Russia calls U.S. ‘adversary,’ rejects NATO call to end Ukraine build-up

By Robin Emmott and Andrew Osborn

BRUSSELS/MOSCOW (Reuters) -The United States called on Russia to halt a military build-up on Ukraine’s border on Tuesday as Moscow, in words recalling the Cold War, said its “adversary” should keep U.S. warships well away from annexed Crimea.

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fighting has escalated in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

Two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week.

In Brussels for talks with NATO leaders and Ukraine’s foreign minister, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington stood firmly behind Ukraine.

He also said he would discuss Kyiv’s ambitions to one day join NATO – although France and Germany have long worried that bringing the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonize Russia.

“The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Tuesday.

Ryabkov’s remarks suggest that the diplomatic niceties which the former Cold War enemies have generally sought to observe in recent decades is fraying, and that Russia would robustly push back against what it regards as unacceptable U.S. interference in its sphere of influence.

“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good,” Ryabkov said, calling the U.S. deployment a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.

CALL FOR DE-ESCALATION

Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba after Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned what they said was the unexplained rise in Russian troop numbers.

Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow was massing forces in its biggest build-up since 2014, since Moscow annexed Crimea. He called Russia’s actions “very provocative”.

“In recent weeks Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.

Russia has said it moves its forces around as it sees fit, including for defensive purposes. It has regularly accused NATO of destabilizing Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday Russia had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to near its western borders in the last three weeks, responding to what it called threatening military action by NATO.

Shoigu, speaking on state television, said NATO was deploying 40,000 troops near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.

“In total, 40,000 troops and 15,000 weapons and pieces of military equipment are concentrated near our territory, including strategic aircraft,” Shoigu said.

The Western alliance denies any such plans.

SANCTIONS, MILITARY HELP

Kuleba said Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed separatist forces.

Kuleba appealed for further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military help to Kyiv.

“At the operational level, we need measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions,” Kuleba said after the NATO-Ukraine Commission met at the alliance headquarters.

This could be direct support aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would chair a video conference with allied defense and foreign ministers on Wednesday. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were expected to be present at NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine, as well as on Afghanistan, the diplomats said.

Austin, on a visit to Berlin, said the United States would ramp up its forces in Germany in light of the friction with Moscow, abandoning former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw about round 12,000 of the 36,000 troops from there.

Kyiv has welcomed the show of Western support, but it falls short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership of NATO.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan)

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)

Moscow homeless shelter sees visitors triple in pandemic

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Moscow charity helping the homeless has seen the number of people dropping in for a cup of tea or a bite to eat increase threefold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia, with more than 4.2 million recorded cases of the virus, imposed lockdowns last spring and many people lost their jobs.

Roman Skorosov, who runs services for the homeless at Miloserdie, one of Russia’s best-known charities, said an average of 300 people now visit its shelter in Moscow every day to warm up, have a modest meal or take a shower.

“This past year has had an impact on the homeless,” Skorosov said. “Since the start of pandemic, the number of people visiting the shelter has tripled. This is due to job losses and other difficulties.”

The shelter, set up in a heated tent east of the city center, draws even more people during Moscow’s frigid winters. It gives them a place to have a steaming cup of tea or receive medical attention for minor injuries.

“There are definitely more calls from homeless people during the winter,” said Olga Pavlicheva, head of Moscow’s Elizaveta Glinka Centre for Social Adaptation.

(Reporting by Elena Ostrovskaya; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Giles Elgood)

After mass arrests at protests, Moscow jail space in short supply

By Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Anti-Kremlin protester Filipp Kuznetsov was detained in Moscow on Saturday and found guilty by a court on Monday of taking part in an illegal protest. But it was only late on Wednesday that the authorities were able to find a jail cell for him.

After arresting what one monitoring group said was a record number of protesters at weekend rallies demanding Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny be freed from jail, Moscow police appear to be struggling to find enough space in detention facilities.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Russia on Saturday to demand the release of Navalny, who was arrested at a Moscow airport this month after flying home for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent.

Kuznetsov, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, was arrested on Saturday near the prison housing Navalny. A court on Monday sentenced Kuznetsov to 10 days in jail for taking part in the protests, deemed illegal because they had not been pre-sanctioned by the authorities.

