As the world blames it for a poison attack on British soil, the Russian government has launched what critics call a campaign of misdirection.
If so, Russian misdirection is extremely weird.
The country called a special meeting at the United Nations on Thursday, during which a Russian official blamed terrorists — perhaps — or any government but its own for the poisoning of a former Russian spy last month, with a Soviet-developed nerve agent that was later found on the front door of victim Sergei Skripal's home in England.
As the Russian U.N. ambassador suggested that the poisoning was a false flag operation to undermine his country, he asked darkly what had become of the victim's pet cats and guinea pigs.
He wasn't joking. The same day, a spokesman for Russia's embassy in Britain suggested that Skripal's pets might hold clues to the real culprit behind the attack. While Skripal and his daughter are recovering in a hospital, the weeks-long absence of the animals from public sight has apparently troubled Russia.
“There were two cats and two guinea pigs living at Mr. Skripal’s place,” a press officer for Russia's embassy in Britain said Thursday. “We don’t have any information on their whereabouts or condition, and the otherwise well-informed British media are silent in that regard.”
The press officer added that Russia has officially asked the British Foreign Office about the animals' fate and whether they were also treated for poison.
The next day, the British government obliged. One cat and two guinea pigs belonging to the ex-spy were dead, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told CNN.
It wasn't necessarily poison that killed them. Officials sealed and quarantined the house after Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious elsewhere in the town of Salisbury on March 4, CNN reported.
It's unclear how long the animals were trapped inside, but “when a vet was able to access the property, two guinea pigs had sadly died” from lack of water, the department said in a statement. “A cat was also found in a distressed state and a decision was taken by a veterinary surgeon to euthanize the animal to alleviate its suffering.”
Did this explanation satisfy Russia? Far from it. No sooner had news of the animals' demise gone to press than embassy officials suggested a coverup.
“It turns out Skripal’s pets — two guinea pigs and a cat — are no longer alive,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced in a dire Facebook post on Friday.
Zakharova acknowledged that some might think it a joke to raise this. “In reality, though, they were really important pieces of evidence,” she wrote.
How did British authorities not notice the guinea pigs before sealing the house? she asked. Why was the cat euthanized, and all the animals apparently cremated, when they might contain evidence of the nerve agent's origin?
In a postscript, the spokeswoman claimed that British defense researchers had spent decades testing nerve agents on 3,400 guinea pigs. (They were actually humans.)
And she accused the British media of covering all of this up.
“According to our information, BBC knew that the pets had been left in the house but for some reason kept quiet about it,” she wrote. “We would like to hear explanations.”
The British government has not responded to Russia's latest accusations — that it might have poisoned its own people, framed Moscow for the crime, and destroyed a cat and two guinea pigs to hide the evidence.
Meanwhile, CNN reported, Britain has “offered no information about a possible second cat.”
Natasha Abbakumova and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.