U.S. demands immediate return of ex-Marine detained in Russia on spy charges

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

By Mary Milliken and Gabrielle Teacutetrault-Farber

BRASILIA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States is demanding the immediate return of a retired U.S. Marine detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation of why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.

Pompeo, in Brasilia for the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, said the U.S. government hoped to gain consular access to Paul Whelan within hours.

“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return,” Pompeo said.

In Moscow, RIA news agency cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Russia has allowed consular access to Whelan. Russia’s FSB state security service detained Whelan on Friday and opened a criminal case against him.

The State Department did not immediately confirm that Moscow had provided consular access.

Whelan was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said on Tuesday.

He had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Under Russian law, espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. His friends filed a missing person report in Moscow after his disappearance, his brother said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion and characterized Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Four dead, dozens trapped under rubble after Russian gas blast: agencies

Emergency personnel work at the site of collapsed apartment building after a suspected gas blast in Magnitogorsk, Russia December 31, 2018. Minister of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief/Handout via REUTERS.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – As many as 40 people could still be trapped in the rubble of a Russian apartment block that partially collapsed in an explosion on Monday, killing at least four people, news agencies reported.

The blast, thought to have been caused by a gas leak, damaged 48 apartments in a nine-story building in Magnitogorsk, an industrial city in the Urals some 1,700 km (1,050 miles) east of Moscow, the emergencies ministry said.

Emergency personnel work at the site of collapsed apartment building after a suspected gas blast in Magnitogorsk, Russia December 31, 2018. Minister of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief/Handout via REUTERS.

Emergency personnel work at the site of collapsed apartment building after a suspected gas blast in Magnitogorsk, Russia December 31, 2018. Minister of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief/Handout via REUTERS.

President Vladimir Putin flew into Magnitogorsk late on Monday afternoon, visiting the injured in hospital and meeting with local authorities, state television showed.

Putin looked on as rescue workers toiled in temperatures of -22 Celsius (-8 Fahrenheit) to locate people trapped in the debris.

Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev said at a meeting with Putin there were “presumably between 36 and 40 people under the rubble,” agencies reported.

The ministry told Russian agencies earlier on Monday that five people were in hospital and that the fate of 35 people was unknown.

Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova told state television that the chances of finding survivors were diminishing as the day wore on.

The blast tore through the building at around 6 a.m. (0100 GMT) when many residents were asleep, RIA news agency reported. Monday was a public holiday in Russia.

There have been several similar incidents in Russia in recent years due to aging infrastructure and poor safety regulations surrounding gas usage.

In 2015, at least five people were killed when a gas explosion damaged an apartment building in the southern city of Volgograd.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle T’trault-Farber; editing by Richard Balmforth and Robin Pomeroy)

Putin says Russia is ready to deploy new hypersonic nuclear missile

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) visits the National Defence Control Centre (NDCC) to oversee the test of a new Russian hypersonic missile system called Avangard, which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, with Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov seen nearby, in Moscow, Russia December 26, 2018. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would deploy its first regiment of hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles next year, saying the move meant his country now had a new type of strategic weapon.

Putin was speaking after overseeing what the Kremlin said was a pre-deployment test of the new missile system, called Avangard.

“This test, which has just finished, ended with complete success,” Putin told a government meeting.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (5th L) visits the National Defence Control Centre (NDCC) to oversee the test of a new Russian hypersonic missile system called Avangard, which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, in Moscow, Russia December 26, 2018. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (5th L) visits the National Defence Control Centre (NDCC) to oversee the test of a new Russian hypersonic missile system called Avangard, which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, in Moscow, Russia December 26, 2018. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

“From next year, 2019, Russia’s armed forces will get the new intercontinental strategic system Avangard … It’s a big moment in the life of the armed forces and in the life of the country. Russia has obtained a new type of strategic weapon.”

Russia has said the new missile system, one of several new weapons Putin announced in March, is highly maneuverable, allowing it to easily evade missile defense systems.

Putin remotely observed Wednesday’s test from a Russian defense ministry building in Moscow. The Kremlin described the test in a statement, saying that an Avangard missile, launched from a location in south-west Russia, had successfully hit and destroyed a target in the Russian Far East.