“I’m sitting in a police bus because there is no space in the jails,” Kuznetsov told Reuters by phone on Wednesday afternoon.

He said he knew Moscow’s jails were full from policemen who had guarded him and 17 other protesters in a police bus overnight outside a jail that had refused to accept them because it was full.

Kuznetsov messaged later on Wednesday to say the police had eventually found a prison for him after driving from jail to jail for more than 16 hours.

The policemen guarding him and the others had allowed volunteers to bring food while they were waiting in the bus and had sometimes escorted them to the nearby jail to use the bathroom, Kuznetsov said.

By the time he got to jail, he said he had not slept for over 30 hours.

“Free people don’t get tired. We support each other,” he said.

The Moscow police department did not respond to a request for comment.

MASS ARRESTS

The OVD-info protest monitoring group, which counts arrests one by one and offers legal support, said police on Saturday detained nearly 4,000 people at protests across Russia, over 1,500 of them in Moscow.

It said it had compared the figures with the number of arrests counted at previous protests, and found both were record figures for President Vladimir Putin’s long rule.

“The number of people arrested after the rallies was really big and there is no space for them in Moscow jails,” said Grigory Durnovo, an OVD-info analyst.

Putin has called the pro-Navalny marches illegal. Kremlin critics cite their constitutional right to protest.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Mikhail Antonov, Editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)

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)

Russia says its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine is 92% effective

By Polina Ivanova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is 92% effective at protecting people from COVID-19 according to interim trial results, the country’s sovereign wealth fund said on Wednesday, as Moscow rushes to keep pace with Western drugmakers in the race for a shot.

Russia’s results are only the second from a late-stage human trial, following on swiftly from data released on Monday by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech, which said their shot was also more than 90% effective.

While experts said the Russian data was encouraging and reinforced the idea the pandemic could be halted by vaccines, they warned that the results were only based on a small number of trial volunteers who had contracted COVID-19.

The analysis was conducted after 20 participants developed the virus and examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo. That is significantly lower than the 94 infections in the trial of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

“I assume there was political pressure after the press release from Pfizer and BioNTech earlier in the week to now draw level with their own data,” said Bodo Plachter, deputy director of the Institute of Virology at the Mainz University. “What is missing for now is an analysis of statistical significance.”

To confirm the efficacy rate of its vaccine, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which has been backing Sputnik V’s development, said the Russian trial would continue for six months.

Alexander Gintsburg, director of the Gamaleya Institute which developed the vaccine, said the interim results demonstrated that Sputnik V was effective and mass vaccinations would be rolled out in Russia in the coming weeks.

European stocks and U.S. stock futures extended their gains slightly after Russia’s announcement though the reaction was far more muted than after Pfizer’s results.

China’s Sinopharm, which is running large-scale late-stage clinical trials for two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, said on Wednesday that its data was better than expected, though it did not give further details.

‘NOT A COMPETITION’

Successful vaccines are seen as crucial to restoring daily life around the world by helping end the pandemic that has killed more than 1.26 million people, shuttered businesses and put millions out of work.

However, experts said knowledge about the Russian trial’s design was sparse, making it hard to interpret the data.

Scientists have raised concerns about the speed at which Moscow has worked, giving the regulatory go-ahead for the shot and launching mass vaccinations before full trials to test its safety and efficacy had been completed.

“This is not a competition. We need all trials to be carried out to the highest possible standards and it is particularly important that the pre-set criteria for un-blinding the trial data are adhered to avoid cherry picking the data,” said Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh.

“Anything less than this risks a public loss of trust in all vaccines, which would be a disaster.”

The results are based on data from the first 16,000 trial participants to receive both shots of the two-dose vaccine.

“We are showing, based on the data, that we have a very effective vaccine,” said RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev, adding that it was the sort of news that the vaccine’s developers would talk about one day with their grandchildren.

The so-called Phase III trial of the shot is taking place in 29 clinics across Moscow and will involve 40,000 volunteers in total, with a quarter receiving a placebo shot.

