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)

Russia ends workplace shutdown but COVID numbers stay high

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Most Russians went back to work on Monday for the first time in more than a week as a nationwide workplace shutdown was lifted across most regions, even though the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are hovering near record daily highs.

President Vladimir Putin announced last month that Oct. 30 to Nov. 7 would be paid “non-working days” – an attempt to slow the surge in cases by imposing the strictest nationwide restrictions since the early months of the pandemic last year.

But officials on Monday reported 1,190 nationwide coronavirus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, higher than in the days before the enforced work break and just five short of the record reported last Thursday.

There were 39,400 new COVID-19 cases, down from a peak of 41,335 on Saturday.

The Kremlin said it was early to judge the impact of the shutdown yet, but it cited Moscow’s mayor, a close Putin ally, as saying the epidemic in the capital was stabilizing.

Despite developing one of the first vaccines against COVID-19 infection last year, Russia has failed to persuade swathes of the population to accept it. Only around 40 percent of the population is immunized.

Immunologist Nikolay Kryuchkov told Reuters he was skeptical of the effectiveness of the work pause, which only a handful of Russia’s more than 80 regions have chosen to extend into this week.

“I think it will either have a weak effect or a very weak effect,” Kryuchkov said. “It has to be longer and fuller… This is not the same as a European lockdown. It’s a much softer version.”

While people were not meant to work during the lockdown, there was nothing to stop them socializing or travelling in Russia or abroad. Travel agents reported a boom in people flying off on foreign beach holidays.

In Moscow, all shops apart from pharmacies and supermarkets were meant to close, but some pubs and beauty salons were still working.

Kryuchkov said rather than relaxing the curbs, regions such as Moscow and St Petersburg should be expanding them and keeping them in place for longer.

“I fear there is going to be a significant period in which we stay at the same point (in the pandemic) and then it will go down and the rate is going to slowly fall. That is not a very good scenario,” he said.

The Kremlin has said it is up to regional authorities to tailor their lockdowns to match the severity of the outbreaks they face.

Many regions that have lifted the workplace shutdown will now require visitors to present a QR code on their mobile phones when visiting cafes, restaurants or shopping centers to prove they have been vaccinated or previously had the virus.

The situation in the region surrounding Moscow remained “tense”, but the number of people being rushed to hospital has stabilized over the last week, a senior local health official was quoted by TASS news agency as saying.

The recent surge in COVID-19 inpatients has put oxygen supplies under strain, and the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet said it had handed over five tonnes of liquefied oxygen to help treat hospital patients, the Interfax news agency reported.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Gleb Stolyarov, Maria Kiselyova, Polina Nikolskaya; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff)

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)

Russia close to using natural gas as weapon in Europe’s gas crunch – Biden energy adviser

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden’s global energy security adviser said on Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting close to using natural gas as a political tool if Russia is holding back fuel exports to Europe as it suffers an energy crunch.

“I think we are getting close to that line if Russia indeed has the gas to supply and it chooses not to, and it will only do so if Europe accedes to other demands that are completely unrelated,” Amos Hochstein, Biden’s adviser, told reporters, when asked if Putin was using gas as a weapon.

Hochstein said gas prices in Europe have been driven higher not just by events in the region but also by a dry season in China that has reduced energy output from hydropower and increased global competition for natural gas.

Still, while several factors have led to the European gas crisis, Russia is best placed to come to the aid of Europe, he said.

“There is no doubt in my mind, and the (International Energy Agency) has itself validated, that the only supplier that can really make a big difference for European energy security at the moment for this winter is Russia,” Hochstein said. Russia can increase upstream production of gas, and should do it quickly through existing pipelines, he said.

Putin has rejected suggestions that Moscow was squeezing supplies for political motives, saying it will increase flow as much as partners ask.

Putin has blamed record high prices on the EU’s energy policy and said Russia can boost supplies to Europe once its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline gets approved.

Yuriy Vitrenko, the head of Ukraine’s state energy company Naftogaz, this month said Russia was trying to blackmail Europe into certifying its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by keeping fuel supplies low. The pipeline, which Washington opposes because it would circumvent Ukraine, is finished but needs approvals from Germany to start delivering Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Europe.

Approvals from Germany and the European Commission for Nord Stream 2 will likely take until March, so if Russia says it can quickly boost gas flow through Nord Stream 2, it should be able to do so now through existing pipelines, Hochstein said.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Hochstein said

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Mark Porter)

Russian COVID deaths hit 4th straight record a week before new curbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia reported a fourth straight daily record of COVID-19 deaths on Friday, with still a week to go before the start of a nationwide workplace shutdown ordered by President Vladimir Putin to try to curb a rise in infections.

Authorities said 1,064 people had died in the previous 24 hours, with new infections hitting a second successive daily record at 37,141.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin’s decision to declare the period from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7 as “non-working days” would provide an opportunity to break the chain of infections, but described the situation as “extremely difficult.”

Asked if more drastic measures might be considered, he said: “Right now, no… There is not a single person who can predict the trajectory of the pandemic with a high degree of confidence.”

