Exclusive-Ukraine PM says Russia ‘absolutely’ behind suspected coup attempt

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmygal accused Russia on Tuesday of being “absolutely” behind what he called an attempt to organize a coup to overthrow the pro-Western government in Kyiv, citing intelligence.

Last Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine had uncovered a plot to topple his government this week, involving individuals from Russia, but he stopped short of saying whether he believed the Kremlin was behind the plot.

The Kremlin has denied any role in any coup plot and rejected as baseless other accusations that it has sought to destabilize Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic.

“We have secret data which demonstrates the special intentions (to foment a coup),” Shmygal said. Asked if the Russian state was behind it, he said: “Absolutely.”

He also said a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border, the second such surge since May, was part of a wider Russian effort to break Ukrainian momentum towards joining the European Union.

“They are preparing something,” Shmygal said of Russia, without elaborating.

Shmygal, who is in Brussels for talks with top EU officials, said Ukrainian intelligence had picked up activities of “outside powers” trying to influence political opposition within the country to stoke a popular uprising and coup.

Zelenskiy, a former actor who once played a fictional president in a popular sitcom, came to power with a landslide election victory in 2019 though his popularity has fallen after 2-1/2 years in power.

But Shmygal said: “In Ukrainian society, there is no revolutionary mood. We understand there was influence from outside to enforce protests in Kyiv, to make them stronger. Our secret service is making a special investigation.”

Shmygal also said the sacking this week of Oleksandr Rusnak, the head of the counterintelligence department of Ukraine Security Service (SBU), was unrelated.

He said Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU was among the main reasons for what he said was Russian aggression, hybrid attacks, a military build-up on its border and Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ukraine has also been fighting a pro-Russian insurgency in the country’s east since 2014.

Ukrainians ousted a Russian-backed president in February 2014 in a pro-European uprising. Along with Moldova and Georgia, it hopes for the promise of closer ties with the EU at a special “Eastern Partnership” summit next month.

EU and other Western leaders are involved in a geopolitical tug-of-war with Russia for influence in Ukraine and two other ex-Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, through trade, cooperation and protection arrangements. Ukraine is also seeking more military support from the United States, Shmygal said.

“This is one of the main reasons for the hybrid attacks from the Russian side, because we strongly would like to be integrated into Europe, to have the standard of living of European, of civilized countries,” he said.

“That is why we have all these hybrid attacks, cyber attacks, physical military attacks, occupied territories, disinformation to hamper Ukraine’s European aspirations.”

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

German regulator puts brake on Nord Stream 2 in fresh blow to gas pipeline

By Vera Eckert

FRANKFURT (Reuters) -Germany’s energy regulator has suspended the approval process for a major new pipeline bringing Russian gas into Europe, throwing up a new roadblock to the contentious project and driving up regional gas prices.

The watchdog said on Tuesday it had temporarily halted the certification process because the Swiss-based consortium behind Nord Stream 2 first needed to form a German subsidiary company under German law to secure an operating license.

European prices jumped almost 11% on news of the hold-up, with the Dutch front-month contract hitting 90.40 euros/MWh in afternoon trade.

“This does push back expected timelines quite a bit,” said analyst Trevor Sikorski at Energy Aspects, adding that it was unclear how long the process of establishing a new company and reapplying for certification would take.

First flows through the pipeline look very unlikely in the first half of 2022, he added.

Nord Stream 2 has faced stiff opposition from the United States and some European states, which say it will make Europe too reliant on Russian gas. But other European governments say the link is vital to secure energy supplies, with gas prices surging in recent weeks and the threat of power outages looming this winter.

Nord Stream 2 said it had been notified by the regulator about the certification decision. “We are not in a position to comment on the details of the procedure, its possible duration and impacts on the timing of the start of the pipeline operations,” it added.

The Kremlin was not immediately available to comment.

“Any delays in the pipeline certification, all the more so on the eve of winter, is not in the interests of the European Union, that’s without any doubt,” Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy chairman of Russian parliament’s upper house, told TASS news agency.

The regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur, said it would only assess an application after a transfer of major assets and budgets for staffing to a German subsidiary.

“A certification for the operation of Nord Stream 2 will only be considered once the operator is organized in a legal shape compliant with German law,” it said.

