France demands end to Syria air strikes as more hit rebel-held Ghouta

People and cars are seen in old town in Aleppo, Syria February 8, 2018.

By Dahlia Nehme and Matthias Blamont

BEIRUT/PARIS (Reuters) – France demanded an end to air strikes in Syria on Friday as warplanes mounted further attacks on a rebel stronghold near Damascus where a war monitor said government bombardments have killed 229 people, the deadliest week in the area since 2015.

President Bashar al-Assad, who has seized a clear advantage in the war with Russian and Iranian help, is hammering two of the last key rebel pockets of Syria – the Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

The multi-sided conflict is raging on other fronts too, with Turkey waging a big offensive in a Kurdish-controlled area of northwestern Syria, the Afrin region, where Ankara is targeting Kurdish militia forces it sees as a threat to its security.

Diplomacy is making no progress toward ending a war now approaching its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes, with millions forced out as refugees.

“We are very worried. The air strikes need to end,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on France Inter radio. “Civilians are the targets, in Idlib and in the east of Damascus. This fighting is absolutely unacceptable.”

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, said on Thursday a ceasefire was unrealistic. The United Nations called on Tuesday for a humanitarian truce of at least one month to allow for aid deliveries and evacuations of the wounded.

France and 1the United Nations have repeatedly called in past months for the opening of aid corridors to alleviate Syria’s humanitarian crisis. The Paris government has also urged Moscow in private to consider ways to alleviate the crisis, but those efforts have not materialized into results on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the Syrian peace process by phone on Friday, the Kremlin said in a statement.

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

“CATASTROPHE”

In the Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel area near Damascus, residents described one of the most extensive bombing campaigns of the war, with multiple towns being hit simultaneously and people driven into shelters for days.

“My brother was hit yesterday in an air strike and we had to amputate his leg. Thank God it was only this,” said an Eastern Ghouta resident reached by Reuters on Friday. “He was hit by shrapnel while sitting in his home,” said the resident, who identified himself as Adnan, declining to give his full name.

“The people here have collapsed, people are seen talking to themselves in the streets. They don’t know where to go,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman with the Civil Defence rescue service in the rebel-held area. “We are living a catastrophe.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using what it describes as a range of sources on all sides, said the air strikes had killed 229 people in the last four days, the Eastern Ghouta’s biggest weekly toll since 2015.

“Children in Eastern Ghouta are being starved, bombed and trapped. Schools are supposed to be safe places for children, protected under international law, yet they are being attacked every single day,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director in a statement.

“Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit. The siege means there is nowhere for them to escape.”

The Syrian government has repeatedly said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

The World Food Programme, in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, reiterated the call for a cessation of hostilities to enable aid deliveries, but also noted that the Syrian government was not giving necessary permits to delivery aid.

“It has been now almost 60 days since we had the last convoy to a besieged area,” Jakob Kern, the WFP country director in Syria, told Reuters in a phone interview from Damascus.

“The frustration is two-fold. One is that we don’t get approvals to actually go but even if we got approvals, there just is too much fighting going on,” he said, pointing to hostilities in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, Afrin and the south.

TURKISH AIR CAMPAIGN

The Turkish army, which launched an air and ground offensive into Afrin on Jan. 20, said it carried out air strikes on Kurdish YPG militia targets in the Afrin region. The Observatory said the strikes killed seven combatants and two civilians.

The overnight attacks came after a lull in Turkish air strikes following the shooting down of a Russian warplane elsewhere in Syria last weekend.

The air strikes destroyed 19 targets including ammunition depots, shelters and gun positions, the Turkish armed forces said in a statement without specifying when the raids were conducted. The raids began at midnight, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on neighboring Turkish soil.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoke by telephone on Thursday and agreed to strengthen military and security service coordination in Syria, according to the Kremlin.

The YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in Syria’s north, including Afrin, since the war began in 2011.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matthias Blamont and John Irish in Paris; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey, Russia and Iran leaders to discuss Syria in Istanbul: Turkish source

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with his counterparts, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017.

ANKARA (Reuters) – The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed on Wednesday to meet in Istanbul to discuss the conflict in Syria, a Turkish presidential source said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the meeting in two phone calls on Wednesday with the Russian and Iranian presidents, the source said. The date of the summit would be set in coming weeks.

The three countries have worked together in recent months to try to reduce violence in Syria, even though they have backed rival sides in the nearly seven-year civil war and remain deeply involved in the conflict.

Iran-backed militias and Russian air power have supported a Syrian army offensive in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib since November, and Turkish forces last month launched an offensive in northern Syria’s Kurdish region of Afrin.

