US-Russian relations worst Ambassador Antonov can remember

Russia's ambassador to the United States has told Today he can't remember a period of worse relations between Washington and Moscow, after both countries expelled dozens of diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy.

In an exclusive interview with Savannah Guthrie broadcast Friday, Anatoly Antonov also reiterated Russia's denials that it meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, saying it was "impossible to imagine" that the Kremlin was responsible.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russian nationalson suspicion of interfering in the vote was, according to the ambassador, "not a proof" of responsibility.

"It seems to me that atmosphere in Washington is poisoned — it's a toxic atmosphere," he said. "It depends upon us to decide whether we are in Cold War or not. But ... I don't remember such [a] bad shape of our relations."

He added that "there is great mistrust between the United States and Russia" at present.

"Today Russia's responsible for everything, even for bad weather," he said. "It's high time for us to stop blaming each other. It's high time for us to start a real conversation about real problems."

The heightened tensions come as President Donald Trump has picked two foreign policy hard-liners for key roles in his team: Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser.

As with the allegations of election meddling, Antonov said Russia had nothing to do with the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month.

The U.S., in tandem with the U.K., France, and Germany, previously issued a joint statement blaming Russia for the attack. Twenty-six countries expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning, with Washington kicking out a total of 60.

On Thursday, Russia responded by announcing it was kicking out 58 employees of the U.S. embassy in Moscow and two of the U.S. consulate in Yekaterinburg.

Antonov explained why Russia had responded by expelling U.S. diplomats.

"If anybody slaps your cheek, your face, what will be the reaction from your side?" he said. "You will retaliate. It goes without saying."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the British allegations that his government was behind Skripal's poisoning are "nonsense." Ambassador Antonov echoed this, saying there was "no evidence" Russia was responsible, even suggesting a conspiracy by noting that the attack happened "very close to U.K. military chemical laboratory."

He asked: "Do we have a motive to kill [Skripal] on the eve of [the] Russian presidential election? … Where is the motive?"

Skripal "spent five years in Russian jail. So it was enough time for us to know everything that he knew," the ambassador said. "Why we should make revenge? You see that he was in our jail. And you'll see that he was in our hands. And for us, it's clear that he's empty. He knows nothing."

Antonov said despite the tit-for-tat exchanges, he was prepared to sit down and talk with his U.S. counterparts. U.S. officials have said similar, however the Russian ambassador claimed he has been unable to arrange any meetings.

"I have offered my colleagues from the State Department from [the Department] of Defense, to sit together, to come to my residence," he said. "If they are scared, I say that, 'Come on, we can meet in a restaurant and to discuss all outstanding issues.' It was four or five months ago. And I got [an] answer: silent."

Last week, Trump was warned by his advisers not to congratulate Putin on his recent controversial election victory, but Trump did so anyway.

Antonov described it as a "warm conversation" where the two leaders "discussed the real problems we face today." They did not talk about the Skripal poisoning, he said.

He cited the call as an example of the two countries working together and said he would like to see more of the same.

"When we dance, it means both parties are responsible," he said. "If United States does not want to dance tango, what should I do?"