Biden seeks five-year extension of New START arms treaty with Russia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will seek a five-year extension to the New START arms control treaty with Russia, the White House said on Thursday, in one of the first major foreign policy decisions of the new administration ahead of the treaty’s expiration in early February.

“The President has long been clear that the New START treaty is in the national security interests of the United States. And this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing.

She also said Biden had “tasked” the U.S. intelligence community for its full assessment of the Solar Winds cyber breach, Russian interference in the 2020 election, Russia’s use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

“Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, so too we work to hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions,” Psaki said.

The arms control treaty, which is due to expire on Feb. 5, limits the United States and Russia to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each.

In addition to restricting the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to its lowest level in decades, New START also limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that deliver them.

The treaty’s lapse would end all restraints on deployments of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads and the delivery systems that carry them, potentially fueling a new arms race, policy experts have said.

Earlier, a source familiar with the decision told Reuters that U.S. lawmakers have been briefed on Biden’s decision on the New START treaty.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday it remained committed to extending New START and would welcome efforts promised by the Biden administration to reach agreement.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Jeff Mason; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. and France play catch-up on Karabakh after Russia deploys troops

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Nvard Hovhannisyan

MOSCOW/YELPIN, Armenia (Reuters) – France and the United States are expected to send diplomats to Moscow soon to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia said on Thursday, two days after the Kremlin deployed troops to the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan to secure a truce.

The arrival on Tuesday of the peacekeepers to oversee the ceasefire between Azeri troops and ethnic Armenian forces in the enclave extends Russia’s military footprint among the former Soviet republics it views as its strategic back yard.

Moscow co-chairs an international group overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Washington and Paris, but they were not involved in the deal signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to end six weeks of fighting over the enclave.

“By no means do we want to distance ourselves from our American and French colleagues,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “Moreover, we have invited them to Moscow. They will arrive within the next few days to discuss how they can contribute to the implementation of the achieved agreements.”

The accord, which locked in territorial gains by Azeri troops against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, triggered protests in Armenia calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan when it was announced early on Tuesday.

Hundreds of protesters rallied for a third day in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Thursday chanting “Nikol is a traitor!”. They then marched to the Security Service headquarters to demand the release of some opposition leaders and activists detained on Wednesday.

Pashinyan, elected in 2018 after street protests against alleged corruption ousted the former elite, said on Thursday he had signed the accord to secure peace and save lives.

Armenians living nearer to Nagorno-Karabakh, which has reported more than 1,300 losses among its fighters, had mixed feelings but welcomed the small columns of Russian peacekeepers making their way to the enclave on Thursday.

“We are happy that peacekeepers came but at the same time we are sad that we are giving up that territory,” Armen Manjoyan, a 45-year-old driver, said outside the Armenian village of Yelpin between Yerevan and the Azeri border.

“We all fought for it, but it turned out in vain,” he said. “I think it was not the right decision.”

Turkey, which has backed Azerbaijan over the conflict, signed a protocol with Russia on Wednesday to establish a joint centre to coordinate efforts to monitor the peace deal, agreed after three previous ceasefire attempts quickly broke down.

The details of the monitoring have yet to be worked out and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Russian officials were due in Ankara on Friday to discuss them.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which now joins eight other former Soviet republics where Russia has a military presence. Moscow has military bases in five neighboring states as well as troops in regions which have broken away from three others.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in YELPIN, Nailia Bagirova in BAKU and Margarita Antidze in TBILISI and Alexander Marrow in MOSCOW; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Alison Williams)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

Putin proposes seven-way online summit to avoid ‘confrontation’ over Iran: Kremlin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday proposed holding a seven-way online summit of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council together with Germany and Iran, to outline steps aimed at avoiding a confrontation over the Iran arms embargo.

In a Kremlin statement, Putin said discussions were becoming increasingly tense over the Iranian issue at the Security Council, which began voting on Thursday on a U.S. proposal to extend an arms embargo on Iran, which is opposed by veto-wielding Russia and China.

“The situation is escalating. Unfounded accusations against Iran are being put forward,” said Putin, adding that Russia remained fully committed to the Iran nuclear deal.

The 13-year-old arms embargo is due to expire in October under a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, Germany, Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States that prevents Tehran from developing nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief.