On Monday, Iran urged Turkey to halt the Afrin operation, saying it breached Syrian sovereignty and would increase tension. It was not immediately clear whether Erdogan and Rouhani discussed Afrin in their telephone call on Thursday.

Erdogan and Putin also agreed to speed up the establishment of military observation posts in Syria’s Idlib region under an accord reached by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow last year to reduce fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels.

After the phone call, the Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Erdogan agreed to strengthen coordination between the two countries’ military and security services in Syria in the fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Rocky day for Syria talks in Russia: Lavrov heckled, opposition quits

Participants react as they attend a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018.

By Kinda Makieh and Maria Tsvetkova

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – A Syrian peace conference in Russia was marred by discord on Tuesday after the Russian foreign minister was heckled, an opposition delegation refused to leave the airport on arrival, and delegates squabbled over who should preside over the event.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was hosting what it called a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that it hoped would launch negotiations on drafting a new constitution for Syria.

But in a blow to Moscow, which has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker, the event was boycotted by the leadership of the Syrian opposition, while powers such as the United States, Britain and France stayed away because of what they said was the Syrian government’s refusal to properly engage.

Western countries support a separate U.N.-mediated peace process, which has so far failed to yield progress toward ending a war that is entering its eighth year. The latest round of those talks took place in Vienna last week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov helped open the conference on Tuesday by reading out a statement from President Vladimir Putin saying the conditions were ripe for Syria to turn “a tragic page” in its history.

But some delegates stood up and began heckling him, accusing Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with its air strikes.

The incident was broadcast on Russian state TV where two security guards were shown approaching one man in the audience indicating that he should sit down.

Other delegates shouted out their support for Russia. Lavrov told the delegates to let him finish speaking, saying they would have their say later.

Several delegates, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that organizers had later been forced to suspend a plenary session due to squabbling among delegates over who would be chosen to preside over the congress.

FLAG ROW

In a further setback, one group of delegates, which included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey, refused to leave Sochi airport until Syrian government flags and emblems which they said were offensive were removed.

Ahmed Tomah, the head of the delegation, said his group was boycotting the congress and would fly back to Turkey because of the flag row and what he called broken promises to end the bombardment of civilians.

“We were surprised that none of the promises that were given had been kept, the ferocious bombing of civilians had not stopped nor the flags and banners of the regime (been) removed,” he said in a video recorded at the airport.

Artyom Kozhin, a senior diplomat at the Russian Foreign Ministry, acknowledged there had been some complications.

“Some problems have arisen with a group of the armed opposition that has come from Turkey which has made its participation dependent on additional demands,” Kozhin wrote on social media.

Lavrov had spoken by phone twice to his Turkish counterpart and been told that the problem would be resolved, said Kozhin.

Turkish and Iranian government delegations attended the congress, as did U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian expert on the Middle East employed by de Mistura as an adviser, told reporters that the problems encountered by organizers had not tarnished the event.

“Nothing awful happened,” said Naumkin. “Nobody is fighting anyone else. Nobody is killing anyone. These were standard working moments.”

Russian officials have complained of attempts to sabotage the conference, which was originally billed as a two-day event but was reduced to a one-day event at the last minute.

(Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Tom Miles in Geneva and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)

Netanyahu flies to Moscow for talks on Syria with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a meeting at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Monday to discuss Israeli concerns about any expansion of Iran’s military foothold in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I will discuss with President Putin Iran’s relentless efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, which we strongly oppose and are also taking action against,” said Netanyahu, without elaborating, before boarding a plane for the visit, scheduled to last several hours.

Israel’s air force said last year it had struck suspected arms shipments to Iran’s ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, around 100 times.

Netanyahu said he and Putin “meet periodically in order to ensure the military coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian forces in Syria”.

Russia intervened in the civil war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shi‘ite Muslim militias also back Assad.

Israel fears Iran could be left with a permanent garrison in Syria, extending a threat posed from neighboring Lebanon by Hezbollah, which has an extensive missile arsenal and last fought a war with the Israeli military in 2006.

Netanyahu said he also planned to discuss with Putin “Iran’s effort to turn Lebanon into one giant missile site, a site for precision missiles against the State of Israel, which we will not tolerate”.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

UK defence minister says Russia looking to cause thousands of deaths in Britain

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with employees during a visit to the Gorbunov Aviation factory in Kazan, Russia January 25, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s defence minister warned that Russia was looking to damage the British economy by attacking its infrastructure, a move he said could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths”, The Telegraph newspaper reported.