Putin announced an array of new weapons in March, including the Avangard, in one of his most bellicose speeches in years, saying they could hit almost any point in the world and evade a U.S.-built missile shield.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Polina Nikolskaya; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Russian lawmakers back law jailing anyone urging teenagers to protest

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shout slogans during a rally for a boycott of a March 18 presidential election in Moscow, Russia January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian lawmakers approved draft legislation that would make it a jailable offense to call on teenagers to attend unauthorized street protests, a move Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Tuesday was designed to frustrate his own activity.

Navalny, a 42-year-old lawyer who says he wants to succeed Vladimir Putin as president, has tried to win the support of a young demographic, including teenagers, some of whom have attended his nationwide anti-Kremlin protests.

Police have sometimes dispersed his rallies using force and jailed hundreds of attendees, including teenagers, whose presence has drawn sharp criticism from the Kremlin which has accused Navalny of manipulating minors for political gain.

The new legislation proposes introducing fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($750) or a jail sentence of up to 15 days for anyone calling on people aged under 18 to attend unauthorized protests. Companies or organizations that encourage minors to attend could be fined up to 500,000 rubles under the new law.

Opposition activists who want to protest already face an array of restrictions, including a requirement to seek the authorities’ advance approval for the time and place of any rally. Authorities often flatly decline such requests for technical reasons or propose alternative venues in remote locations far from the public eye.

Navalny wrote on Twitter that the draft bill showed how the authorities were moving to give themselves a new lever to hamstring his opposition activity.

“They passed the law especially for me, but it’s them that should be jailed for it,” he wrote.

The bill was approved in its third and final reading on Tuesday. It must be approved by the upper house of parliament before it is signed into law by President Putin, something that is normally a formality.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

No Trump-Putin meeting while Russia holds Ukraine ships: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting to discuss preparation to mark the anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 12, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There will be no meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin while Russia still holds Ukrainian ships and sailors seized near Crimea, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at a Washington think tank.

Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their combined crew of 24 last month off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea and accused them of illegally entering Russian waters.

Ukraine has said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.

Two Ukrainian navy captains being held in a Russian jail have refused to provide testimony because they consider themselves prisoners of war, their lawyers said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Russian nuclear-capable bomber aircraft fly to Venezuela, angering U.S.

FILE PHOTO: Russian Tu-160 bombers fly during a joint Kazakh-Russian military exercise at Otar military range, some 150km (93 miles) west of Almaty, Kazakhstan, October 3, 2008. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Two Russian strategic bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons have landed in ally Venezuela, a show of support for Venezuela’s socialist government that has infuriated Washington.

The TU-160 supersonic bombers, known as “White Swans” by Russian pilots, landed at Maiquetia airport near capital Caracas on Monday after covering more than 10,000 km (6,200 miles), the Russian and Venezuelan governments said.

Their deployment came days after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose left-wing administration is the most significant U.S. foe in Latin America, held talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

As OPEC member Venezuela’s socialist-run economy implodes, Russia has become a key lender of last resort, investing in its oil industry and providing support to its military.

Capable of carrying short-range nuclear missiles, the planes can fly over 12,000 km (7,500 miles) without refueling and have landed in Venezuela twice before in the last decade.

“Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela,” fumed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.”

‘HIGHLY UNDIPLOMATIC’

The Kremlin on Tuesday rejected Pompeo’s criticism, saying it was “highly undiplomatic” and “completely inappropriate.”

“As for the idea that we are squandering money, we do not agree. It’s not really appropriate for a country half of whose defense budget could feed the whole of Africa to be making such statements,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, which said the bombers had been accompanied by two other Russian military planes, did not say if the planes were carrying missiles, how long they would stay for, or what their mission was.

Russia has used them in the past to flex its military muscles under the nose of the United States, delighting Venezuelan officials who have cast such flights as evidence it is able to defend itself, with allies’ help, from any attack.

Maduro frequently invokes the possibility of a U.S. invasion in the South American nation, a notion U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration denies.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Pompeo’s comments “not only disrespectful but cynical,” highlighting the number of military bases the United States owns abroad.