Russia suggested an online video conference to avoid aggravating the situation at the U.N. Security Council.

Putin described the matter as urgent and urged the other nations to carefully consider Russia’s offer, saying the alternative was further escalation of tensions and a growing risk of conflict.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Toby Chopra and Hugh Lawson)

Russia to use mobile phones to track people at risk of coronavirus

By Gleb Stolyarov, Polina Nikolskaya and Olesya Astakhova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on Monday gave the authorities five days to develop a system to track people who have come into contact with anyone with coronavirus by using mobile phone geolocation data.

Under the new system, people would be sent information if they came into contact with someone who was infected and the same information would be passed on to special regional headquarters set up to fight the pandemic.

The Kremlin said the measure was legal and part of measures Russia is taking to try to halt spread of the virus.

The measure will trace “citizens who are in contact with patients with new coronavirus infection on the basis of information from cellular operators about the geolocation of a cell phone of a particular person”.

This “would allow citizens to be notified (over the phone) if they have been in contact with a person suffering from the new coronavirus, sending relevant messages to inform them of the need for self-isolation…” the communications ministry said in a statement.

Russia, which has temporarily banned the entry of foreigners to limit the spread of coronavirus, has 438 confirmed infections and one virus-related death – less than many European countries.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told residents of the capital over 65 and those with chronic illnesses to remain at home.

Russia is gradually tightening quarantine rules and readying its healthcare system for more cases. Sobyanin told the elderly and other vulnerable residents to only visit pharmacies and food shops if absolutely necessary from Thursday until April 14.

STAY AT HOME OR DACHAS

Where possible, he also advised the elderly to leave the city and stay at their dachas – out-of-town cottages on private plots of land which many Russian families traditionally own.

The city, which has 262 confirmed infections, will give 4,000 rubles ($49) to all over 65s and people with chronic illnesses.

City hall has required mobile phone operators not to switch off phone and internet access for the elderly if their balance hits zero, and temporarily canceled fines for late payment of utility bills.

Moscow has also changed its coronavirus testing system. Samples will no longer be sent to a lab in Siberia for a second round of testing to confirm a positive result received during tests conducted in labs in the capital, the city’s coronavirus response headquarters said in a statement.

Russia is also taking steps to prepare its food supply and medical system for a potential upsurge in infections.

The government said it had asked the agriculture ministry and other officials to prepare proposals on whether exports of any food, essential products or medicine should be limited.

It also ordered the labor and justice ministries to devise plans to prevent workers from being fired for coronavirus-related reasons, such as self-isolation.

“I believe that overall, we have the situation with coronavirus under control,” Mishustin said. “But preparation for more serious challenges is necessary.”

Russia’s emergency ministry said in a statement to Reuters that it had suspended non-essential foreign business trips and advised its employees to avoid leaving the country.

The interior ministry, which operates Russia’s police force, among other law enforcement agencies, issued a similar order, a document seen by Reuters showed.

Some Russians have also called on members of the country’s wealthy elite to step in and contribute. Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin, co-owner of mining giant Norilsk Nickel <GMKN.MM>, said on Monday his charitable fund would provide 1 billion rubles to support nonprofit and cultural organizations affected by the coronavirus.

(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)

Kremlin says it’s worried by new arms race, closely following U.S. moves

Kremlin says it’s worried by new arms race, closely following U.S. moves
MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Tuesday it was worried about a new arms race with the United States and that it was closely following U.S. moves to develop new weapon systems.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the comment on a conference call with reporters when asked about statements made by U.S. President Donald Trump saying that Washington was developing new advanced weapons.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Maria Kiselyova and Andrey Kuzmin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Russia signs agreement to free captive whales after outcry

A view shows a facility, where nearly 100 whales including orcas and beluga whales are held in cages, during a visit of scientists representing explorer and founder of the Ocean Futures Society Jean-Michel Cousteau in a bay near the Sea of Japan port of Nakhodka in Primorsky Region, Russia April 7, 2019. Press Service of Administration of Primorsky Krai/Alexander Safronov/Handout via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Monday signed an agreement with a group of international scientists to free nearly 100 whales that have been held for months in cramped pens in Russia’s Far East, a scandal that has triggered a wave of criticism.

