Russia to West: offer us guarantees or risk unravelling security

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Friday warned of the danger of a major confrontation with the West unless the United States and its allies gave serious thought to security guarantees for Moscow, and it also raised the prospect of a European missile crisis.

The comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov at a news briefing in Moscow came amid soaring tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine and a Russian troop build-up near its borders.

In a top-level video call to defuse the tensions on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin asked U.S. President Joe Biden for security guarantees for Russia that would halt NATO’s eastward expansion.

Russia has said it is waiting to see where the idea leads, though Ryabkov said it would be “naive” to expect the guarantees to be obtained. Bilateral ties are at their lowest point since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

“If our opponents on the other side – above all the United States but also other countries, its allies, so-called like-minded countries – if they refuse, and try and torpedo this, they will inevitably get a further worsening of their own security situation,” Ryabkov said.

“Not to agree would mean to move closer towards a big confrontation,” he said.

He also urged the West to seriously consider a long-standing proposal to impose a moratorium on the deployment of short- and intermediate-range missiles in Europe that were banned under a missile pact that collapsed under then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

Ryabkov criticized the United States and its NATO allies for expanding their military capabilities in Eastern Europe.

“We need before it’s too late to avoid a new missile crisis in Europe. The appearance of short- and medium-range weapons on these territories is a direct route to escalating confrontation,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Paul Simao)

Moscow says U.S. rehearsed nuclear strike against Russia this month

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia’s defense minister on Tuesday accused U.S. bombers of rehearsing a nuclear strike on Russia from two different directions earlier this month and complained that the planes had come within 20 km (12.4 miles) of the Russian border.

The accusation comes at a time of high tension between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, with U.S. officials voicing concerns about a possible Russian attack on its southern neighbor – a suggestion the Kremlin has dismissed as false.

Moscow has in turn accused the United States, NATO and Ukraine of provocative and irresponsible behavior, pointing to U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine, Ukraine’s use of Turkish strike drones against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and NATO military exercises close to its borders.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Moscow had noted a significant increase in the activity by U.S. strategic bombers which he said had carried out 30 flights close to Russia this month. That, he said, was 2.5 times more than the same period last year.

Shoigu complained in particular of what he said was a simulated U.S. nuclear strike against Russia earlier this month.

“The defense minister underlined that during the U.S. military exercises ‘Global Thunder,’ 10 American strategic bombers rehearsed launching nuclear weapons against Russia from the western and eastern directions,” Shoigu was quoted as saying in a defense ministry statement.

“The minimum proximity to our state border was 20 km.”

Shoigu was quoted as saying that Russian air defense units had spotted and tracked the U.S. strategic bombers and taken unspecified measures to avoid any incidents.

Global Thunder, which this year put U.S. nuclear-capable B-52 bombers through their paces, is the U.S. Strategic Command’s annual nuclear and command exercise designed to test and demonstrate the readiness of U.S. nuclear capabilities.

President Vladimir Putin referenced the apparent episode briefly last week, complaining of Western strategic bombers carrying “very serious weapons” close to Russia. He said the West was taking Moscow’s warnings not to cross its “red lines” too lightly.

Shoigu made the comments in a video conference with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. He said that U.S. bomber flights close to Russia’s eastern borders were also a threat to China.

“Against this backdrop, Russo-Chinese coordination is becoming a stabilizing factor in world affairs,” said Shoigu.

Russia and China agreed at the meeting to step up cooperation between their armed forces when it came to strategic military exercises and joint patrols, the defense ministry said.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn Additional reporting by Polina Devitt and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Putin says West taking Russia’s ‘red lines’ too lightly

By Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the West was taking Russia’s warnings not to cross its “red lines” too lightly and that Moscow needed serious security guarantees from the West.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech, the Kremlin leader also described relations with the United States as “unsatisfactory” but said Russia remained open to dialogue with Washington.

The Kremlin said in September that NATO would overstep a Russian red line if it expanded its military infrastructure in Ukraine, and Moscow has since accused Ukraine and NATO of destabilizing behavior, including in the Black Sea.

In the televised speech, Putin complained that Western strategic bombers carrying “very serious weapons” were flying within 20 km (12.5 miles) of Russia’s borders.

“We’re constantly voicing our concerns about this, talking about red lines, but we understand our partners – how shall I put it mildly – have a very superficial attitude to all our warnings and talk of red lines,” Putin said.

NATO – with which Moscow severed ties last month – had destroyed all mechanisms for dialogue, Putin said.

