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)

Russia examines ventilator type sent to U.S. after fires kill six

By Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow has begun investigating the safety of a Russian-made medical ventilator, some of which have been sent to the United States, after six people died in hospital fires reported to involve two such machines.

Five people died at Saint George’s Hospital in St Petersburg on Tuesday – including four in a coronavirus intensive care unit, according to a local lawyer. A source told the TASS news agency that the blaze erupted after a ventilator – used to help severely ill COVID-19 patients breathe – burst into flames in the ward.

A similar fire – caused by the same model of ventilator, according to a law enforcement source speaking to TASS – killed one person in a hospital in Moscow on Saturday.

Roszdravnadzor, Russia’s healthcare watchdog, said it would check the quality and safety of the ventilators in the two hospitals, and the St Petersburg hospital said it would stop using the model in question for now. The manufacturer urged people to avoid rushing to conclusions.

The model in question, the Aventa-M, was among those sent to the United States from Russia at the start of April to help it cope with the coronavirus pandemic, and is made by a firm that is under U.S. sanctions.

The Ural Instrument Engineering Plant (UPZ) in Chelyabinsk, 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Moscow, confirmed that the Aventa-M is one of its products and had been supplied to Saint George’s Hospital.

“We have no official data about which devices were installed in the zone of the (St Petersburg) fire,” a spokeswoman added.

Russia is relatively well stocked with ventilators, and has increased domestic production since the coronavirus outbreak.

Data experts and some medics say many machines in use outside Russia’s big cities are old – but TASS said the ventilator in St Petersburg was new and had been installed this month.

Radio-Electronic Technologies Concern (KRET), which controls UPZ, said its ventilators had passed all the necessary tests and had been used by medical facilities in Russia since 2012 without any safety concerns.

“We’re looking at different scenarios: the state of the (electricity) network, the medical institutions’ engineering infrastructure, the medical equipment, and compliance with fire safety rules,” it said in a statement.

“We call on the media and other interested parties not to rush to conclusions and wait for the results of official checks.”

U.S. firms and nationals have been barred from doing business with KRET since July 2014.

Russia has reported 232,243 cases of the novel coronavirus and 2,116 deaths.

(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Moscow’s coronavirus outbreak much worse than it looks, Putin ally says

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The mayor of Moscow told President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the number of coronavirus cases in the Russian capital far exceeded the official figures, as Putin donned a protective suit and respirator to visit a hospital.

The comments by Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin, were authorities’ strongest indcation yet that they do not have a full grasp of how widely the virus has spread throughout Russia’s vast expanse.

Russia has so far reported 495 cases of the virus and one death, far fewer than major western European countries.

Putin has previously said the situation is under control, but some doctors have questioned how far official data reflect reality, and the government on Tuesday closed nightclubs, cinemas and children’s entertainment centres to slow the spread of the virus.

“A serious situation is unfolding,” Sobyanin told Putin at a meeting, saying the real number of cases was unclear but that they were increasing quickly.

Testing for the virus was scarce, he said, and many Muscovites returning from abroad were self-isolating at home or in holiday cottages in the countryside, and not being tested.

“In reality, there are significantly more sick people,” Sobyanin said.

The government also said it would organise a return of its citizens from countries hit by the coronavirus if they wanted to come.

Meanwhile Putin donned a bright yellow full-body hazmat suit and respirator as he visited a hospital on the outskirts of Moscow that is treating coronavirus patients, and praised the doctors for their work.

Separately, two senior lawmakers including Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, proposed legislation to make flouting anti-virus quarantine measures punishable with jail time.

The bill would provide for up to seven years’ jail for actions that led to the death of two or more people, or up to three years for causing mass infection, the RIA news agency reported.

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Moscow rounds up stray animals, kills rats over coronavirus fears

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow authorities are rounding up stray animals and exterminating rats as a precaution against the new coronavirus, actions that animal rights campaigners decried as cruel and scientifically groundless.

Russia has imposed an array of measures to stop the virus gaining a foothold in Russia, ranging from restrictions on flights to China and South Korea to visa curbs for Iranian and Chinese citizens.

