Merkel tells Putin to pull back troops as Kremlin accuses Ukraine of provocations

By Thomas Escritt and Tom Balmforth

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) -German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to pull back the Kremlin’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, while he in turn accused Kyiv of “provocative actions” in the conflict region.

Ukraine has raised the alarm over an increase in Russian forces near its eastern border as violence has risen along the line of contact separating its troops from Russia-backed separatists in its Donbass region.

“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” Germany’s government said in a readout of a telephone call between Merkel and Putin.

Russia has said its forces pose no threat and were defensive, but that they would stay there as long as Moscow saw fit.

A senior Kremlin official said on Thursday that Moscow could under certain circumstances be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass and that major hostilities could mark the beginning of the end of Ukraine as a country.

The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that “Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes.

The rouble hit a five-month low on Wednesday a day after Russia said it had begun a planned inspection of its army’s combat readiness involving thousands of drills.

On Thursday, Dmitry Kozak, a senior Kremlin official, said Ukraine’s government were like “children playing with matches.”

“I support the assessment that the start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration said.

At a news conference, Kozak was asked if Russia would protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine.

Referring in his reply to Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he said: “It all depends on the scale of the fire. If there is, as our president says, Srebrenica, apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).”

Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians. Moscow has denied interfering. While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic fighting never ceased.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)

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 T├ętrault-Farber and Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Jon Boyle and Tomasz Janowski)

Russian nuclear-powered sub enters service amid arms control fears

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s most-advanced new nuclear-powered submarine entered service on Friday, the defense ministry said, at a time of growing arms control tensions between Moscow and the West.

The Knyaz Vladimir (Prince Vladimir) – designed to carry Bulava intercontinental nuclear missiles – was enrolled in the navy during Friday’s Russia Day celebrations.

The announcement comes against the background of a rift with Western powers over Ukraine and fears of a burgeoning arms race following the demise of a landmark Cold War-era nuclear pact.

The Borei-A (Boreas) class submarine is named after a ruler of the medieval Kievan Rus, the territory in modern-day Ukraine from which the Russian state would later emerge.

The first upgraded 955A model to be produced in the Borei class is one of the centerpieces in President Vladimir Putin’s plans to upgrade the nuclear-powered fleet.

The Borei submarine project, which started shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, had long been plagued by shortages of cash and failures during tests of the Bulava missile.

The global arms control architecture erected during the Cold War to keep Washington and Moscow in check has come under strain since the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In August last year, the United States pulled out of the accord that banned the deployment of short and intermediate-range missiles, accusing Moscow of flouting it, something Russia denies.

The last major nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the United States, the New START treaty, is due to expire in 2021. It limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads the world’s two biggest nuclear powers can deploy.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Kremlin says Putin ‘supports dialogue’ after Trump’s proposed G7 invite

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Monday it needed more details before responding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposal to invite Russia to attend a Group of Seven nations summit, but that President Vladimir Putin supported dialogue on the issue.

Trump said on Saturday he would postpone a G7 summit he had hoped to hold next month until September or later and expand the list of invitees to include Australia, Russia, South Korea and India.

“President Putin is a supporter of dialogue in all directions, but in this case, in order to respond to such initiatives, we need to receive more information, which we unfortunately do not have,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“We don’t know the details of this proposal yet, we don’t know if it is official,” he said, adding that Moscow needed to know what might be on the agenda of the proposed meeting and its format, before responding.

Russia was expelled from what was then the G8 in 2014 when Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was U.S. president, after Moscow annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine. Russia still holds the territory, and various G7 governments have rebuffed previous calls from Trump to readmit Moscow.

Peskov said other formats such as the G20 gave Russia a platform to discuss international issues with other countries.

“There are very comfortable and effective mechanisms for all participants for international dialogue, such as the G20, which allows the world’s leading economies to discuss the most pressing problems,” he said.

Some Russian analysts believe Moscow should regard Trump’s potential invitation with skepticism.

“Trump’s intention to invite Putin as a guest of the #G7 makes no sense for Russia. All blame, no gain is what it’ll get. This chapter should remain closed,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former colonel in the Russian army, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

(Reporting by Alexander Marrow, Maxim Rodionov and Andrey Kuzmin; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Russia overtakes China with coronavirus cases at 87,000

By Katya Golubkova and Anastasia Lyrchikova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia overtook China in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases on Monday when its tally climbed above 87,000, as pressure rose on the government to consider easing lockdown restrictions for businesses to help shore up the rattled economy.

