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)

Anti-Kremlin protests fill Russian streets, Putin critic Navalny detained

Demonstrators take part in an anti-corruption protest in central St. Petersburg.

By Svetlana Reiter and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Baton-wielding riot police broke up anti-corruption protests and detained hundreds of demonstrators in Moscow and other Russian cities on Monday soon after arresting opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The protests, called by Navalny, a strong critic of Russian President Vladmir Putin, drew thousands of people and were some of the biggest in Russia since 2012.

“Russia without Putin” and “Russia will be free” chanted the demonstrators, including many young people, who crowded into central Moscow on a public holiday.

Navalny, who is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat Putin in an election next year, had called for mass protests in Moscow and other cities against official corruption.

The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny’s graft allegations, accusing him of irresponsibly trying to whip up unrest.

The scale of Monday’s protests in Moscow and smaller ones in St. Petersburg and scores of other cities suggests Navalny has maintained his campaign’s momentum despite more than 1,000 people being arrested after the last such protest in March.

That is likely to embolden him to call for more protests and keep Putin, who is expected to run for and win re-election next year, under rare domestic pressure.

“Neither mass detentions nor criminal cases after March 26 (the last protest) worked,” wrote Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally, on social media. “People are not afraid.”

The OVD-Info monitoring group, a non-profit organization said preliminary figures showed 730 people had been detained in Moscow. The Interior Ministry said 500 people were detained in St Petersburg.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said her husband had been detained as he tried to leave their home. Reuters witnesses saw a police car leaving his apartment compound at high speed, followed a few minutes later by a minibus carrying about 10 policemen.

Electricity in his office was cut at around the same time as he was detained, briefly bringing down a live feed of the protests, Navalny’s spokeswoman said.

Navalny was accused of violating the law on organizing public meetings and of disobeying a police officer, police said.

Authorities in Moscow said Monday’s protest was illegal and drafted in riot police who fired pepper spray and used batons to break it up, detaining people and bundling them onto buses.

Roman, a 19-year-old student, said Navalny’s campaign against official corruption had struck a chord.

“I’m sick of the Putin system,” he said. “It’s been unchanged for the last 17 years. There is so much evidence that our officials are stealing with impunity.”

Dima, an 18-year-old florist, said he wanted Prime Minister Medvedev to return what he said were the politician’s ill-gotten gains. Medvedev, a close Putin ally, flatly denies wrongdoing.

“I’m not afraid if I get detained,” Dima said.

The Interior Ministry said the turnout at the Moscow protest was about 4,500 — significantly fewer than the numbers estimated by Reuters reporters, who put the turnout in the low tens of thousands.

Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-corruption protest in central St. Petersburg, Russia, June 12, 2017

Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-corruption protest in central St. Petersburg, Russia, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

CHANGES

State media ignored the demonstrations, broadcasting Soviet-style coverage of Putin handing out state awards instead.

Navalny brought thousands onto the streets across Russia in March, the largest such protests since a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2012. Navalny was fined and jailed for 15 days for his role in those protests.

Moscow authorities had initially authorized a venue for Monday’s protest away from the city center. But Navalny switched it to Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main avenue near the Kremlin. The General Prosecutor’s Office had warned that a protest there would be illegal.

The area of Tsverskaya Street near where Navalny’s supporters congregated was hosting an officially-organized festival, with actors re-enacting periods of Russian history.

Video footage showed a protester clambering onto a mock-up of a wartime sandbag fortification holding a poster calling Putin a liar, before being pulled to the ground by a cast member dressed as a World War Two Soviet soldier.

Riot police detain a demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow.

Riot police detain a demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

For now, polls suggest Navalny has scant chance of unseating Putin, who enjoys high ratings. It is unclear too if the Kremlin will even let Navalny run for the presidency.

But the 41-year-old lawyer turned political street campaigner hopes anger over corruption may boost his support.

A video he made accusing Medvedev of living far beyond his means has garnered over 22 million online views to date.

Navalny, who had a green liquid thrown in his face in April, robbing him of some of his sight, said hundreds of people had also attended demonstrations in Russia’s Far East on Monday morning.

“I want changes,” wrote Navalny in a blog post last week. “I want to live in a modern democratic state and I want our taxes to be converted into roads, schools and hospitals, not into yachts, palaces and vineyards.”

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Jack Stubbs, Maria Tsvetkova, Dmitry Solovyov, Gleb Stolyarov, and Anton Zverev in Moscow and Natasha Shurmina in Ekaterinburg; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Angus MacSwan)