian state.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Johnson’s comments "unacceptable," and said the foreign secretary was "poisoned with hatred and anger" for Russia.

Johnson spoke shortly after Russia again denied involvement and asserted that Britain or the United States could be to blame for the attack that left former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in critical condition.

The British Embassy in Moscow, meanwhile, said that a briefing by a senior Russian diplomat produced "no credible explanation" and that Russia was spreading "lies and disinformation" about the incident.

The remarks suggested there may be no end in sight to a tense dispute over what officials say was the first known offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.

"The idea of Putin handing over the World Cup to the captain of the winning team; the idea of Putin using this as a PR exercise to gloss over the brutal, corrupt regime for which he is responsible; it fills me with horror," Labour MP Ian Austin told Johnson during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Johnson replied, "I'm afraid that's completely right, completely right."

"Your characterization of what is going to happen in Moscow in the World Cup, in all the venues -- yes, I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right," he added.

Hitler became Germany's leader in 1933 and used Berlin's hosting of the 1936 Summer Olympics as part of propaganda for the Nazi regime, which had already brought in rules to ensure all athletics organizations in the country had an "Aryan-only" policy.

"Any such comparisons of our country ... are unacceptable in principle and unworthy of the head of a diplomatic institution of a European state," Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Facebook.

"It is clear [Johnson] is poisoned with hatred and anger, unprofessionalism and, therefore, boorishness," she added.

French 'Solidarity'

Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who had arrived from Moscow on March 3 to visit her father, were found collapsed on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury the following day.

London says they were exposed to a Soviet-designed military-grade nerve agent from a series known as Novichok.

The matter came up on March 21 in a telephone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.

The two "reiterated their solidarity" with Britain and "agreed on the need to take action to hold Russia accountable," the White House said.

In Paris, Macron said the Salisbury attack “cannot remain without a response," without elaborating.

Johnson said the timing of the attack appeared to have been "connected with the recent election in Russia," in which Putin won a new six-year term in a vote seen as a sham by his opponents.

"And as many non-democratic figures do when facing an election or facing some critical political moment, it is often attractive to conjure up in the public imagination the notion of an enemy," Johnson said.

Johnson said he believes Russia was sending a message to potential defectors and chose a target in Britain because of what he said was London's record of "calling out" abuses by Moscow.

"It's Britain that has been most forthright, and most obstinate in sticking up for our values," he said. "I think that is probably the reason why it was decided to make this gesture here in this country."

In Moscow, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official told foreign diplomats that "logic suggests that there are only two possible" conclusions: that Britain failed to avert the attack or was responsible.

"Either the British authorities are not able to provide protection from such a, let's say, terrorist attack on their soil, or they, whether directly or indirectly, I am not accusing anyone, have orchestrated an attack on a Russian citizen", Vladimir Yermakov.

Yermakov also pointed at the United States, saying that "this could have been orchestrated from across the pond. It is no secret to anyone that the U.K.'s closest partner is the only state officially keeping the largest arsenals of chemical weapons in the world."

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Russia claims to have destroyed its entire arsenal of chemical weapons -- though Western officials have disputed that -- while the United States has not finished doing so under an international convention.

Yermakov, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry's department for non-proliferation, was speaking at a meeting the Foreign Ministry called a day earlier to lay out Moscow's view of the poisoning.

'Lies And Disinformation'

British Ambassador Laurie Bristow did not attend the meeting, sending a lower-level representative. In a tweet after the briefing, the embassy said Britain "received no credible explanation why a nerve agent produced in Russia was used on UK soil."

"Instead of providing answers, Russia continues to spread lies & disinformation," it said.

Yermakov suggested that Russia will not recognize results of an investigation being conducted by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

He said that "unscrupulous efforts" to investigate the incident without sharing information about the probe with Moscow are "not going to work for us."

Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of treason in 2006 after a court found that he passed the identities of Russian intelligence agents to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents uncovered in the United States in one of the biggest spy swaps since the Cold War.

Speaking in Japan on March 21, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia's complaint that the accusation against Russia is premature, saying that the U.K. investigation is not finished.

He also said that Russia wants Britain to tell it where Sergei and Yulia Skripal are currently located.

"Overall there is no doubt that the current British leadership has consciously taken a course to undermine Russian-British relations," Lavrov said at a news conference with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, in Tokyo.

Already severely strained relations between Russia and the West -- particularly Britain -- have been worsened by the poisoning, which also left a British police officer seriously ill. More than 20 people received medical treatment.

After Russia ignored a demand that it provide an explanation of the poisoning, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats it says were spies, and they returned to Russia on March 20. Britain has suspended high-level bilateral contacts with Moscow and announced that British ministers and the royal family will not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.

Russia has retaliated by ordering the same number of British diplomats to leave Russia, canceling an agreement to reopen the British Consulate in St. Petersburg, and ordering the closure of the British Council -- which promotes cultural ties between the countries -- in Russia.

In Prague, the Czech Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador, Aleksandr Zmeyevsky, to demand an explanation after the Russian Foreign MInistry said the nerve agent used to poison Skripal in the United Kingdom could have originated in the Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia, Britain, or the United States.

In a statement after the talks on March 21, the ministry said the Czech Republic "strongly opposed" the "groundless assertion" and "emphasized that these are insulting, completely unsubstantiated claims that are totally inconsistent with mutual interests in bilateral cooperation." It said such allegations could inflict "considerable damage" on bilateral ties.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, TASS, Interfax, dpa, and the BBC
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