“We are currently carrying out a large-scale complex (of measures) for the total deratization of the city, catching wild animals, strays,” Elena Andreeva, the Moscow head of the Rospotrepnadzor consumer health watchdog, was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency.

She did not explain the reasoning for the moves but said they were part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Hundreds of people have been quarantined across Russia and authorities in Moscow have carried out raids on potential carriers of the virus and used facial recognition technology to enforce quarantine measures.

Barking News, a Russian media outlet that covers news about animals, decried the action against stray dogs and cats as “stupid, unscientific and simply cruel”.

It cited a Moscow-based virologist, Nikolai Nikitin, as saying there was no evidence stray dogs and cats could contract the new coronavirus or subsequently transmit it to people.

Moscow used to have a large population of stray dogs and cats, but they have become a rare sight in central Moscow though packs of stray dogs are sometimes seen outside the center. Stray cats are more common.

Three Russian nationals are receiving treatment in Russia after they contracted the coronavirus on a cruise ship in Japan and were subsequently repatriated, authorities have said.

Before that, two Chinese nationals were hospitalized in Russia with the virus, but they have since recovered and been discharged.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Timothy Heritage)

Moscow deploys facial recognition technology for coronavirus quarantine

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow is using facial recognition technology to ensure people ordered to remain at home or at their hotels under coronavirus quarantine do so, the mayor of the Russian capital said on Friday.

Russia has temporarily barred Chinese nationals from entering the country to curb the spread of the virus, but has welcomed Russians who return home with an order to spend two weeks at home, even in the absence of symptoms.

Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said some 2,500 people who had landed in the city from China had been ordered to go into quarantine. To prevent them leaving their apartments, the authorities are using facial recognition technology in the city to catch any offenders, he said.

“Compliance with the regime is constantly monitored, including with the help of facial recognition systems and other technical measures,” he wrote on his website.

In one case described by Sobyanin, surveillance footage showed a woman who had returned from China leaving her apartment and meeting friends outside. The authorities were able to track down the taxi driver who had taken her home from the airport thanks to video footage, Sobyanin said.

Sobyanin said the city was also forced to carry out raids against possible carriers of the virus, something he said was “unpleasant but necessary.”

The Moscow mayor’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Sobyanin said last month that the city had begun using facial recognition as part of its city security surveillance programme.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not seen details of the actions being taken in Moscow but that measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus should not be discriminatory.

The clamp down on quarantine rules comes after a woman in St. Petersburg staged an elaborate escape from a hospital where she said she was being kept against her will.

The incident, which resulted in a court ordering her to return to the quarantine facility, raised questions about the robustness of Russia’s coronavirus quarantine measures.

Russia has reported two cases of the illness – two Chinese nationals who have since recovered and been released from hospital, according to the authorities.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; additional reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva; Editing by Christina Fincher)

U.S. asks Russia to free incarcerated ex-Marine Paul Whelan

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A senior U.S. diplomat on Monday called for Russia to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine accused by Moscow of espionage, saying there was no evidence against him and he had committed no crime.

Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman made the pre-Christmas appeal to Russia outside a Moscow prison after he and diplomats from Britain, Canada and Ireland had visited Whelan.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 last year.

Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan says he was set up in a sting and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

He has been held in pre-trial detention while investigators look into his case.

Gorman urged Russia to allow an outside doctor to examine Whelan, who has a medical condition, and for the former Marine to be allowed to phone his parents, something he has so far been denied.

“In a case where there is no evidence and no crime it’s time to have him released,” Gorman said.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn,; Editing by Ed Osmond)

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media
By Nevzat Devranoglu and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian army troops clashed with Turkish forces near the border town of Ras al Ain on Wednesday, Syrian state media reported, as Ankara said it reserved the right to launch another cross-border offensive against Kurdish YPG militia.

The state media gave no details but Turkish-backed rebels said similar, intermittent clashes had occurred in recent days with Syrian troops south of the town, which Turkey seized from Syrian Kurdish-led forces earlier this month.