Images of the 10 orcas and 87 beluga whales, kept in enclosures in a bay near the Sea of Japan port of Nakhodka, first appeared after they were caught last summer by firms which planned to sell them to marine parks or aquariums in China.

A view shows a facility, nicknamed a "whale prison", where nearly 100 whales including orcas and beluga whales are held in cages, during a visit of scientists representing explorer and founder of the Ocean Futures Society Jean-Michel Cousteau in a bay near the Sea of Japan port of Nakhodka in Primorsky Region, Russia April 7, 2019. Press Service of Administration of Primorsky Krai/Alexander Safronov/Handout via REUTERS

A view shows a facility, nicknamed a “whale prison”, where nearly 100 whales including orcas and beluga whales are held in cages, during a visit of scientists representing explorer and founder of the Ocean Futures Society Jean-Michel Cousteau in a bay near the Sea of Japan port of Nakhodka in Primorsky Region, Russia April 7, 2019. Press Service of Administration of Primorsky Krai/Alexander Safronov/Handout via REUTERS

Their plight angered animal rights groups and spurred a petition to release the whales, shared by actor Leonardo DiCaprio on social media, which gathered almost 1.5 million signatures online. Actress Pamela Anderson also posted an open letter to Russian President Putin on her website.

The Kremlin intervened and ordered local authorities to act, prompting Russia’s FSB security service to bring charges against four companies for breaking fishing laws.

But although the Kremlin agreed that the whales were held in cruel conditions, it said it was difficult to release them into the wild without harming them.

On Monday, however, international scientists, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of French marine expert Jacques Cousteau, signed a joint agreement with Russian scientists, backed by the local authorities, to free the mammals.

Their release is likely to be phased.

“A decision in principle has been taken to release all the animals into the wild,” Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Primorsky Region, told reporters after the signing ceremony.

“Scientists from Cousteau’s team and Russian scientists will decide when and which animals to release.”

A special rehabilitation facility for whales would be set up under the agreement, with conditions as close as possible to their natural environment. Any whales in the Sea of Japan that were hurt or got into trouble could be treated there, said Kozhemyako.

Cousteau told reporters it was a very emotional moment for him and the scientists would do all they could to save the animals.

“I know it’s a lot of work, but I have no doubt that we are going to succeed,” said Cousteau.

The scientists promised they would devise a plan to release the whales, some of which were captured as long ago as July, by next month.

The Kremlin has said Russia has no direct ban on catching whales, but they can only legally be caught in specific circumstances, for scientific and educational purposes.

(Editing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood)

White House defers on release of Mueller’s report, Kremlin warms

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as he returns to the White House after U.S. Attorney General William Barr reported to congressional leaders on the submission of the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller in Washington, U.S., March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Makini Brice and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Monday it was up to the U.S. Justice Department to decide if detailed findings from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation would be made public, a day after the attorney general said President Donald Trump had been cleared of any collusion.

Mueller wrapped up his investigation after nearly two years on Friday and submitted his findings to Attorney General William Barr, who on Sunday released a four-page summary saying there was no evidence of criminal collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. Mueller’s report left unresolved whether Trump obstructed justice.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin on Monday said President Vladimir Putin was ready to improve ties with the United States following the release of Barr’s summary and called on the United States to formally recognize there was no collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign.

Trump last week openly backed the public release of the report from the investigation, which he had repeatedly lambasted as a “witch hunt.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr leaves his house after Special Counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election in McClean, Virginia, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

U.S. Attorney General William Barr leaves his house after Special Counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election in McClean, Virginia, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Barr summary handed Trump a political victory ahead of his 2020 re-election effort, even as Democratic challengers and lawmakers vowed to press on with other investigations into his business and personal dealings.

Democrats also called for the full findings from Mueller to be released to Congress and the public and vowed to call Barr to appear before lawmakers to answer questions.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that while Trump wanted the special counsel’s report to come out, it was not up to him.

“I think that the president is doing exactly what he should and that’s leaving that decision into the hands of the attorney general and we’ll see what decision he makes on that front,” Sanders said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” program on Monday.

Sanders declined to comment on whether Trump would invoke presidential privilege to withhold any information. But Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said it “would be very inappropriate” to release the president’s written answers to the special counsel, saying they were confidential. Despite lengthy negotiations, Mueller never obtained an in-person interview with the president.

