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)

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)