Relations between Russia and Britain are strained. Prime Minister Theresa May last year accused Moscow of military aggression and in December, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said there was evidence showing Russian meddling in Western elections.

Britain has also scrambled jets in recent months to intercept Russian jets near the United Kingdom’s airspace.

“The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough, and off Brighton Beach,” defence minister Gavin Williamson, tipped as a possible successor to May, was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

“What they are looking at doing is they are going to be thinking ‘How can we just cause so much pain to Britain?’. Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country.”

The Kremlin, which under Vladimir Putin has clawed back some of the global influence lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, has denied meddling in elections in the West. It says anti-Russian hysteria is sweeping through the United States and Europe.

Williamson said Russia was look at ways to attack Britain.

“Why would they keep photographing and looking at power stations, why are they looking at the interconnectors that bring so much electricity and so much energy into our country,” he was quoted as saying.

“If you could imagine the domestic and industrial chaos that this would actually cause. What they would do is cause the chaos and then step back.”

“This is the real threat that I believe the country is facing at the moment,” he said.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Friday that Williamson’s comments showed he had lost his understanding of what was reasonable, RIA news agency reported.

“It is likely he has lost his grasp on reason,” RIA quoted ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison)

Kremlin: U.S. report accusing Russia of election meddling harms relations

A view through a construction fence shows the Kremlin towers and St. Basil's Cathedral on a hot summer day in central Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2016.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Thursday described a report published by Democratic U.S. lawmakers accusing Russia of election meddling as damaging for bilateral relations, as well as for the United States itself.

Democratic U.S. lawmakers accused Russia on Wednesday of a “relentless assault” on democratic institutions worldwide, and called on President Donald Trump to treat election interference as a national crisis.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report detailing what they described as nearly two decades of Russian efforts to tilt politics across Europe, criticizing Trump for doing too little to address the issue.

The report was commissioned by Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s top Democrat, who said on Wednesday that President Vladimir Putin would “push as far as he’s allowed to push, if we don’t push back.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who has repeatedly denied accusations by U.S. intelligence officials and others that Moscow interferes in any foreign elections, told a conference call with reporters Russia rejected any accusations of meddling and was dismayed to see such allegations still being made.

“With regards to this (anti-Russian) campaign, all we can do is express our regret and repeat that these accusations remain unfounded,” said Peskov.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Putin says St. Petersburg supermarket bombing was terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a state awards ceremony for military personnel who served in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 28, 2017

By Andrew Osborn and Denis Pinchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said a bomb blast in a St. Petersburg supermarket on Wednesday was an act of terrorism, and that security forces whose lives were threatened by terrorist suspects should shoot to kill if necessary.

Putin, who is running for re-election in March, was speaking on Thursday at an awards ceremony in the Kremlin for Russian personnel who served in Russia’s Syria campaign, which Moscow has framed as an anti-terrorism operation.

“You know that yesterday in St. Petersburg a terrorist act was carried out,” Putin told the audience, referring to the explosion that injured 13 shoppers in a branch of the Perekrestok supermarket chain.

Investigators have opened a criminal case into Wednesday evening’s blast, which they say was caused by a homemade bomb packed with pieces of metal.

Russian media reports said the bomb was hidden inside a rucksack in a locker where shoppers leave their belongings and said the person who left the bomb, described as being of “non-Slavic appearance”, had been caught on CCTV.

No group has claimed responsibility.

Russia has repeatedly been the target of attacks by Islamist militant groups, including an attack in April that killed 14 people when an explosion tore through a train carriage in a metro tunnel in St. Petersburg.

That attack was claimed by a militant group which said the suicide bomber was acting on the orders of al Qaeda. Russian police detained several suspects in that attack from mainly Muslim states in ex-Soviet central Asia.

“ACT DECISIVELY”

Putin told the ceremony the FSB security service, which he used to run before he became president, had also prevented “another attempted terrorist act”.

A Kremlin spokesman said Putin was referring to a foiled attack on Kazansky Cathedral, in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city.

The Kremlin said earlier this month that a U.S. tip-off had helped thwart the attack in a rare public show of cooperation despite deep strains between the two countries.

An interior view of a supermarket is seen after an explosion in St Petersburg, Russia, in this photo released by Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committe on December 28, 2017.

An interior view of a supermarket is seen after an explosion in St Petersburg, Russia, in this photo released by Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committe on December 28, 2017. National Anti-Terrorism Committe/Handout via REUTERS

Russian media reported earlier this month that the Federal Security Service had detained seven members of an Islamic State cell who had been planning the attack.