“It’s strange the U.S. government questions our right to cooperate on defense and security with other countries, when @realDonaldTrump publicly threatens us with a military invasion,” Arreaza tweeted, referring to Trump’s Twitter handle.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for details on the bombers.

Maduro said the talks with Putin in Moscow this month yielded Russian investment in Venezuela’s oil and gold sectors.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Venezuelan counterpart at the time that such long-range flights provided pilots with excellent experience and helped maintain the planes’ combat readiness.

(Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in Caracas and Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Rosalba O’Brien)

Putin: Russia will make banned missiles if U.S. exits arms treaty

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is seen during the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will develop missiles now banned under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty if the United States exits the arms control pact and starts making such weapons, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.

The United States delivered Russia a 60-day ultimatum on Tuesday to come clean about what Washington says is a violation of the 1987 nuclear arms control treaty, saying it would be forced to start a six-month process of withdrawal if nothing changes.

Putin, in televised comments, accused the United States of blaming Russia for violations as a pretext for Washington to exit the pact.

Putin noted that many countries produce missiles banned under the INF treaty, but that Moscow and Washington had undertaken to limit themselves with the accord signed in 1987.

“Now it seems our American partners believe that the situation has changed so much that the United States must also have such a weapon. What’s our response? It’s simple: in that case, we will also do this,” he said.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Ukrainian leader says Putin wants his whole country, asks for NATO help

By Thomas Escritt and Andrew Osborn

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday of wanting to annex his entire country and called for NATO to deploy warships to a sea shared by the two nations.

Poroshenko’s comments to German media were part of a concerted push by Kiev to gain Western support for more sanctions against Moscow, securing tangible Western military help, and rallying opposition to a Russian gas pipeline that threatens to deprive Ukraine of important transit revenues.

His Western allies have so far not offered to provide any of these things, despite his warnings of a possible Russian invasion after Moscow seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews on Sunday near Crimea.

Moscow and Kiev blame each other for the incident, which took place in the narrow Kerch Strait off Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014.

“Don’t believe Putin’s lies,” Poroshenko told Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling paper, comparing Russia’s protestations of innocence in the affair to Moscow’s 2014 denial that it had soldiers in Crimea even as they moved to annex it.

“Putin wants the old Russian empire back,” he said. “Crimea, Donbass, the whole country. As Russian tsar, as he sees himself, his empire cannot function without Ukraine. He sees us as his colony.”

Putin has accused Poroshenko of manufacturing the crisis to boost his flagging ratings ahead of next year’s elections in Ukraine.

Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said on Thursday Russia had imposed a de facto blockade on two Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov by barring ships from leaving and entering the sea via the Kerch Strait.

The Kremlin denied it was restricting shipping, saying it had not heard of any problems. If there were any delays they were due to bad weather rather than politics, it said.

WARSHIPS

Poroshenko told Bild he also wanted NATO to deploy warships to the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is not a member of the U.S.-led military alliance.

NATO, which has condemned Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian ships, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she thought there was no military solution to the crisis.

The Kremlin said Poroshenko’s request appeared to be aimed at increasing tensions in the area.

The prospect of NATO warships heading to the Sea of Azov seems remote as it is shallow, access to it is controlled by Russia, and the Kremlin would likely view any attempt by the Atlantic alliance to deploy there as a hostile act.

Poroshenko, who has temporarily imposed martial law in parts of Ukraine over the crisis, also tweeted on Thursday that he would impose unspecified restrictions on Russian citizens in his country. He spoke of banning some foreign currency and banking operations in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s border service said it would only allow Ukrainian citizens to travel to Crimea via its land border with the annexed territory, while the head of the Ukrainian navy said Kiev would try to get Turkey to close the Bosphorus Strait to Russian ships.

There were further signs that Russia was pressing ahead with its plans to fortify Crimea and turn it into what Kremlin-backed media have called a fortress.

MISSILE SYSTEMS

Russia on Thursday deployed a new battalion of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in Crimea, its fourth such battalion, TASS news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as saying.

