Kremlin critic wants film to open West’s eyes about Putin’s Russia

FILE PHOTO: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who fell foul of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, is seen during an interview with Reuters at his office in central London, Britain, August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo

By Hanna Rantala

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) – Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky hopes a new documentary film about his life chronicling his journey from being Russia’s richest man to an exiled dissident will open the West’s eyes to the nature of modern Russia.

The film, “Citizen K”, was made by Oscar-winning U.S. filmmaker Alex Gibney and premiered at the Venice Film festival this weekend. It was based on more than 24 hours of interviews that Khodorkovsky, who is now based in Britain, gave over a period of months.

It tells the story of Khodorkovsky’s dramatic 2003 arrest on an icy Siberian runway by armed men and his fall from grace, punishment for what he and his supporters believe was his interest in Russian politics and fighting corruption.

The bespectacled tycoon, then head of the now defunct Yukos oil company, went on to serve a decade in jail on fraud charges he says were politically motivated before being freed in 2013 after President Vladimir Putin pardoned him.

“Today’s Kremlin regime has learned the art of window dressing very well, but it’s important to understand that behind these beautiful windows there is not just an ordinary authoritarian state but a real mafia, which has taken over this state,” Khodorkovsky, 56, told Reuters.

“If we look at how these methods are applied in relation to the West, we will see corruption, blackmail, compromising materials and even violence. While negotiating with the current Russian regime the West should understand it’s dealing with a criminal organization.”

Russia, which rejects his criticism as false, has issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, accusing him of ordering at least one successful contract killing in the 1990s, something Khodorkovsky denies.

Putin has said he regards the former businessman as a common thief, while Russian authorities have moved to curb the activities of Open Russia, a pro-democracy movement founded by Khodorkovsky.

“A VERY TALENTED KGB GUY”

In “Citizen K,” Khodorkovsky says he misread Putin when the former Soviet intelligence officer first came to power.

“It seemed to me ideologically that he was one of us. A person who gets it and wants to push Russia in the same direction that we want to. That is towards openness, towards democracy,” said Khodorkovsky.

“Boy was I mistaken. He’s a very talented KGB guy.”

Despite living in Britain, Khodorkovsky said he “lived for Russia” and that it occupied his thoughts for 12 out of every 16 waking hours a day, adding that he and his supporters were acutely aware of the risks they ran.

“If the Kremlin decides to kill somebody, it is very difficult for this person to avoid this fate,” he said, a reference to allegations that Moscow has assassinated some of its critics abroad, a charge the Kremlin flatly rejects.

“I tell all my colleagues that the only thing we can do for you is to help you not to be forgotten, as I was not forgotten during 10 years in prison. But it will be difficult, or even impossible, to save you if anything happens.”

(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Venice and Maria Stromova in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Ahead of meeting, Turkey expects Russia to help rein in Syrian forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watch demonstration flights during the opening of the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia, August 27, 2019. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via REUTERS

By Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan will seek steps from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to safeguard Turkish troops in the face of an offensive by the Syrian army in the country’s northwest when the two leaders meet on Tuesday, a senior Turkish official said.

Erdogan, who is making a one-day visit to Russia, told Putin last week that attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were causing a humanitarian crisis and threatened Turkey’s national security.

The official told Reuters that the security of Turkish soldiers in Syria would be one of the key topics at the meeting. The meeting is due to start at 1:30 p.m. (1030 GMT), with a joint statement to be issued at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT).

“We expect Russia to use its influence over the regime on this matter. If there is even the smallest attack on Turkish soldiers, we will retaliate against this,” the official said.

Syrian troops have encircled rebels and a Turkish military post in northwest Syria in an offensive to reclaim territory and towns the government lost early in the war. Turkey has supported some rebel factions in the northwestern Idlib region, while Russia and Iran back Assad.

The military observation post near the town of Morek is one of 12 that Ankara established in northwest Syria under a deal with Moscow and Tehran two years ago to reduce fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels.

“Any step or attack that would violate the agreement should be avoided, but unfortunately we see examples of these in recent times,” the official said. “We expect Putin to take steps that will alleviate the problem there.”