Once these preconditions had been met, it said it could continue assessing the submission in the rest of the four-month application period. Before the suspension, that period was meant to run until early January.

Lawyers said the move, viewed by some gas market traders as politically charged, made sense from a regulatory perspective because it meant the pipeline’s operators in Germany would be answerable to local rules.

Essen-based law firm Rosin Buedenbender said a number of limited liability company options were available.

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION

Ukraine is one country bitterly opposed to the pipeline, which has fed into broader tensions between Kyiv and Moscow at a time when the United States has accused Russia of building up troops near Ukraine in preparation for a possible attack, an allegation the Kremlin has dismissed.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and Moscow-backed separatists took control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine that same year.

The head of the Ukrainian energy firm Naftogaz told Reuters that he welcomed the German energy regulator’s decision.

“Good,” Yuriy Vitrenko said. “This is an important point, which suggests that the German regulator shares our position that certification cannot only apply to the pipeline in Germany, but should apply to the entire pipeline from the territory of the Russian Federation to the territory of Germany.”

Kyiv will lose revenues if gas from Russia bypasses it and it accuses Moscow of using energy as a weapon to threaten Europe’s security.

Moscow has denied this and says Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial venture that complies with European energy rules.

Ukraine has successfully applied to be part of the consultation process to certify the pipeline.

Moscow has already used a route under the Baltic Sea for Nord Stream 1 – the predecessor to Nord Stream 2 – which has a capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm), equivalent to half Germany’s annual gas usage.

Nord Stream 2 will double that and make Germany a central arrival hub for European gas volumes for onward distribution.

The Berlin economy ministry and the European Commission have been made aware of its notice to Nord Stream 2.

The Commission has two months after the German regulator’s decision to assess the application for its part.

“Under the current circumstances there is further downside for the timing of the start-up of Nord Stream 2 because even though Germany is more friendly towards this project than EU, the pipeline‚Äôs regulatory certification could face even more hurdles during the EU commission review stage,” said Carlos Torres Diaz, head of gas and power markets at Rystad Energy.

(Reporting by Vera Eckert Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Pavel Polityuk, Nora Buli and Susanna Twidale; Writing by Pravin Char; Editing by Miranda Murray, Edmund Blair and Mark Potter)

Kremlin blames vaccine hesitancy as Delta variant drives Moscow surge

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin on Friday blamed a surge in COVID-19 cases on reluctance to have vaccinations and “nihilism” after a record 9,056 new infections in Moscow, mostly with the new Delta variant, fanned fears of a third wave.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin extended restrictions he had imposed this month, which include a ban on events with more than 1,000 people, an 11 p.m. closing time for restaurants, and the closure of fan zones set up for the European soccer championship.

He had said earlier this week that the situation in the capital, home to 13 million people, was deteriorating rapidly.

“According to the latest data, 89.3% of Muscovites (recently) diagnosed with COVID-19 have the mutated, so-called Delta or Indian variant,” the news agency TASS quoted Sobyanin as saying on state television.

Moscow accounted for more than half the 17,262 reported across Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was monitoring the situation closely.

Asked to explain the surge, Peskov blamed the virus’s “cunning nature” – a reference to its mutations – as well as “total nihilism, and the low vaccination level”.

At a briefing, he rejected suggestions that Russians were reluctant to have vaccinations because they distrusted the authorities.

As of June 2, the most recent tally available, only 18 million Russians had received at least one dose of vaccine: at one-eighth of the population, that is far less than in most Western countries.

Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova said voting in this autumn’s parliamentary election would be extended, largely because of the pandemic, to run over three days, from Sept. 17-19, rather than one, the Interfax news agency reported.

Moscow authorities this week said anyone working in a public-facing role must have a vaccination, and on Friday they said anyone who had not been vaccinated would be refused non-emergency hospital treatment.

Sobyanin said it was now even vital to start administering further boosters – in effect, a third dose. He said he himself had just received a top-up, after being fully vaccinated a year ago.

The third doses being offered are a repeat of the first dose of the two-shot Sputnik V vaccine, he said.

Several Russian officials and members of the business elite, as well as some members of the public, have already been securing third and fourth doses of Sputnik V, Reuters reported in April.