Russia, the world’s largest country by territory, has been on lockdown since President Vladimir Putin announced the closure of most public spaces on March 25. These measures are due to expire on April 30 and Putin has not yet said if he plans to extend them.

Anna Popova, the head of Russia’s safety watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, told state television on Monday that, in her view, restrictions should be in place until May 12.

Earlier Prime Minister Mikhail Mishushin asked his government to submit proposals by Thursday to ease some of the restrictions on businesses. Many firms have warned that they risk going bankrupt if the lockdown continues, and thousands of jobs have been laid off.

“As soon as situation will be changing for good, we would need to consider a step-by-step cancellation of restrictions on certain companies… operations,” Mishustin told an online government meeting.

On Monday, the authorities reported 6,198 new cases of the new coronavirus, bringing the total to 87,147, with 794 deaths.

ENERGY SECTOR IN FOCUS

Russia, one of the world’s top oil and gas exporters, is particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus at production sites. Most are located in remote areas accessible by only air, meaning the workers in close proximity, increasing their risk of infection.

Citing local officials, Interfax said on Monday that an airport in Sabetta in the northern Yamal peninsula had been shut down for quarantine after cases of the new coronavirus were detected at the Yamal LNG production site controlled by Novatek.

A total of 143 cases were confirmed in Sabetta, the local crisis response center said separately.

In the northwestern region of Murmansk where Novatek is building a plant to supply its next LNG project, the Arctic LNG 2, over 800 workers tested positive for coronavirus, the local crisis response centre said on Sunday.

Velesstroy, a sub-contractor for the plant, temporarily suspended work at the site near Murmansk but said in a statement to Reuters that the project will remain on schedule.

To limit the risk of contagion at over 1,000 power plants in Russia, including nuclear ones, over 200,000 employees – or nearly a third – were recently tested for the virus, the energy ministry said.

It did not say how many of those tests returned positive.

Mainland China, where the new coronavirus first emerged, reported a total of 82,830 cases on Monday. China is now fighting an increased number of new cases coming from Russia.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov, Maria Tsvetkova, Anton Zverev, Vladimir Soldatkin and Anastasia Lyrchikova; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Russian plane takes off for U.S. with coronavirus help onboard: state TV

By Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian military transport plane took off from an airfield outside Moscow early on Wednesday and headed for the United States with a load of medical equipment and masks to help Washington fight coronavirus, Russian state TV reported.

President Vladimir Putin offered Russian help in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday, when the two leaders discussed how best to respond to the virus.

The flight, which was organised by the Russian Defence Ministry, is likely to be unpopular with some critics of Trump who have urged him to keep his distance from Putin and who argue that Moscow uses such aid as a geopolitical and propaganda tool to advance its influence, something the Kremlin denies.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday night. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.

Russia’s Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday morning showed the plane taking off from a military air base outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.

Confirmed U.S. cases have surged to 187,000 and nearly 3,900 people have already died there from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

In Russia, where some doctors have questioned the accuracy of official data, the official tally of confirmed cases is 2,337 cases with 17 deaths.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to election interference, something Russia denies.

Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Moscow hoped the United States might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time came.

“It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov was cited as saying.

Peskov, who complained about difficulties expediting the aid to the United States thrown up by some U.S. officials, was quoted as saying that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception … there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance”.

Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus, exposing the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

Moscow’s coronavirus outbreak much worse than it looks, Putin ally says

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The mayor of Moscow told President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the number of coronavirus cases in the Russian capital far exceeded the official figures, as Putin donned a protective suit and respirator to visit a hospital.

The comments by Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin, were authorities’ strongest indcation yet that they do not have a full grasp of how widely the virus has spread throughout Russia’s vast expanse.

Russia has so far reported 495 cases of the virus and one death, far fewer than major western European countries.

Putin has previously said the situation is under control, but some doctors have questioned how far official data reflect reality, and the government on Tuesday closed nightclubs, cinemas and children’s entertainment centres to slow the spread of the virus.

“A serious situation is unfolding,” Sobyanin told Putin at a meeting, saying the real number of cases was unclear but that they were increasing quickly.

Testing for the virus was scarce, he said, and many Muscovites returning from abroad were self-isolating at home or in holiday cottages in the countryside, and not being tested.

“In reality, there are significantly more sick people,” Sobyanin said.

The government also said it would organise a return of its citizens from countries hit by the coronavirus if they wanted to come.