Citing a Crimean security source, Interfax news agency also reported Russian plans to build a new missile early-warning radar station in Crimea next year that would be able to track ballistic and cruise missiles from a long distance.

Russia was also working on a new technical system to allow it to better track shipping around the peninsula in order to protect its maritime borders, Interfax said.

The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russia over its conduct towards Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow seized and annexed Crimea after a pro-Russian leader was toppled in Kiev.

Moscow later backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed. Major fighting ended with a 2015 ceasefire but deadly exchanges of fire are still frequent.

Poroshenko urged Berlin to halt an undersea pipeline project that would allow Russia to supply more gas to Germany directly.

The Nord Stream 2 project is a potentially serious problem for Ukraine, which currently earns large transit fees from piping Russian gas to Europe and stands to lose out.

“We need a strong, resolute and clear reaction to Russia’s aggressive behavior,” Poroshenko told the Funke newspaper group. “That also means stopping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.”

But Germany’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier, dismissed the idea that his country’s commitment to the pipeline undermined efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.

Poroshenko’s attempts to persuade the EU to impose new sanctions on Russia are also unlikely to bear fruit any time soon, diplomats say, given divisions within the bloc over how to deal with Moscow.

Merkel said she would raise the Black Sea issue with Putin at a G20 summit which starts in Argentina on Friday. Putin is also due to hold talks there with U.S. President Donald Trump.

(For a graphic on ‘Ukrainian regions under martial law and also Kerch Strait’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2RhSHmC)

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Berlin and Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones)

Russia ignores Western calls to free captured Ukrainian ships

People attend a rally to support the Ukrainian navy after Russia seized two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat in the Kerch Strait , in the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin

By Andrew Osborn and Natalia Zinets

MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – Russia on Monday ignored Western calls to release three Ukrainian naval ships it fired on and captured near Crimea at the weekend and accused Kiev of plotting with its Western allies to provoke a conflict.

Seized Ukrainian ships, small armoured artillery ships and a tug boat, are seen anchored in a port of Kerch, Crimea November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Seized Ukrainian ships, small armored artillery ships, and a tugboat, are seen anchored in a port of Kerch, Crimea November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Kiev, in turn, accused Russia of military aggression and put its armed forces on full combat alert, saying it reserved the right to defend itself. Ukrainian lawmakers were due to decide whether to introduce martial law for two months later on Monday, a move President Petro Poroshenko has backed.

With relations still raw after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the crisis risks pushing the two countries towards a wider conflict and there were early signs it was renewing Western calls for more sanctions on Moscow.

The crisis erupted when Russia’s border patrol boats belonging to Russia’s FSB security service seized two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tugboat after opening fire on them and wounding several sailors on Sunday.

They had been trying to enter the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The FSB said it had opened a criminal case into what it called the ships’ illegal entry into Russian territorial waters.

On Monday maritime traffic resumed in the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from the Russian mainland, but Moscow showed no sign of releasing the ships and their crew.

Activists of far-right parties attend a rally to support the Ukrainian navy after Russia seized two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat in the Black Sea on Sunday, in central Kiev, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Activists of far-right parties attend a rally to support the Ukrainian navy after Russia seized two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tugboat in the Black Sea on Sunday, in central Kiev, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

COMBUSTIBLE

The stand-off is more combustible now than at any time in the past four years because Ukraine has rebuilt its armed forces, previously in disarray, and has a new generation of commanders who are confident and have a point to prove.

Kiev is also strengthened by the knowledge that most Western governments, especially Washington, lean towards Ukraine and are liable to view Russia’s version of events with some skepticism.

NATO called an emergency meeting with Ukraine on Monday after the alliance’s head Jens Stoltenberg held a phone call with Poroshenko. He offered NATO’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

European Council President Donald Tusk also condemned Russia’s seizure of the vessels and urged it to return the vessels and crews.

Domestic politics adds to the combustibility of the situation. Poroshenko faces a tough re-election fight early next year, with opinion polls showing him trailing his opponents.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has also seen his high approval rating fall because of unpopular domestic policies. In the past, successful military action beyond Russia’s borders has buoyed his popularity.