He told foreign ministry officials that Russia needed to seek long-term guarantees of its security from the West, though he said this would be difficult and did not spell out what form the assurances should take.

Russia-West ties have been at post-Cold War lows for years, but the tone has sharpened in recent weeks as Ukraine and NATO countries have raised fears over Russian troop movements near Ukraine’s borders and tried to guess Moscow’s real intentions.

But despite a growing list of disputes, the Kremlin has maintained high-level contacts with Washington and spoken repeatedly of a possible summit between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden to follow up their initial meeting in Geneva in June, which Putin said had opened up room for an improvement in ties.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed cybersecurity, Ukraine and the migrant crisis on the Belarus border in a phone call on Wednesday, the Kremlin said.

“This was all in the framework of preparation for … high-level contact,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Tom Balmforth and Darya Korsunskaya; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Blinken meets Ukraine official, warns Russia on natgas supplies

By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is watching for signs that Russia may be using energy as a political tool in Europe’s energy crunch, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, adding that Washington was committed to take appropriate action, along with Germany, if Moscow were to take that path.

Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met at the State Department and signed a charter on a strategic partnership. Discussions focused on Ukraine’s neighbor, Russia, which Kuleba said was already using gas supplies as a weapon.

Blinken said Washington was also concerned by reports of “unusual Russian military activity” near Russia’s border with Ukraine, warning that escalatory or aggressive action would be of concern to the United States.

“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, we are committed, and Germany is committed, to taking appropriate action,” Blinken said, adding that Washington was “watching very carefully for signs” that Russia was using energy as a weapon as it has in the past.

Russia has been accused of holding back energy supplies amid record high gas prices, but Putin has blamed the EU’s energy policy and said Russia can boost supplies to Europe once the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline gets approved.

“Russia could and should take steps to alleviate the energy crunch by increasing gas supplies,” said Blinken.

Washington opposes the $11 billion pipeline, currently nearing completion, which runs under the Baltic Sea to carry gas from Russia’s Arctic region to Germany.

The Biden administration has waived sanctions on the pipeline’s operator and reached an agreement with Germany in July over the pipeline. Germany agreed to take action if Russia uses energy as a weapon in its relations with Ukraine, but the pact did not provide a specific criteria for how that would be judged.

The United States was looking to Germany to “make good on” its promise to make sure that Nord Stream 2 is not a substitute for transit deliveries of gas though Ukraine,” Blinken said.

“What we see is that Russia is already using gas as a weapon,” Kuleba said in response, adding that Ukraine wanted Germany to use its “leverage” over Russia

“Russia should receive a very strong message not only from the United States and from other capitals, but also from Berlin, that this is not the game that will benefit Russia.”

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

In the charter signed on Wednesday, the United States vowed to support Ukraine’s efforts to counter armed aggression, economic and energy disruptions and malicious cyber activity by Russia, including by maintaining sanctions on Russia, and applying other relevant measures.

Washington remained committed to assisting Ukraine with continuing its robust training exercises and reiterated that it supported Kyiv’s efforts to maximize its status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner.

Kuleba underscored the importance of support from the United States and added that Ukraine would benefit from any potential defense cooperation that would strengthen its capabilities including intelligence sharing or air defense systems.

“We are in a situation where we cannot allow losing or wasting any time and we are looking forward to working with the United States in this field,” he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chris Reese)

Russian regions extend workplace shutdown, Moscow to lift curbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Four Russian regions said on Wednesday they would extend a one-week workplace shutdown that took effect nationwide on Oct. 30 in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases, as the death toll from the country’s epidemic hit a record high.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the shutdown last month, giving regional authorities the option of extending it.

Authorities in the Kursk and Bryansk regions, which border Ukraine, the Chelyabinsk region near the Ural mountains and Tomsk in Siberia said their shutdowns would be prolonged.

“The tense epidemiological situation forces us to extend the period of non-working days by another week,” Tomsk governor Sergei Zhvachkin said in a statement. “One non-working week is not enough to stop the chain of infection.”

Russia’s daily COVID-19 death toll rose to a record 1,189 on Wednesday as the government coronavirus task force also reported 40,443 new infections in the last 24 hours.

Moscow authorities, meanwhile, said businesses there would reopen on Monday.

“The spread of the disease has stabilized in terms of its detection and its severe forms requiring hospitalization,” RIA news agency quoted the capital’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, as saying.

Other measures, including a requirement that companies have at least 30% of their staff work from home, would remain in place, Sobyanin said.

The health consumer watchdog in Moscow said it had recorded violations of COVID-19 regulations at more than a quarter of the businesses it inspected last week.