The chances of contracting COVID-19 were 92% lower among people vaccinated with Sputnik V than those who received the placebo, the RDIF said.

That’s well above the 50% effectiveness threshold for COVID-19 vaccines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The RDIF said data from the study would be published in a leading medical journal following a peer review. The results of the early-stage Russian trials were peer reviewed and published in September in The Lancet medical journal.

Experts said that as with the Pfizer results, it was not yet clear how long immunity would last after taking the Russian vaccine, nor how efficient it would be for different age groups.

“We certainly need longer-term observations to draw valid conclusions about efficacy and side effects. The same goes for Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s numbers,” said Plachter in Mainz.

As Moscow seeks partners abroad to boost output, China’s Tibet Rhodiola Pharmaceutical Holding announced a deal soon after the results to released to make, sell and test the shot in China.

SPUTNIK V

The Russian drug is named Sputnik V after the Soviet-era satellite that triggered the space race, a nod to the project’s geopolitical importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia registered the vaccine for public use in August, the first country to do so, ahead of the start of the large-scale trial in September.

So far, it has inoculated 10,000 members of the public considered at high risk of contracting COVID-19 such as doctors and teachers, outside of the trial.

The vaccine is designed to trigger a response from two shots administered 21 days apart, each based on different viral vectors that normally cause the common cold: human adenoviruses Ad5 and Ad26.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology and is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

Russia is also testing a different vaccine, produced by the Vector Institute in Siberia, and is on the cusp of registering a third, Putin said on Tuesday, adding that all of the country’s vaccines were effective.

RDIF said as of Nov. 11 no serious side effects had been reported during the Sputnik V Phase III trial.

Some volunteers had short-term minor adverse events such as pain at the injection site, flu-like syndrome including fever, weakness, fatigue, and headache, it said.

In late October, the vaccination of new volunteers was temporarily paused due to high demand and a shortage of doses.

Russia’s deputy prime minister said on Wednesday that the Vector Institute vaccine was expected to start post-registration trials on Nov. 15.

She also said that Russia would produce 500,000 doses of Sputnik V in November, lower than a previous forecast of 800,000 doses given by Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov.

Russia reported 19,851 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours and a record high of 432 deaths. At 1,836,960, its overall case tally is the fifth largest in the world, behind the United States, India, Brazil and France.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Ludwig Burger, Josephine Mason and Thyagaraju Adinarayan; Editing by David Clarke)

China, Russia hold off on congratulating Biden; U.S. allies rally round

By Cate Cadell and Dmitry Antonov

BEIJING/MOSCOW (Reuters) – China and Russia held off congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Monday, with Beijing saying it would follow usual custom in its response and the Kremlin noting incumbent Donald Trump’s vow to pursue legal challenges.

Democrat Biden clinched enough states to win the presidency on Saturday and has begun making plans for when he takes office on Jan. 20. Trump has not conceded defeat and plans rallies to build support for legal challenges.

Some of the United States’ biggest and closest allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia quickly congratulated Biden over the weekend despite Trump’s refusal to concede, as did some Trump allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for the European Union and United States to work “side by side,” holding up Biden as an experienced leader who knows Germany and Europe well and stressing the NATO allies’ shared values and interests.

Beijing and Moscow were cautious.

“We noticed that Mr. Biden has declared election victory,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily media briefing. “We understand that the U.S. presidential election result will be determined following U.S. law and procedures.”

In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent congratulations to Trump on Nov. 9, a day after the election.

Relations between China and the United States are at their worst in decades over disputes ranging from technology and trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus, and the Trump administration has unleashed a barrage of sanctions against Beijing.

While Biden is expected to maintain a tough stance on China — he has called Xi a “thug” and vowed to lead a campaign to “pressure, isolate and punish China” — he is likely to take a more measured and multilateral approach.

Chinese state media struck an optimistic tone in editorials, saying relations could be restored to a state of greater predictability, starting with trade.

KREMLIN NOTES TRUMP’S LAW SUITS

The Kremlin said it would wait for the official results of the election before commenting, and that it had noted Trump’s announcement of legal challenges.