Using bellicose language, the Russian foreign ministry accused Kiev of deliberately staging what it called a provocation to harm Russian interests and said it would react harshly to any attempts to undermine its sovereignty,

“It’s obvious that this painstakingly thought-through and planned provocation was aimed at igniting another source of tension in the region in order to create a pretext to ramp up sanctions against Russia,” the ministry said in a statement.

Russia’s rouble currency weakened 1.4 percent against the dollar in Moscow on Monday, its biggest one-day fall since Nov. 9, while Russian dollar-bonds fell.

Markets are highly sensitive to anything that could trigger new Western sanctions and therefore weaken the Russian economy. A fall in the price of oil — Russia’s biggest source of revenue — has made its economy more vulnerable.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Stine Buch Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Karin Strohecker in London, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Matthias Williams in Kiev and European bureaux; Writing by Andrew Osborn/Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Russia pledges to act to ‘restore’ military balance if U.S. quits nuclear arms pact

National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Monday it would be forced to respond in kind to restore the military balance with the United States if President Donald Trump carried through on a threat to quit a landmark nuclear arms treaty and began developing new missiles.

Trump drew a warning of “military-technical” retaliation from Moscow after saying on Saturday that Washington would withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which rid Europe of land-based nuclear missiles.

The INF treaty, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan and reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 at a time of unprecedented East-West detente, required the elimination of all short-range and intermediate-range land-based nuclear and conventional missiles held by both countries in Europe.

Its demise raises the possibility of a renewed arms race, and Gorbachev, now a frail 87-year-old, has warned that unraveling it could have catastrophic consequences.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday called Trump’s withdrawal plan a matter of deep concern for Moscow.

“Such measures can make the world more dangerous,” he said during a daily conference call with reporters.

Despite repeated Russian denials, U.S. authorities believe Moscow is developing and has deployed a ground-launched system in breach of the INF treaty that could allow it to launch a nuclear strike on Europe at short notice.

Trump said the United States would develop equivalent weapons unless Russia and China agreed to a halt in development. China is not a party to the treaty.

Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had repeatedly warned that the demise of the treaty would force Moscow to take specific military steps to protect its own security.

“Scrapping the provisions of the INF treaty forces Russia to take measures for its own security because what does scrapping the INF treaty mean?,” said Peskov.

“It means that the United States is not disguising, but is openly starting to develop these systems in the future, and if these systems are being developed, then actions are necessary from other countries, in this case Russia, to restore balance in this sphere.”

EUROPEAN ALARM

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton is due to hold talks with senior officials in Moscow later on Monday and to meet Putin on Tuesday.

Peskov said Trump’s decision to quit the pact would be a subject for discussion and that Moscow was looking for a detailed explanation as to why Washington had decided to turn its back on the treaty.

The INF treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to forego all nuclear ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 km, eliminating an entire category of weapon.

The Soviet Union scrapped hundreds of SS-20 ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads which had a range of 5,500 km as a result. Many of them had been pointed at Europe.

NATO’s decision to station Cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles in Europe provoked waves of protests in the 1980s from anti-nuclear campaigners who felt their deployment would turn Europe into a potential nuclear battlefield.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Bonn, West Germany, and campaigners formed a protest camp at Greenham Common, in Britain, the site of Cruise missiles.

EUROPEAN ALARM

Trump’s statement has alarmed some European countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Trump on Sunday to stress the importance of the treaty, his office said on Monday. The German government said it regretted Trump’s decision, saying NATO would now have to discuss the development.

China also condemned Trump’s move on Monday, saying it was wrong to unilaterally pull out of the treaty.

In Moscow, Peskov said there was a six-month period for Washington to withdraw from the INF treaty once it had given official notification it was leaving, something he noted it had not yet done.

That meant the question of Russia acting to restore the military balance between Washington and Moscow was not “for today or tomorrow,” he said.

Peskov denied U.S. accusations Russia had breached the treaty, alleging that the United States was the one at fault and had been steadily undermining it.

“Putin has said many times said the United States de facto is taking measures that are eroding the conditions of this treaty,” said Peskov, referring to strike drones and anti-missile systems capable of destroying short- and intermediate-range rockets.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Sudip Kar-Gupta, and by Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)