The question of how long a vaccine offers protection against COVID-19 will be vital as countries gauge when or whether revaccination will be needed, and Russia’s findings will be closely watched.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Kevin Liffey)

Putin calls U.S. ransomware allegations an attempt to stir pre-summit trouble

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that suggestions the Russian state was linked to high profile ransomware attacks in the United States were absurd and an attempt to stir trouble ahead of his summit this month with U.S. President Joe Biden.

A hack of Brazilian meatpacker JBS’s facilities in the United States, reported this week, is the third such ransomware hack in the country since Biden took office in January.

JBS told the White House it originated from a criminal organization likely based in Russia.

The White House said on Wednesday that Biden, who is due to hold talks with Putin in Geneva on June 16, was expected to discuss the hacking attacks with the Russian leader to see what Moscow could do to prevent such cyber assaults.

U.S. officials have spoken of criminal gangs based in eastern Europe or Russia as the probable culprits. But Kremlin critics have pointed the finger at the Russian state itself, saying it must have had knowledge of the attacks and possibly even be directing them.

Putin, speaking on the sidelines of the St Petersburg Economic Forum, told Russia’s state TV Channel One that the idea of Russian state involvement was absurd.

“It’s just nonsense, it’s funny,” said Putin. “It’s absurd to accuse Russia of this.”

He said he was encouraged however, by what he said were efforts by some people in the United States to question the substance of such allegations and try to work out what is really going on.

“Thank goodness there are people with common sense who are asking (themselves) this question and are putting the question to those who are trying to provoke a new conflict before our meeting with Biden,” said Putin.

Praising Biden as an experienced politician, Putin said he expected the Geneva summit to be held in a positive atmosphere, but did not anticipate any breakthroughs.

The meeting would be more about trying to chart a path to restore battered U.S.-Russia ties which are strained by everything from Russia’s jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to Ukraine to Syria, he said.

Earlier on Friday, Putin told the same economic forum that the United States was openly trying to hold back Russia’s development and accused Washington of wielding the dollar as a tool of economic and political competition.

“We have no disagreement with the United States. They only have one point of disagreement – they want to hold back our development, they talk about this publicly,” Putin told the forum.

“Everything else stems from this position,” he said.

Putin also questioned what he said was the harsh way U.S. authorities had dealt with some people detained during the storming of the Capitol in January by supporters of Donald Trump.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

Moscow decries ‘unfriendly actions’ as U.S. ends visa services for most Russians

By Dmitry Antonov and Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin accused Washington on Friday of fueling tension with “unfriendly actions” after the U.S. embassy in Moscow said it was cutting staff and stopping processing visas for most Russians.

The embassy said it was cutting consular staff by 75% and that from May 12 it would stop processing non-immigrant visas for non-diplomatic travel after a new Russian law imposed limits on how many local staff can work at foreign diplomatic missions.

That means Russians, who are not diplomats or green card seekers, will no longer be able to apply inside their own country for visas to visit the United States for tourism and other purposes. They will have to make such applications in third countries instead if they need to.

The Russian foreign ministry pointed out that Russian consulates in the United States were still issuing visas within 10 days despite suffering diplomatic cutbacks themselves and said there was nothing to stop Washington from topping up staff by bringing in U.S. nationals.

It said the U.S. diplomatic staff quota in Russia stood at 455, but that there were only 280 accredited employees, giving Washington ample room to top up staff numbers.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the embassy’s decision would have little practical impact because, he said, Russians have already been struggling to get U.S. visas.

“You know, here one has to look at the root cause of the tense situation that is developing in our bilateral relations,” Peskov told reporters.

“If you unravel the knot of unfriendly steps in the opposite direction, then it becomes obvious that the precursor to all of this is the unfriendly actions of the United States.”

He said Russia had “expected better” of the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s U.S. presidency.

He welcomed moves to extend the New START nuclear arms treaty. “But this positive baggage is still small in comparison with the load of negativity that we have accumulated over these 100 days. This load unfortunately prevails,” he said.

Moscow and Washington have long differed over a range of issues, but ties slumped further after Biden said he believed President Vladimir Putin was “a killer”.

SANCTIONS

The United States imposed sanctions on Russia this month for alleged malign activity, including interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber hacking and “bullying” neighboring Ukraine.