Erdogan and Putin hold frequent talks and have forged close ties focused on energy and defense cooperation. In July, Turkey began taking delivery of Russian S-400 missile defense systems – a move that strained ties with Ankara’s NATO ally the United States.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday that delivery of the second battery of the S-400 system would begin on Tuesday.

As well as putting Turkish troops in the region in the firing line, the advances of Assad’s forces have threatened Ankara’s hopes of preventing a fresh wave of refugees – including fighters – on its southern border.

The United Nations says more than 500,000 people have been uprooted since the Syrian army began its offensive in late April, most of them escaping deeper into the rebel bastion and toward the border. Turkey opened its border at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and now hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

“The necessary measures need to be taken to prevent a migrant wave from there to Turkey. Measures should be taken against any problems that may arise on this issue,” the official also said.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Putin says deadly military accident occurred during weapons systems test

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki, Finland, August 21, 2019. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS

By Olesya Astakhova and Anne Kauranen

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that a deadly blast at a military site in northern Russia earlier this month had taken place during the testing of what he called promising new weapons systems.

Putin said that Moscow could not reveal everything about the blast because of its military nature, but that information exchanges about such accidents should be improved.

“When it comes to activities of a military nature, there are certain restrictions on access to information,” Putin told a news conference in Helsinki, standing alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

He did not reveal which weapons system was being tested at the time of the blast on Aug. 8.

“This is work in the military field, work on promising weapons systems. We are not hiding this,” Putin said. “We must think of our own security.”

Russia’s state nuclear agency said this month that five of its staff members were killed and three others injured in a blast involving “isotope power sources” that took place during a rocket test on a sea platform. Two Russian military personnel were also reported to have been killed.

Putin said this week that there was no risk of increased radiation levels following the blast and that all necessary preventive measures were being taken.

(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova and Anne Kauranen; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Putin: U.S. in position to deploy new cruise missile in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki, Finland, August 21, 2019. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS

HELSINKI (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that the United States was in a position to deploy a new land-based cruise missile in Romania and Poland and that Russia considered that a threat which it would have to respond to.

The Pentagon said on Monday it had tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit its target after more than 500 km (310 miles) of flight, its first such test since the demise of a landmark nuclear pact this month.

Putin, who was speaking during a visit to Helsinki, said that Washington could potentially use its launch systems in Romania and Poland to fire the missile and that Russia would have to respond in an appropriate and reciprocal manner.

(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova; Writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

Global network’s nuclear sensors in Russia went offline after mystery blast

FILE PHOTO: Antennas of a testing facility for seismic and infrasound technologies of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) are shown in the garden of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria, September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – The operator of a global network of radioactivity sensors said on Monday its two Russian sites closest to a mysterious explosion on Aug. 8 went offline two days after the blast, raising concern about possible tampering by Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry, which operates the two stations, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom has acknowledged that nuclear workers were killed in the explosion, which occurred during a rocket engine test near the White Sea in far northern Russia.

The explosion also caused a spike in radiation in a nearby city and prompted a local run on iodine, which is used to reduce the effects of radiation exposure.

Russian authorities have given no official explanation for why the blast triggered the rise in radiation. U.S.-based nuclear experts have said they suspect Russia was testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile vaunted by President Vladimir Putin last year.

“We’re … addressing w/ station operators technical problems experienced at two neighboring stations,” Lassina Zerbo, head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), said on Twitter overnight.

The CTBTO’s International Monitoring System includes atmospheric sensors that pick up so-called radionuclide particles wafting through the air. Zerbo said data from stations on or near the path of a potential plume of gas from the explosion were still being analyzed.

“COMMUNICATION AND NETWORK ISSUES”

The two Russian monitoring stations nearest the explosion, Dubna and Kirov, stopped transmitting on Aug. 10, and Russian officials told the CTBTO they were having “communication and network issues”, a CTBTO spokeswoman said on Monday.

“We’re awaiting further reports on when the stations and/or the communication system will be restored to full functionality.”

While the CTBTO’s IMS network is global and its stations report data back to CTBTO headquarters in Vienna, those stations are operated by the countries in which they are located.

It is not clear what caused the outage or whether the stations might have been tampered with by Russia, analysts said.