He did not rule out the possibility of further measures being taken beyond Nov. 7 if necessary, and once again blamed the situation on negative public attitudes towards getting vaccinated.

“Our vaccination program is going worse than a number of European countries. Fewer people are being vaccinated and more people are getting sick as new, more aggressive strains emerge. That is the reality that is taking place,” he said.

Putin has told regional authorities they can introduce further restrictions at their discretion.

Moscow has ordered unvaccinated over-60s to stay at home for four months from Monday, and from next Thursday will reimpose the strictest lockdown measures since June last year, with only essential shops like pharmacies and supermarkets allowed to remain open.

(Reporting by Dmitry Antonov and Gleb Stolyarov; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Putin approves week-long Russian workplace shutdown as COVID-19 surges

By Alexander Marrow and Darya Korsunskaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday approved a government proposal for a week-long workplace shutdown at the start of November to combat a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Coronavirus-related deaths across Russia in the past 24 hours hit yet another daily record at 1,028, with 34,073 new infections.

Speaking at a televised meeting with government officials, Putin said the “non-working days” from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, during which people would continue to receive salaries, could begin earlier or be extended for certain regions.

“The epidemiological situation is developing differently in each region,” Putin said. “In light of this, the heads of regions are given the right to impose additional measures.”

Authorities have stepped up the urgency of their efforts to slow the pandemic as they confront widespread public reluctance to get injected with the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. Moscow’s mayor announced four months of stay-home restrictions for unvaccinated over-60s on Tuesday.

The mayor’s office was seeking to force shopping centers to connect their security cameras to a centralized facial recognition system that would allow authorities to enforce protective mask-wearing in public, the Kommersant daily reported.

Half of Moscow’s 600 shopping centers have not connected to the system, Kommersant cited Bulat Shakirov, president of the Union of Shopping Centers, as saying.

“But now, due to growing infections, authorities have decided to tighten control,” he said, adding that shopping centers that failed to comply could be ordered to close.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said the healthcare system was operating under great strain. Around 650,000 medical professionals across Russia were involved in treating patients suffering from COVID-19, Interfax news agency cited Murashko as saying on Wednesday.

Russia began a revaccination campaign in July, one of the first countries to do so, but Putin has yet to receive a booster shot, the Kremlin said on Wednesday.

“The president has not been revaccinated yet,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. “He will do this when doctors and specialists tell him to.”

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Alexander Marrow, Darya Korsunskaya, Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov and Maria Kiselyova; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Timothy Heritage)

Russia says it chased U.S. naval destroyer away from its waters

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia said one of its military vessels chased away a U.S. naval destroyer that attempted to violate Russian territorial waters during Russian-Chinese naval drills in the Sea of Japan on Friday.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. side.

The Russian defense ministry said the crew of a Russian anti-submarine vessel, the Admiral Tributs, had radioed a warning to the USS Chafee that it was “in an area closed to navigation due to exercises with artillery fire”.

The U.S. destroyer failed to change course and instead raised flags indicating it was preparing to launch a helicopter from its deck, meaning it could not turn or change speed, the Russian ministry said in a statement.

“Acting within the framework of the international rules of navigation, the Admiral Tributs set a course for ousting the intruder from Russian territorial waters,” it said.

The Chafee eventually changed course when the two vessels were less than 60 meters apart, it said. It said the incident lasted about 50 minutes and took place in Peter the Great Bay in the west of the Sea of Japan.

RIA news agency said the Russian defense ministry summoned the U.S. military attaché, who was told the of the “unprofessional actions” of the destroyer’s crew, which had “rudely violated international laws on the prevention of collisions of vessels at sea”.

It was the second time in four months Russia has said it chased a NATO-member warship from its waters. In June, Russia accused a British destroyer of breaching its territorial waters off Crimea in the Black Sea, and said it had forced it away. Britain rejected Moscow’s account of that incident, saying at the time its ship was operating lawfully in Ukrainian waters.

Earlier on Friday, Russia said it had held joint naval drills with China in the Sea of Japan and practiced how to operate together and destroy floating enemy mines with artillery fire.

Relations between Russia and the United States are at post-Cold War lows, although President Vladimir Putin said this week he had established a solid relationship with his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden and saw potential for ties to improve.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Rivals allege mass fraud as Russian pro-Putin party wins big majority

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Opponents accused Russian authorities of mass fraud on Monday after the ruling United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin, won a bigger than expected parliamentary majority despite unease over living standards.

With over 99% of ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said United Russia had won nearly 50% of the vote, with its nearest rival, the Communist Party, taking just under 19%.

The scale of the victory means United Russia will have more than two-thirds of deputies in the 450-seat State Duma lower house of parliament. This will enable it to continue to push through laws without having to rely on other parties.

United Russia, a party that Putin helped found, had always been expected to win. Its most vociferous critics, allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, were prevented from taking part after a court branded them extremists in June.

Pre-vote surveys had suggested that discontent over years of faltering living standards and corruption allegations would dent United Russia’s support. In the event, near final official results showed it securing around only 4% less than the last time a similar election was held in 2016.