The Moscow region, which includes the small cities and towns surrounding the city, also said it would not prolong the shutdown.

The Novgorod region announced on Monday it was extending its shutdown by a week.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Gleb Stolyarov; editing by John Stonestreet)

Moscow locks down as Russian COVID-19 deaths surge to new highs

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Russian capital brought in its strictest COVID-19 related lockdown measures in more than a year on Thursday as nationwide one-day pandemic deaths and infections hit new highs amid slow vaccination take-up across the world’s biggest country.

Moscow’s partial lockdown, in which only essential shops like pharmacies and supermarkets are allowed to remain open and schools and state kindergartens are shut, comes ahead of a week-long nationwide workplace shutdown from Oct. 30.

Like Moscow, some regions decided to kick off their partial lockdowns on Thursday or even earlier in an effort to cut infection numbers ahead of the nationwide initiative.

Moscow’s residents are allowed to leave their homes unlike a sweeping lockdown in summer 2020, but the new measures point to rising concern among officials over record numbers of deaths that the Kremlin has blamed on vaccine hesitancy.

Officials on Thursday reported an all-time high of 1,159 COVID-19 nationwide deaths in the past 24 hours, while the number of daily infections broke through the 40,000 barrier for the first time.

At the State Duma lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker, proposed requiring all lawmakers to get vaccinated and suggested that stragglers should have to work remotely.

“Imagine the consequences for the country if parliament stops working,” Volodin told the lower house. “Every day we’re seeing how our … colleagues are ending up in hospital beds,” he said.

His proposal was met by angry shouts from the parliament’s chamber with someone calling out: “What kind of PR is this?”

Many Russians have said they are reluctant to get vaccinated and have spurned the four vaccines Russia has registered, including the flagship Sputnik V vaccine.

Some people say they are hesitant due to mistrust of the authorities, while others cite concerns about the safety of vaccines.

As of Oct. 22, official data showed that 49.1 million Russians were fully vaccinated. The total population, excluding annexed Crimea, is officially estimated at around 144 million.

AD CAMPAIGN RELAUNCH?

The daily Kommersant newspaper reported on Thursday that the Kremlin planned to revamp the troubled public information campaign about the importance of getting vaccinated.

The new campaign would pay closer attention to Russia’s more than 80 regions and strike a less aggressive and negative tone than previously, the report said.

The existing campaign has often highlighted the risk of death for Russians who decline to get vaccinated rather than linking vaccination to the freedom to be exempt from lockdown-style restrictions, it said.

However, the Kremlin denied it planned to relaunch the ad campaign, but said the strategy was constantly being adjusted and that the campaign would be continued.

Many Russians have decided that now is an ideal time to fly off for a foreign beach holiday instead of hunkering down at home.

There were mixed feelings about the lockdown on the streets of Moscow on Thursday. Some residents like Lyubov Machekhina said they thought it would obviously help slow infections.

But others like Mikhail, a Muscovite who did not give his surname, voiced doubts that there would be any real impact without a larger chunk of the population being vaccinated.

“In my opinion, it will change nothing. Perhaps, it will slow down (the spread of cases) a bit, but in fact, without herd immunity – it’s nonsense. I don’t believe it will work.”

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Lev Sergeev, Anton Zverev, Gleb Stolyarov and Andrey Ostroukh; editing by Andrew Osborn)

U.S. embassy in Moscow dwindling to “caretaker presence,” U.S. official says

By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department is getting to the point of being able to maintain only a “caretaker presence” in Russia in the face of a deep downturn in diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow, a senior department official said on Wednesday.

Russia and the United States withdrew their ambassadors in April after the incoming Biden administration issued sanctions and expelled 10 Russian diplomats over actions including the SolarWinds cyber attack and election interference.

Those ambassadors returned in June, but the staff at the embassy in Moscow – the last operational U.S. mission in the country after consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg were shuttered – has shrunk to 120 from about 1,200 in early 2017, the State Department official told reporters at a briefing.

Staff were struggling to issue visas, putting a drag on business ties between the two countries, and were unable to repair elevators or entrance gates, creating safety concerns, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’re going to confront the situation… sometime next year where it’s just difficult for us to continue with anything other than a caretaker presence at the embassy,” the official said.

Russia and the United States continue to engage in talks over nuclear threat reduction and climate change, but relations remain strained by issues like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe and President Vladimir Putin’s suppression of his domestic opponents.

The United States was forced to lay off nearly 200 locally employed staff after Russia banned the embassy from employing non-Americans, and a visa-for-visa arrangement has prevented Washington from bringing U.S. citizens into Russia.