“About 48 hours after the incident in Russia on Aug. 8 these stations stopped transmitting data. I find that to be a curious coincidence,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based think tank.

He and other analysts said any Russian tampering with IMS stations would be a serious matter but it was also likely to be futile as other IMS or national stations could also pick up telltale particles.

“There is no point in what Russia seems to have tried to do. The network of international sensors is too dense for one country withholding data to hide an event,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute in California.

The CTBTO’s Zerbo also posted a simulation of the explosion’s possible plume, showing it reaching Dubna and Kirov on Aug. 10 and Aug. 11, two and three days after the explosion.

Rosatom has said the accident, which killed five of its staff, involved “isotope power sources”.

The CTBTO’s IMS comprises more than 300 seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide stations dotted around the world that together are aimed at detecting and locating a nuclear test anywhere. Its technology can, however, be put to other uses, as in the Russian case.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Assad hits a wall in Syrian war as front lines harden – analysis

FILE PHOTO: A man with a gun holds the hand of a child as they walk in a souk in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force.

More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015.

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.

“They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels.

With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area.

Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian government-held territory.

And this time there has been no sign of a major role for Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces that have helped Assad to victories in parts of Syria that are of greater interest to Iran, including territory near Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The capture of the southwest a year ago remains Assad’s last big gain. The prospects of further advances have been obstructed not only by Turkish interests in the northwest but also the presence of U.S. forces in the east and northeast.

American troops are still supporting Kurdish-led fighters following a reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision last December to pull them all out.

After more than eight years of war, this leaves Syria carved up into areas of U.S., Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence that seem unlikely to be stitched back together any time soon.

“We could see the front lines harden and remain like that for some time, where either the appetite or capability to fight through them is not there on the part of the regime or its allies,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment.

“BONE-BREAKING BATTLE”

The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. Proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, the group has set aside past conflict with Turkish-backed rebels to defend the northwest.

Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel group, said coordination among rebels was a major factor in foiling government attacks.

“I expect the battles to continue for a time because it has become a bone-breaking battle,” he said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

The government campaign of airstrikes and barrel bombing that began in late April was followed by the capture of around 20 villages. This led to a rebel counter-attack in early June that seized ground the government has been unable to recover.

The Syrian government has described its operations as a response to militant violations of ceasefire agreements.

Russia says action was needed to stop attacks from being launched from Idlib, including drone strikes on its nearby airbase. President Vladimir Putin said in April a full-scale operation in Idlib was impractical for now.

Though the government has not declared the goals of the campaign, rebel sources believe it was to capture two highways that pass through rebel-held territory.

Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the United Nations to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare”.

For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them.

While accusing the Syrian government of targeting civilians and its military observation posts in the Idlib area, Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia, instead saying it would continue to cooperate with Moscow over the northwest.

The Turkish foreign ministry, in a written response to questions from Reuters, also said “necessary messages have been sent to Russian officials to end the attacks on our observation points and civilians” in the Idlib area.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, as have many fighters on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described the operation as “a failure on all levels” for Russia and Damascus.

A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that rebel fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-government forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said.

A second Western diplomat said the government had suffered heavy casualties for minimal gains, which was “deeply embarrassing”. “Turkey is trying to tell them ‘you cannot take this militarily. You have to negotiate’,” the diplomat said.

A regional source close to Damascus described the escalation since April as a limited confrontation, saying Russia’s ties with Turkey were the main brake on any full-scale assault to take the entire northwest.

“Of course the regime has the desire to recover Idlib by force, but … without the Russians it can’t, because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said. “It is expected that the situation in Idlib will stay as it is for a long time.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Zeynep Arica and Ece Toksabay in Turkey, Laila Bassam in Beirut and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Putin, after three days, says fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powered

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss a recent incident with a Russian deep-sea submersible, which caught fire in the area of the Barents Sea, in Moscow, Russia July 4, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Kuzmin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed on Thursday for the first time that a secret military submarine hit by a fatal fire three days ago was nuclear-powered, prompting the defense minister to assure him its reactor had been safely contained.