Some Moscow-based Communists who felt cheated called for a protest in the Russian capital on Monday evening. The central square they named as the venue was sealed off by police beforehand.

One of the disappointed Communists, Mikhail Lobanov, had been far ahead, based on a regular voting tally, but suddenly learned he had lost out to a United Russia candidate once electronic votes were added in after a long delay.

“I know that such a result is simply not possible,” Lobanov wrote on Twitter, calling for people to gather to discuss “next steps.”

Candidates opposed to United Russia in Moscow had been ahead in more than half of 15 electoral districts, but all lost after electronic voters were added in.

“With such a colossal number of violations, the results of the State Duma elections cannot be recognized as clean, honest or legitimate,” said Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally.

Sobol had hoped to run for parliament herself but Navalny’s allies were barred from taking part after the extremism designation. Critical media and non-governmental organizations were also targeted by the authorities in the election run-up.

Navalny’s allies had tried to drain support from United Russia with an online tactical voting campaign which the authorities had tried to block.

Electoral authorities said they had voided any results at voting stations where there had been obvious irregularities and that the overall contest had been fair.

According to Ella Pamfilova, the head of the election commission, the vote was exceptionally clean and transparent. She told Putin she would look into any complaints before declaring final results on Friday.

Putin gave a short statement, thanking voters after the Kremlin had hailed the result, saying United Russia had confirmed its role as the leading party. The Kremlin said the election had been competitive, open and honest.

‘PUTIN! PUTIN! PUTIN!’

The outcome is unlikely to change the political landscape, with Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, still dominating before the next presidential election in 2024.

Putin has yet to say whether he will run.

The 68-year-old leader remains a popular figure with many Russians who credit him with standing up to the West and restoring national pride.

The near complete results showed the Communist Party finishing in second, followed by the nationalist LDPR party and the Fair Russia party with around 7.5% each. All three parties usually back the Kremlin on most key issues.

A new party called “New People”, appeared to have squeezed into parliament with just over 5%.

At a celebratory rally at United Russia’s headquarters broadcast on state television, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of the Russian leader, shouted “Putin! Putin! Putin!” to a flag-waving crowd that echoed his chant.

Golos, an election watchdog accused by authorities of being a foreign agent, recorded thousands of violations, including threats against observers and ballot stuffing, blatant examples of which circulated on social media. Some individuals were shown on camera appearing to deposit bundles of votes in urns.

One Moscow pensioner who gave his name only as Anatoly said he voted United Russia because he was proud of Putin’s efforts to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful great-power status.

“Countries like the United States and Britain more or less respect us now like they respected the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. … The Anglo-Saxons only understand the language of force,” he said.

With official turnout reported to be around 52%, there were signs of apathy.

“I don’t see the point in voting,” said one Moscow hairdresser who gave her name as Irina. “It’s all been decided for us anyway.”

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Polina Nikolskaya, Tom Balmforth, Anton Zverev and Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Peter Cooney, Gerry Doyle and Timothy Heritage)

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)

Putin calls U.S. ransomware allegations an attempt to stir pre-summit trouble

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that suggestions the Russian state was linked to high profile ransomware attacks in the United States were absurd and an attempt to stir trouble ahead of his summit this month with U.S. President Joe Biden.

A hack of Brazilian meatpacker JBS’s facilities in the United States, reported this week, is the third such ransomware hack in the country since Biden took office in January.

JBS told the White House it originated from a criminal organization likely based in Russia.

The White House said on Wednesday that Biden, who is due to hold talks with Putin in Geneva on June 16, was expected to discuss the hacking attacks with the Russian leader to see what Moscow could do to prevent such cyber assaults.

U.S. officials have spoken of criminal gangs based in eastern Europe or Russia as the probable culprits. But Kremlin critics have pointed the finger at the Russian state itself, saying it must have had knowledge of the attacks and possibly even be directing them.

Putin, speaking on the sidelines of the St Petersburg Economic Forum, told Russia’s state TV Channel One that the idea of Russian state involvement was absurd.

“It’s just nonsense, it’s funny,” said Putin. “It’s absurd to accuse Russia of this.”

He said he was encouraged however, by what he said were efforts by some people in the United States to question the substance of such allegations and try to work out what is really going on.

“Thank goodness there are people with common sense who are asking (themselves) this question and are putting the question to those who are trying to provoke a new conflict before our meeting with Biden,” said Putin.

Praising Biden as an experienced politician, Putin said he expected the Geneva summit to be held in a positive atmosphere, but did not anticipate any breakthroughs.

The meeting would be more about trying to chart a path to restore battered U.S.-Russia ties which are strained by everything from Russia’s jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to Ukraine to Syria, he said.

Earlier on Friday, Putin told the same economic forum that the United States was openly trying to hold back Russia’s development and accused Washington of wielding the dollar as a tool of economic and political competition.

“We have no disagreement with the United States. They only have one point of disagreement – they want to hold back our development, they talk about this publicly,” Putin told the forum.

“Everything else stems from this position,” he said.

Putin also questioned what he said was the harsh way U.S. authorities had dealt with some people detained during the storming of the Capitol in January by supporters of Donald Trump.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)