The report underscores the risk that violence in northeast Syria could rekindle after Ankara and Moscow struck a deal a week ago in which Russia agreed to move the YPG at least 30 km (18.64 miles) south of the border by late on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, Syrian troops have with the agreement of Kurdish forces headed north to take up positions in a region Damascus has not controlled since early on in the country’s eight-and-a-half-year-old war.

In Ankara, President Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his AK Party that Turkey has information the YPG has not completed its pull-out, despite assurances from Russia that they had left ahead of the deal’s deadline.

“Even though the information in our hands suggests this has not been succeeded in a full sense, we will give our response to them after our field assessments,” he said, adding Turkey reserved the right to return to military operations against the YPG in the area.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its links to Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey, and aims establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria cleared of the YPG.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fought for years alongside U.S. forces to shatter the declared “caliphate” of Islamic State militants that spanned a swathe of northern and eastern Syria.

Turkish-backed forces crossed the border into northeast Syria on Oct. 9 to attack the YPG after President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces there a few days earlier, drawing international condemnation of Ankara.

Trump’s decision has been condemned in Washington by Democrats and his fellow Republicans alike for abandoning Kurdish fighters who helped rout Islamic State.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted decisively to sanction Turkey, a NATO ally.

Joint Russian-Turkish patrols had been set to begin on Tuesday at a depth of 10 km (6.2 miles) inside northern Syria, but Erdogan said they would begin on Friday and at a depth of just 7 km (4.3 miles).

“If we see that the members of the terrorist organization have not been moved out of the 30 km, or if attacks continue, no matter from where, we reserve our right to carry out our own operation,” Erdogan said.

On Tuesday, the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said they had captured an undisclosed number of Syrian army soldiers near Tel Hawa, in the countryside around Ras al Ain. A spokesman for the rebels said that the YPG had not fully withdrawn from the border area and that a new round of clashes were expected.

Some 300,000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive and 120 civilians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.

The U.S. House voted 403-16 for a resolution calling on Trump to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Turkey and Turkish officials over its offensive in Syria.

In Geneva, Assad’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land while the Syrian opposition demanded justice at the opening of a U.N.-backed panel meant to usher in reconciliation, political reforms and free and fair elections as a basis for a lasting peace.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Putin says Russia will make new missiles, warns of arms race

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 5, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Vladimir Soldatkin

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia would produce missiles that were banned under a landmark Cold-War era nuclear pact that ended last month, but that Moscow would not deploy them unless the United States did so first.

Speaking at an economic forum in Russia’s Far East, Putin said Moscow had urged the United States to de-escalate a spiraling arms race between the former Cold War foes, but that Washington had not responded.

The Russian leader said he was concerned by U.S. talk of deploying missiles in Japan and South Korea, a deployment he said would cover parts of Russian territory.

Tensions over nuclear arms control have been rising after Washington formally pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) pact last month accusing Russia of violating it, allegations Moscow denied.

Last month the United States tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit a target more than 500 km away, a test that would have been prohibited under the INF.

The pact banned land-based missiles with a range of 310-3,400 miles, reducing the ability of both countries to launch a nuclear strike at short notice.

“…Of course we will produce such missiles,” Putin told an economic forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok. He repeated a pledge by Moscow not to deploy any new missiles unless the United States does so first.

“We are not happy about the fact that the head of the Pentagon said that the United States intends to deploy them in Japan and South Korea, this saddens us and is a cause for certain concern,” Putin said.

Putin said he offered U.S. President Donald Trump in a recent phone call the chance to buy one of the hypersonic nuclear weapons Moscow is developing. He said Trump spurned the offer and replied that Washington was making its own.

Putin said he feared that an arms race could spread into space and that Washington could develop a new space weapon.

(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Maria Vasilyeva; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Catherine Evans)

European Court says Russia not facing up to domestic abuse problem

FILE PHOTO: The building of the European Court of Human Rights is seen in Strasbourg, France March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia failed to protect a woman from repeated acts of violence by her former partner, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, saying her case showed that Moscow was not facing up to its domestic abuse problem.

Valeriya Volodina, who now uses a different name for security reasons, was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner after she left him in 2015 and moved out of their shared home in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, the court said.