Russian officials have faced accusations of trying to cover up the full details of the accident that killed 14 sailors as they were carrying out what the defense ministry called a survey of the sea floor near the Arctic.

Moscow’s slow release of information about the incident has drawn comparisons with the opaque way the Soviet Union handled the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster, and another deadly submarine accident — the 2000 sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk, which claimed 118 lives.

Russia, which says the details of the submarine involved in the latest accident are classified, said the fire took place on Monday, though it was only officially disclosed late on Tuesday.

Until Thursday there was also no official word on whether the vessel had a nuclear reactor, despite strong interest from neighboring Norway.

Putin revealed that the submarine had been nuclear-powered by asking Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during a Kremlin meeting about the reactor’s condition after the fire.

“The nuclear reactor on the vessel is completely isolated,” Shoigu told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript. “All the necessary measures were taken by the crew to protect the reactor, which is in complete working order.”

The fire erupted in the submarine’s battery compartment, Shoigu added, and later spread.

Although the Kremlin publicized the meeting on Thursday morning, it was not immediately clear when the men had met.

“There has not been any formal communication from Russia to us about this,” Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, told Reuters when asked if it had been informed that the submarine was nuclear-powered.

“We understand they brought the situation under control quickly, under difficult conditions, and there was, as such, no nuclear incident that they were obligated to tell us about.

“Still, we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents,” he added.

TOP-SECRET SUBMARINE

Russian servicemen attended a memorial service on Thursday in the port city of Kronstadt near St Petersburg in honor of the 14 dead submariners.

Held in the hulking Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas, sailors cradled lit candles and looked on as priests read out prayers and a choir chanted in the background.

Shoigu, a close Putin ally, told the president that the submarine, which authorities said had been operating in the Barents Sea area, would be fully repaired.

“Right now, we are assessing how long it will take, how much work there is, and how we can carry it out,” he said.

Shoigu’s ministry has released photographs of the deceased sailors, hailing them as “real patriots of the Motherland”.

Separately, a photograph of a tribute to them circulated on social media which appeared to have been hung on the wall of a Russian military facility. Reuters could not immediately confirm its authenticity, but it said the men had served on board a deep-sea submersible known by the designation AS-31.

Russian media have previously reported, without official confirmation, that the vessel was designated as either AS-31 or AS-12 and is designed to carry out special operations at depths where regular submarines cannot operate.

The submarine is made up of a series of inter-connected spheres that allow it to resist water pressure at great depths. Western military experts have suggested it is capable of probing and possibly even severing undersea communications cables.

Putin ordered Shoigu to prepare posthumous state awards for the dead submariners. An official investigation into the accident, likely to be shrouded in secrecy, is already underway.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Ttrault-Farber in Moscow and by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Jon Boyle and Gareth Jones)

Trump to Putin: Please don’t meddle in U.S. elections

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump talk during a bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

OSAKA (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday sardonically asked his Russian counterpart to please not meddle in U.S. elections, appearing to make light of a scandal that led to an investigation of his campaign’s contact with the Kremlin during 2016 elections.

A two-year investigation into a Moscow-run influence campaign during the election has hung over Trump’s presidency, frustrating the Republican president who has said he seeks better relations with Russia.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were speaking to reporters in Osaka, Japan, ahead of their first formal face-to-face meeting since a controversial high-profile summit in Helsinki last July.

Asked by reporters whether he would raise the issue during their meeting, held on the sidelines of a Group of 20 (G20) summit, Trump said: “Yes, of course I will,” drawing a laugh from Putin.

Trump then turned to Putin to give the directive twice, as he pointed a finger at the Russian leader.

“Don’t meddle in the election, please,” Trump said.

Trump’s critics have accused him of being too friendly with Putin and castigated him for failing to publicly confront the Russian leader in Helsinki after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian operatives had hacked into Democratic Party computers and used fake social media accounts to attack his opponent, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

A U.S. special counsel, Robert Mueller, spent two years investigating whether there were any ties between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Mueller found that Russia did meddle in the election but found no evidence that the Trump campaign illegally conspired with it to influence the vote.

‘POSITIVE THINGS’

Relations between the two countries have been sour for years, worsening after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war.