President Vladimir Putin has remained silent since Biden’s victory. In the run-up to the vote, Putin had appeared to hedge his bets, frowning on Biden’s anti-Russian rhetoric but welcoming his comments on nuclear arms control. Putin had also defended Biden’s son, Hunter, against criticism from Trump.

“We think it appropriate to wait for the official vote count,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

Biden cleared the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House on Saturday, four days after the Nov. 3 election. He beat Trump by more than 4 million votes nationwide, making Trump the first president since 1992 to lose re-election.

Asked why, in 2016, Putin had congratulated Trump soon after he had won the Electoral College and beaten Democrat Hillary Clinton, Peskov said there was an obvious difference.

“You can see that there are certain legal procedures that have been announced by the current president. That is why the situations are different and we therefore think it appropriate to wait for an official announcement,” he said.

Peskov noted that Putin had repeatedly said he was ready to work with any U.S. leader and that Russia hoped it could establish dialogue with a new U.S. administration and find a way to normalize troubled bilateral relations.

Moscow’s ties with Washington sank to post-Cold War lows in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Biden was serving as vice president under President Barack Obama at the time.

Relations soured further over U.S. allegations that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor, something the Kremlin denied.

(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh, Tony Munroe and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Darya Korsunskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Catherine Evans)

Putin proposes Russia, U.S. extend New START arms control treaty for one year

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed on Friday that Russia and the United States extend their New START arms control treaty that expires in February for at least a year without imposing any conditions.

The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord, signed in 2010, limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers that Russia and the United States can deploy.

A failure to extend the pact would remove all constraints on U.S. and Russian deployments of strategic nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, fueling a post-Cold War arms race and tensions between Moscow and Washington.

Putin, speaking at a meeting by video link with Russia’s Security Council that was broadcast on state television, said the treaty had worked effectively until now and it would be “extremely sad” if it were to stop working.

“In this regard, I propose… extending the current treaty without any conditions for at least a year so that meaningful negotiations can be conducted on all the parameters of the problems…” he said.

Russia and the United States, which has called for China to be included in the arms control treaty, have appeared at odds over extending the pact despite several months of talks.

On Wednesday, Moscow denied U.S. assertions that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Jon Boyle and Tomasz Janowski)

Russia, U.S. remain divided over extending last nuclear arms pact

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia and the United States on Wednesday remained at odds over extending the last major arms control pact between the world’s largest nuclear weapons powers, with Moscow denying U.S. assertions of an agreement in principle.

The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord, signed in 2010, limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers that Russia and the United States can deploy. It expires in February.

A failure to extend the pact would remove all constraints on U.S. and Russian deployments of strategic nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, fueling a post-Cold War arms race and tensions between Moscow and Washington.

U.S. officials have indicated that an agreement to extend it has been reached in principle.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that no deal had yet been reached despite what the Kremlin hoped was a joint understanding that the pact did need to be extended.

“As for the understanding for the need to extent the START treaty, we hope we are on the same track in this regard,” Peskov said on a conference call with reporters. “We understand that it needs to be extended, that this is in the interest of our two countries and the strategic security of the whole world.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to comment when asked to elaborate on the agreement in principle that the top U.S. arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, on Tuesday said had been reached “at the highest levels.”

“We would welcome the opportunity to complete an agreement based on understandings that were achieved over the last couple of weeks about what that range of possibilities look like for an extension of New START,” Pompeo told a State Department news conference.

He said the United States would continue the talks on the treaty, which can be extended for up to five years with the agreement of both presidents.

“I am hopeful that the Russians will find a way to agree to an outcome that frankly I think is in their best interest and in our best interest,” he said.

Pompeo reiterated a call for China to join the United States and Russia in talks on a trilateral nuclear arms control accord. China, whose nuclear arsenal is much smaller than the U.S. and Russian stockpiles, repeatedly has rejected the proposal.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier on Wednesday Moscow did not see prospects for extending the new START arms control treaty with Washington but planned to continue talks nonetheless.

New START is a successor to the original agreement signed in 1991 between the then-Soviet Union and the United States.

Arms deals between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, and their successors George H.W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, underscored growing trust between the superpowers and contributed to ending the Cold War.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow and Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington.; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Marguerita Choy)

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)