Moscow retaliated with sanctions against the United States, and has rejected U.S. criticism of its treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Russia’s ties with several countries in central and eastern Europe have also deteriorated in recent weeks, leading to a series of diplomatic expulsions.

When Putin signed the law limiting local staff employed at diplomatic missions last week, he also told the government to draw up a list of “unfriendly” states to be subject to the restrictions.

A draft list published by Russian state TV suggests the United States is one of the countries that will be on it.

“We regret that the actions of the Russian government have forced us to reduce our consular work force by 75%,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.

“Effective May 12, U.S. Embassy Moscow will reduce consular services offered to include only emergency U.S. citizen services and a very limited number of age-out and life or death emergency immigrant visas,” it said.

“I have always been afraid of the ‘Iron Curtain’, only now it’s not being imposed by our side, but by the other side,” said Ksenia Sobchak, a former Russian presidential candidate.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Writing by Alexander Marrow, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Russia, China sow disinformation to undermine trust in Western vaccines, EU report says

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Russian and Chinese media are systematically seeking to sow mistrust in Western COVID-19 vaccines in their latest disinformation campaigns aimed at dividing the West, a European Union report said on Wednesday.

From December to April, the two countries’ state media outlets pushed fake news online in multiple languages sensationalizing vaccine safety concerns, making unfounded links between jabs and deaths in Europe and promoting Russian and Chinese vaccines as superior, the EU study said.

The Kremlin and Beijing deny all disinformation allegations by the EU, which produces regular reports and seeks to work with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to limit the spread of fake news.

Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy “follows a zero-sum game logic and is combined with disinformation and manipulation efforts to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines,” said the EU study released by the bloc’s disinformation unit, part of its EEAS foreign policy arm.

“Both Russia and China are using state-controlled media, networks of proxy media outlets and social media, including official diplomatic social media accounts, to achieve these goals,” the report said, citing 100 Russian examples this year.

The EU and NATO regularly accuse Russia of covert action, including disinformation, to try to destabilize the West by exploiting divisions in society.

Vaccine supply issues with AstraZeneca, as well as very rare side effects with Astra and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been seized upon, the report said.

“Both Chinese official channels and pro-Kremlin media have amplified content on alleged side-effects of the Western vaccines, misrepresenting and sensationalizing international media reports and associating deaths to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Norway, Spain and elsewhere,” the report said.

“VACCINE CHAOS”

Russia denies any such tactics and President Vladimir Putin has accused foreign foes of targeting Russia by spreading fake news about coronavirus.

Last year, China sought to block an EU report alleging that Beijing was spreading disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, according to a Reuters investigation.

While the EU has not vaccinated its 450 million citizens as fast as Britain, which is no longer a member of the bloc, shots are now gaining speed, led by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer’s shots and its German partner BioNTech.

But Russian media reported that “Brexit saved the UK from the ‘vaccine chaos’ engulfing the EU,” the EU said. “Such narratives indicate an effort to sow division within the EU,” it added.

In the report, released online, the EU said Russia’s official Sputnik V Twitter account sought to undermine public trust in the European Medicines Agency.

China meanwhile promoted its vaccines as a “global public good” and “presenting them as more suitable for developing countries and also the Western Balkans,” the report found. Western Balkan countries are seen as future EU members.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Kremlin to Washington: Putin-Biden summit depends on U.S. behavior

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin said on Wednesday that a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden would be contingent on U.S. behavior after reportedly telling Washington to scrap a plan to impose new sanctions on Russia.

Biden, in a phone call on Tuesday, proposed a summit of the estranged leaders to tackle a raft of disputes and told Moscow to reduce tensions over Ukraine triggered by a Russian military build-up.

Moscow says the build-up is a three-week snap military drill in response to what it calls threatening behavior from NATO and has said the exercise is due to wrap up within two weeks.

Putin’s spokesman said on Wednesday that the proposed summit, in a yet to be chosen European country, was contingent on future U.S. behavior in what looked like a thinly veiled reference to potential U.S. sanctions.

“Of course, further work on this proposal to meet in a European country will only be possible taking into account an analysis of the actual situation and further steps from our counterparts,” Peskov was cited as saying by the RIA news agency.

Russia-U.S. ties slumped to a new post-Cold War low last month after Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer” and Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations. The envoy has still not returned almost a month later.