The police never opened a criminal investigation into violence and threats that she reported to them from January 2016 to March 2018, it said in its statement.

In one such episode, she was forced to have an abortion after he punched her in the face and stomach when she was pregnant. In other incidents, the partner, whom she met in 2014, cut her car’s brake hose and stole her identity papers, it said.

After she moved to Moscow, Volodina discovered a GPS tracker planted in her bag and the former partner, identified only as S., subsequently started stalking her outside her home and attempted to drag her from a taxi.

The court in Strasbourg said Russia’s police had interviewed the partner and carried out pre-investigation inquiries but not opened formal proceedings against him as it deemed that “no publicly prosecutable offense had been committed”.

Russian legislation does not define or mention domestic violence as a separate offense or aggravating element in other offenses and there is no mechanism for imposing restraining or protection orders, the court said.

“Those failings clearly demonstrated that the authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women,” the court said in a statement.

Each year, about 14,000 women die in Russia at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to a 2010 United Nations report.

Police finally opened a criminal investigation only in March 2018 when the partner circulated photographs of her on social networks without her consent, the court said.

The court said Russia’s response had been “manifestly inadequate” and ruled unanimously there had been two violations of the European Convention on human rights, one on the prohibition of discrimination and the other on the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Russia’s Justice Ministry said it had three months to decide whether to appeal against the ruling, but that it would study the findings of the court, Interfax news agency reported.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Pompeo to raise ‘aggressive, destabilizing’ Russian actions with Putin, Lavrov

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boards a plane before departing from London Stansted Airport, north of London, Britain May 9, 2019. Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Mike Pompeo will make his first trip to Russia as U.S. secretary of state next week for talks with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on “aggressive and destabilizing actions” Moscow has taken around the world, a senior State Department official said on Friday.

Pompeo would reiterate U.S. concerns about Russia’s roles in Venezuela and Syria and its breach of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, as well as Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections, the official told reporters in previewing Pompeo’s trip to Moscow and Sochi next week.

“We have many areas of disagreement with the Russian government and the secretary will have a very candid conversation about concerns in our bilateral relationship,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Russia has taken a series of aggressive and destabilizing actions on the global stage and this trip is an opportunity to make those points clear to the Russian government and what our expectations are and see how to forge a path forward.”

The official noted that President Donald Trump had stressed the importance of “a productive dialogue” with Russia and finding ways to cooperate on shared interests.

Progress had been made in a number of areas, with engagement on Afghanistan, North Korea and counter-terrorism.

The official said the two sides had had constructive discussions on efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, “even though we don’t agree with Russia about all the details of how to achieve this goal. We welcome the positive role of Russia, China and any other country in the Afghan peace process,” he said.

Pompeo will fly on Monday to Moscow, where he will meet with U.S. Embassy staff and members of the business community before heading to Sochi for talks with Lavrov and Putin on Tuesday.

The official declined to forecast concrete outcomes.

“We are approaching this from a very realistic approach, that this is an opportunity to take the conversation to a higher level and to have that frank and direct conversation on this full range of issues.”

The official said the United States was seeking a new era of arms control with Russia to address “new and emerging threats” and Pompeo’s trip would be an opportunity to discuss that.

Trump spoke with Putin by phone last week and said they discussed the possibility of a new accord limiting nuclear arms that could eventually include China in what would be a major deal between the globe’s top three atomic powers.

The 2011 New START treaty, the only U.S.-Russia arms control pact limiting deployed strategic nuclear weapons, expires in February 2021 but can be extended for five years if both sides agree. Without the agreement, it could be harder to gauge each other’s intentions, arms control advocates say.

Trump has called the New START treaty concluded by his predecessor, Barack Obama, a “bad deal” and “one-sided.”

Pompeo met Lavrov in Finland this week and raised concerns about interference in upcoming U.S. elections.

A report by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller released last month found Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” favoring Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump said last week he discussed “the Russia Hoax” in his call with Putin but did not raise concerns about further Russian meddling.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Jonathan Landay, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bill Trott)