Russia has just over 400 diplomats in the United States, including its delegation to the United Nations in New York, the State Department official said.

U.S. officials continue to negotiate with their Russian counterparts to stabilize the “downward spiral” in relations, the official added.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Older people in Moscow told to stay home for four months amid COVID surge

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Moscow city government on Tuesday ordered elderly people to stay home for four months and told businesses to have at least 30% of staff work from home amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in Russia.

The new rules take effect from Oct. 25, it said in a statement. Russia on Tuesday reported 1,015 coronavirus-related deaths, the highest single-day toll since the start of the pandemic, as well as 33,740 new infections in the past 24 hours.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov;; Editing by Alison Williams)

Russians head for lakes as Moscow swelters in near-record heat

PSKOV/MOSCOW (Reuters) – People are heading to lakes to cool off as a heatwave sweeps western Russia, driving temperatures in Moscow towards record highs.

The capital’s daytime temperatures are forecast at 30-35 degrees Celsius in the coming days and could break record highs on three days this week that have stood since 1936, 1951 and 2010, the RIA news agency reported.

In the western city of Pskov, near the border with Estonia, a lakeside beach was packed at the weekend with families trying to cool off in the oppressive heat.

“People are suffering, just suffering! They wait until evening for the end of the working day and then head straight for the lake,” said Iskak, a resident who did not give his last name.

Last month the air temperature in Moscow reached 34.8C (94.64 degrees Fahrenheit), the hottest recorded in the month of June in 142 years of monitoring, the city’s weather authorities were cited by Interfax news agency as saying.

In the capital on Monday, the temperature hit 31C. A polar bear napped in the shade at the zoo, while gardeners lamented their parched plants at one of the city’s botanical gardens.

Pavel Konstantinov, a meteorologist at Moscow State University, said the heatwave had been caused by a “blocking anticyclone” that had moved in from Scandinavia.

“The increase in the frequency of dangerous weather events and in particular heatwaves unavoidably accompany global warming,” he told Reuters.

“It’s already clear they will happen more and more often and we need to prepare for them not as extremely rare events as in the past, but as dangerous weather phenomena that occur in populated parts of Russia,” he said.

(Reporting by Dmitry Turlyun; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Putin says Russia could have sunk UK warship without starting World War Three

By Andrew Osborn and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia could have sunk a British warship that it accused of illegally entering its territorial waters without starting World War Three and accused Washington of a role in the “provocation.”

Tensions between Moscow and London soared last week after Russia challenged the right of HMS Defender to transit waters near Russian-annexed Crimea, something Britain said it had every right to do.

Putin’s comments add menace to earlier Russian warnings that Moscow would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea in the event of further provocative actions by the British navy near heavily fortified Crimea.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and Britain and most of the world recognize the Black Sea peninsula as part of Ukraine, not Russia.

In an account of last week’s incident which London said it did not recognize, Russia said it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British warship which was en route from Ukraine to Georgia.

Putin, speaking during his annual question and answer session with voters, signaled his anger over what he called “a provocation” designed to reveal how Russian forces in Crimea reacted to such intrusions.

When asked if the world had stood on the precipice of World War Three during the standoff, Putin said: “Of course not.”

“Even if we had sunk the ship it is hard to imagine that the world would have been on the verge of World War Three because those doing it (the provocation) know that they could not emerge as victors from such a war,” he added.

Putin accused the United States and Britain of planning the episode together, saying a U.S. spy plane had taken off from Greece earlier on the same day to watch how Russia would respond to the British warship.

“It was obvious that the destroyer entered (the waters near Crimea) pursuing, first of all, military goals, trying to use the spy plane to see how our forces would stop such provocations, to see what is activated and where, how things work and where everything is located.”

Putin said Russia had realized what the aim of the exercise was and had responded in a way that would only give the other side the information Moscow deemed necessary.

Putin said he saw a political element to the incident, which took place shortly after he had met U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva.

“The meeting in Geneva had just happened, so why was this provocation needed, what was its goal? To underscore that those people (the Americans and British) do not respect Crimeans’ choice to join the Russian Federation,” he said.

The Russian leader accused London and Washington of a lack of gratitude, saying he had earlier this year given the order for Russian forces to pull back from near Ukraine’s borders after their build-up had generated concern in the West.

“We did this,” said Putin. “But instead of reacting positively to this and saying ‘OK, we’ve understood your response to our grumbling’ – instead of that, what did they do? They barged across our borders.”

(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Alex Richardson and Catherine Evans)