“As a lawyer, you don’t waive privileges and you don’t waive investigative detail absent either a court order or an agreement between the parties,” Sekulow told CNN in an interview, adding that Barr would make the final decision.

Trump embraced the summary’s findings, retweeting Barr’s assessment and related headlines news media despite years of decrying the “fake news” as #ReleaseTheFullMuellerReport trended nationwide on social media.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in a conference call with reporters, called on Washington to make the first move to reset ties and repeated Moscow’s denial of any interference in U.S. elections and internal affairs or those of any other country.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also said the allegations of election meddling against a number of Russians were politically motivated.

Mueller’s investigation led to charges and guilty pleas against dozens of people, including a series of Russian nationals and companies as well as several advisers to President Donald Trump, including this former campaign chairman and national security adviser.

 

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Makini Brice; Editing by Bill Trott)

Putin tells Trump that Moscow is open for dialogue

FILE PHOTO - Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with officials and representatives of Russian business community at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 26, 2018. Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS

By Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin told his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in a New Year letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda”, the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump and Putin also failed to hold a full-fledged meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The two leaders held their one and only summit in Helsinki in July.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that the (Russia – United States) relations are the most important factor for providing strategic stability and international security,” a Kremlin statement said.

“He confirmed that Russia is open for dialogue with the USA on the most wide-ranging agenda.”

Moscow has said one of the key issues it wanted to discuss with the United States is Washington’s plans to withdraw from a Cold War era nuclear arms pact.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying that now it was up to the United States whether to hold a new meeting in 2019.

“The issue should be addressed to Washington. Both our president and his representatives have said that we are ready for the talks when Washington is ready for it,” TASS news agency quoted Lavrov as saying in televised remarks.

In a separate letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin pledged a continuation of aid to the Syrian government and people in the “fight against terrorism, in defense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Putin also sent New Year greetings to other world leaders including prime ministers Theresa May of Britain and Shinzo Abe of Japan, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Putin wished “well-being and prosperity to the British people”, the Kremlin said.

Russia’s embassy in London said on Friday Moscow and London had agreed to return some staff to their respective embassies after they expelled dozens of diplomats early this year.

Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats over accusations the Kremlin was behind a nerve toxin attack in March on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.

Russia, which denies any involvement in the poisoning, sent home the same number of British embassy workers in retaliation.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp)

Russian nostalgia for Soviet Union reaches 13-year high

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators carry flags and a portrait of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin during a rally held by Russian Communist party to mark the Red October revolution's centenary in central Moscow, Russia November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The number of Russians who regret the break-up of the Soviet Union has risen to its highest since 2005, amid rising economic concerns and nostalgia for the Soviet welfare system, the Levada pollster said on Wednesday.

President Vladimir Putin famously dubbed the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century and he and many Russians have long lamented the blow its demise dealt to Moscow’s great power status.

The number of Russians pining for the Soviet past has been steadily rising under Putin since he returned to the presidency in 2012, poll data issued by the independent Levada Center on Wednesday showed.

In the survey, 66 percent of Russians said they regretted the Soviet break-up, a level not seen since 2005 when Levada recorded 65 percent and Putin was on his second term in the Kremlin.

The number of nostalgic Russians fell gradually from 2004, reaching a low of 49 percent in 2012, before rising to its current level, the pollster found, on a par with the 1990s after the Soviet collapse.

Karina Pipiya, a sociologist at Levada, said that in the past such feelings were often triggered by a loss of international prestige and questions of national identity.

“Now the nostalgia is more determined by economic factors and regret that there used to be more social justice and that the government worked for the people and that it was better in terms of care for citizens and paternalistic expectations,” she said.

Ordinary Russians have faced stagnating incomes, a weaker rouble and inflation since 2014, when the Russian economy entered recession amid falling oil prices and Western sanctions.

To help balance state coffers, the Kremlin this year raised the retirement age for both men and women in a highly unpopular measure that dented Putin’s popularity rating.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed off the findings of the nostalgia poll.

“Other sociologists will say that people are always inclined to retrospectively idealize what happened to them in their youth and that everything that happened in youth was tastier, more reliable and greater,” said Peskov.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Andrew Roche)