Peskov played down the prospect of a summit earlier on Wednesday, saying it was too early to talk about it in tangible terms.

“It’s a new proposal and it will be studied,” Peskov told reporters, saying no preparations for the summit were yet underway.

‘DECISIVE RESPONSE’ TO ANY SANCTIONS

Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov had invited John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, to talks on Wednesday, Peskov said.

The U.S. embassy did not immediately comment on the meeting, but the RIA news agency reported that Ushakov had told Sullivan that Moscow would “act in the most decisive way possible” if the United States undertook any new “unfriendly steps” such as imposing sanctions.

Russia has been preparing to be hit by new sanctions since Biden said last month that Putin would pay a price for alleged Russian meddling in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. Moscow denies interfering.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow are strained too by the expected imminent arrival of two U.S. warships in the Black Sea, a step Moscow has called an unfriendly provocation designed to test its nerves.

The Russian navy began a military exercise in the Black Sea on Wednesday ahead of their expected arrival.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Brussels on Wednesday for talks with NATO allies about a range of subjects, including Russia and Ukraine.

In a sign that the crisis over Ukraine remains tense, Ukraine’s armed forces rehearsed repelling a tank and infantry attack near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Merkel tells Putin to pull back troops as Kremlin accuses Ukraine of provocations

By Thomas Escritt and Tom Balmforth

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) -German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to pull back the Kremlin’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, while he in turn accused Kyiv of “provocative actions” in the conflict region.

Ukraine has raised the alarm over an increase in Russian forces near its eastern border as violence has risen along the line of contact separating its troops from Russia-backed separatists in its Donbass region.

“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” Germany’s government said in a readout of a telephone call between Merkel and Putin.

Russia has said its forces pose no threat and were defensive, but that they would stay there as long as Moscow saw fit.

A senior Kremlin official said on Thursday that Moscow could under certain circumstances be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass and that major hostilities could mark the beginning of the end of Ukraine as a country.

The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that “Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes.

The rouble hit a five-month low on Wednesday a day after Russia said it had begun a planned inspection of its army’s combat readiness involving thousands of drills.

On Thursday, Dmitry Kozak, a senior Kremlin official, said Ukraine’s government were like “children playing with matches.”

“I support the assessment that the start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration said.

At a news conference, Kozak was asked if Russia would protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine.

Referring in his reply to Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he said: “It all depends on the scale of the fire. If there is, as our president says, Srebrenica, apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).”

Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians. Moscow has denied interfering. While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic fighting never ceased.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)

Putin signs law that could keep him in Kremlin until 2036

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that could keep him in office in the Kremlin until 2036, the government said on Monday.

The legislation allows him to run for two more six-year terms once his current stint ends in 2024. It follows changes to the constitution last year.

Those changes were backed in a public vote last summer and could allow Putin, 68, to potentially remain in power until the age of 83. He is currently serving his second consecutive term as president and his fourth in total.

The reform, which critics cast as a constitutional coup, was packaged with an array of other amendments that were expected to garner popular support, such as one bolstering pension protections.

The law signed by Putin limits any future president to two terms in office, but resets his term count. It prevents anyone who has held foreign citizenship from running for the Kremlin.

The legislation was passed in the lower and upper houses of parliament last month.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Alison Williams, Tom Balmforth)

Kremlin dismisses U.S. call to destroy chemical weapons, says it has none

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Thursday dismissed as baseless and illogical U.S. calls for Russia to destroy its chemical weapons, saying that Moscow had destroyed them long ago in line with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The U.S. State Department called on Moscow at a news briefing on Tuesday “to comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and to declare and destroy its chemical weapons program under international verification”.

Washington announced sanctions that day on senior Russian government officials and Russian entities in response to what U.S. officials said was Moscow’s attempt to kill Navalny with a nerve agent.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the State Department comment regarding chemical weapons.

“Such statements are devoid of logic and grounds and are nothing more than an attempt to unsuccessfully camouflage their policy to further contain Russia,” he said.

“Russia announced many years ago and verified the destruction of all the chemical weapons on its territory… Russia has no chemical weapons,” he told reporters on a call.

He said that the United States should also fulfil its obligations under the convention.

(Reporting by Dmitry Antonov in Moscow and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Hugh Lawson)