Meanwhile Putin donned a bright yellow full-body hazmat suit and respirator as he visited a hospital on the outskirts of Moscow that is treating coronavirus patients, and praised the doctors for their work.

Separately, two senior lawmakers including Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, proposed legislation to make flouting anti-virus quarantine measures punishable with jail time.

The bill would provide for up to seven years’ jail for actions that led to the death of two or more people, or up to three years for causing mass infection, the RIA news agency reported.

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Putin approves changes allowing him to stay in power until 2036

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday opened the door to constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power until 2036, but said he favored term limits once the country became politically “mature”.

Putin, who in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, is required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential and fourth presidential term ends.

But addressing the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, he gave his qualified blessing to a proposed change to the constitution that would formally reset his presidential term tally to zero.

“The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the constitutional court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the constitution,” Putin said.

He said U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt serving four terms because of the upheaval his country was going through at the time was an example of why presidential term limits were sometimes superfluous.

“In conditions when a country is experiencing such shocks and difficulties, of course … stability is perhaps more important and must be a priority,” he said, adding that Russia was still recovering from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

If, as Putin’s critics suspect, the constitutional court gives its blessing to the amendment and it is backed in a nationwide vote in April, Putin could serve another two back-to-back six year terms.

Were he to do that, and his health and electoral fortunes allowed, he could stay in office until 2036 at which point he would be 83.

Kremlin critic and opposition politician Alexei Navalny said he believed Putin was now set to become president for life, while Navalny’s ally, Ivan Zhdanov, decried the move as tantamount to a constitutional coup.

‘ROOM TO MANEUVER’

Putin, 67, now had more room to maneuver politically, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

His stance handed him the option to run again in 2024 should he choose to do so and removed political challenges raised by what had been seen as his last term in the Kremlin, she added.

“The successor issue disappears. The issue of Putin as a lame duck disappears,” said Stanovaya.

Opposition activists said they planned to protest against what some called a rewriting of the constitution in the interests of the ruling elite. One group said it had applied for permission to stage a demonstration on March 21.

A former KGB officer, Putin, who is serving his fourth presidential term and has also served as prime minister, has dominated the Russian political landscape for two decades.

Putin has not spelled out what his plans for the future are, but he has said he does not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.

Putin appeared before parliament on Tuesday after Valentina Tereshkova, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party and the first woman in space, told parliament she was proposing to amend the constitution in a way that would reset his presidential term count to zero.

Explaining the surprise move, Tereshkova said voters had told lawmakers in recent meetings that they wanted Putin to “stay nearby”, whatever constitutional changes occurred.

“What if suddenly something goes wrong?” asked Tereshkova. “He (Putin) will be able to support, help and have our backs.”

Her proposal came as parliament was examining and preparing to vote on Putin’s constitutional shake-up in the second of three readings, something it later did, approving it and Tereshkova’s amendment.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Maria Kiselyova, Polina Devitt, Darya Korsunskaya, Anton Zverev and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Russia to consider making ex-presidents immune from prosecution: RIA

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian presidents could be made immune from criminal prosecution once they leave office under proposed constitutional reforms, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday.

The proposal, made by a parliamentary working group, comes after President Vladimir Putin last month announced sweeping reforms to the political system that would shift some powers away from the presidency.

Putin’s initiatives, which were followed by a government shake-up, are widely seen as a way to allow him to extend his grip on power after his term ends in 2024.

The proposals by the parliamentary working group assessing Putin’s reforms include making former presidents immune from criminal prosecution, said Pavel Krashennikov, the group’s co-chair.

“The president of Russia, having ceased to exercise his powers, has immunity. We have this (proposed reform),” he said at a working group meeting, RIA news agency reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters he would not comment on the working group’s proposal at this stage.

Krashennikov had said earlier this month that Russian presidents could be made senators for life after their term. Lawmakers in the lower and upper houses of parliament are immune to criminal prosecution under Russian law.

The working group has already put forward an array of other proposals, including one that would change Putin’s job description to Supreme Ruler from head of state.

Russia’s lower house of parliament has already backed Putin’s proposed reforms in a vote last month.

For the group’s proposals to be adopted, they must be approved by the lower house of parliament in two further votes before being voted on by the upper house, reviewed by regional parliaments and then signed by Putin.

Putin has said that the proposed changes would be put to a nationwide vote, but a date has yet to be set.

(Reporting by Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mike Collett-White)