In a recent television interview, Putin said that relations between Moscow and Washington were “getting worse and worse.”

Trump has sought to turn the page to work with Putin on issues such as reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. On Friday, he emphasized the positive.

“It’s a great honor to be with President Putin,” he told reporters. “We have many things to discuss, including trade and including some disarmament.”

Trump and Putin had been scheduled to meet at the end of November at the last G20 in Buenos Aires, but Trump canceled the meeting as he flew to Argentina, citing Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian navy ships and sailors. The two spoke informally at the event, and at a lunch in Paris earlier that month.

In May, they had their first extensive phone conversation in months. Trump said they talked about a new accord to limit nuclear arms that could eventually include China.

“We’ve had great meetings. We’ve had a very, very good relationship,” Trump said on Friday. “And we look forward to spending some very good time together. A lot of very positive things going to come out of the relationship.”

In a further attempt to lighten the mood, Trump sought common ground with Putin at the expense of the journalists gathered to catch the leaders at the outset of their meeting.

“Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do,” Trump said.

To which Putin responded, in English: “We also have. It’s the same.”

(Additional reporting Maria Vasilyeva in MOSCOW; Writing by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Russian police detain more than 400 at protest over journalist

Law enforcement officers detain a participant of a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed from house arrest, in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Anton Zverev and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian police detained more than 400 people, including opposition politician Alexei Navalny, at a protest in Moscow on Wednesday calling for punishment for police officers involved in the alleged framing of a journalist.

Police abruptly dropped drug charges a day earlier against investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, a rare U-turn by the authorities in the face of anger from his supporters who said he was targeted over his reporting.

Golunov, 36, known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police last Thursday and accused of dealing drugs, an allegation he denied.

The crude way supporters said Golunov was set up and detained triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift reversal from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.

The authorities had hoped freeing Golunov and promising punishment for those who allegedly framed him would appease his supporters, but they decided to go ahead with a protest on Wednesday, a public holiday in Russia, regardless.

A member of Russia's National Guard detains a man during a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed from house arrest, in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

A member of Russia’s National Guard detains a man during a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed from house arrest, in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Reuters witnesses said well over 1,000 people marched through central Moscow, chanting “Russia will be free”, “Russia without Putin” and “Down with the Tsar” as police warned them not to break the law and blocked access to certain streets.

Some of the protesters wore white T-shirts saying “I am/We are Ivan Golunov,” the same slogan as a front page headline carried by Russia’s three leading daily newspapers on Monday.

In an unexpected twist, a young woman wearing such a T-shirt managed to get a front-row seat at a ceremony in the Kremlin at which President Vladimir Putin was handing out state awards, official footage of the event showed. The ceremony was taking place at the same time as the protest in the city.

OVD-Info, a monitoring group, said police had detained over 400 people. It said police had started to release some of them without charge while drawing up charges against others.

Police said earlier they had detained over 200 people.

Many of the marchers and those forcefully detained by riot police were prominent Russian journalists and activists.

“We came to show the authorities that we have consolidated, that we are united,” said Vsevolod, 24. “We demand that hundreds of thousands of (criminal) cases where people are sitting in prison unfairly now be reviewed.”

The authorities had warned protesters that their demonstration would be illegal and could threaten public safety.

Under Russian law, the time and place of protests involving more than one person needs to be agreed with the authorities in advance. Organizers of Wednesday’s event had demanded that Moscow city officials negotiate those terms with them live on air during a TV broadcast, a demand they said officials refused.

A Reuters witness saw at least three police officers bundle opposition politician Alexei Navalny into a truck.

Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, said on Twitter that Navalny was accused of breaking Russia’s protest laws, something he has been repeatedly found guilty of, and faced up to 30 days in jail.

Navalny, who said police had accused him of organizing the march, said on Twitter he had been glad to march “among honest people”.

One protester, Ivan, 28, explained why marchers had defied the police. “The freeing of Golunov was not a victory. It was a tactical move by the authorities to prevent disorder breaking out today. But we came here anyway.”

(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Maxim Shemetov, Maria Vasilyeva and Dmitry Madorsky; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Frances Kerry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The official declined to forecast concrete outcomes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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