Putin told the same awards ceremony that the security situation in Russia would be much worse if thousands of Russian citizens who fought with Islamic State in Syria had been allowed to return home.

“What would have happened if those thousands of people … returned to us (from Syria). If they returned with good weapons training …,” he said.

Russian security officials have said that thousands of citizens from ex-Soviet Central Asia or from the Muslim-majority North Caucasus region of Russia, which includes Chechnya, traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State.

Putin said security forces should take no chances with their own lives if confronted by terrorist suspects.

“I yesterday ordered the FSB director to act within the framework of the law when detaining these bandits of course, but if there is a threat to the life and well-being of our employees … to act decisively, not take any prisoners, and liquidate the bandits on the spot.”

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Alison Williams)

Kremlin says U.S. tip-off about planned attack ‘saved many lives’

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov arrives for the meeting with officials of Rostec high-technology state corporation at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 7, 2017.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A U.S. tip-off about a planned attack in St. Petersburg helped save many lives and Russia and the United States should try to cooperate in the same way in future, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

Washington provided intelligence to Russia that helped thwart a potentially deadly bombing, U.S. and Russian officials said on Sunday, in a rare public show of cooperation despite deep strains between the two countries.

“It cannot be called anything but an ideal example of cooperation in fighting terrorism,” Peskov told reporters at a conference call. “We should aim for such standards.”

The tip-off resulted in the detention of seven alleged supporters of the Islamic State militant group in St. Petersburg last week, Peskov said.

Russia’s Federal Security Service said on Friday that IS had planned attacks in public places on Dec. 16 and weapons and explosives were found when the suspects were searched.

Peskov said Russian and American security services have contacts but this was the first time when their cooperation was so efficient. “This was very meaningful information that helped to save many lives,” the spokesman told reporters.

Asked if President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin had discussed a possible meeting, Peskov replied that the issue “had not been brought up yet”.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Backed by Putin, Russian military pushes into foreign policy

Backed by Putin, Russian military pushes into foreign policy

By Andrew Osborn and Jack Stubbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – From Damascus to Doha, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has been showing up in unexpected places, a sign of the military’s growing influence under Vladimir Putin.

In the past few months, at times wearing his desert military uniform, Shoigu has held talks with Syria’s president in Damascus, met Israel’s prime minister in Jerusalem and been received by the Emir of Qatar in Doha.

The defense ministry’s forays into areas long regarded as the preserve of the foreign ministry are raising eyebrows in Russia, where strict protocol means ministers usually hold talks only with their direct foreign counterparts.

The military is reaping political dividends from what the Kremlin saw as its big successes in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine after Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms seized control of the peninsula in 2014, and Syria, where Russian forces helped turn the tide of war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

“That has translated into more top-table influence,” said a long-serving Russian official who interacts with the defense ministry but declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The Kremlin and the defense ministry did not respond to detailed requests for comment for this article, but three sources who know both ministries well confirmed the trend.

The foreign ministry, in a Dec.15 statement to Reuters, said it was baffled by what it called assumptions it likened to “rumors and gossip.”

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the leading but not the sole government department involved in foreign policy making,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman, said in the statement.

“Foreign policy making has long become a multi-faceted complex process involving many parts of government. One part of government seizing some kind of monopoly in international relations will not be beneficial and is hardly possible.”

The military’s increased influence has, however, caused discontent among some Russian diplomats and unease among Western officials about the harder edge it is giving Russia’s foreign policy.

Foreign policy-making has become more bellicose and more opaque, and this makes new Russian military adventures more likely, some Western officials say.

“If you allow the defense ministry a bigger say in foreign policy it’s going to be looking for trouble,” said one, who declined to be named because of the subject’s sensitivity.

Shoigu’s high profile has also revived talk of the long-time Putin loyalist as a possible presidential stand-in if Putin, who is seeking a fourth term in an election in March, had to step down suddenly and was unable to serve out a full six-year term.

Shoigu, 62, is not involved in party politics but opinion polls often put him among the top five most popular presidential possibles. His trust rating is also often second only to Putin, with whom he was pictured on a fishing trip this summer.

SYRIA ROLE

The military’s influence has ebbed and flowed in Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union.

It had huge clout at the end of World War Two and in the 1950s after the death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin when Georgy Zhukov, a commander credited with a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, was defense minister.

But the ignominious Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, completed in 1989, two wars Russia fought in Chechnya after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine with the loss of all 118 people on board in 2000 left the military’s prestige in tatters.

Under Putin, a former KGB agent who as president is the armed forces’ commander-in-chief, its stock has risen. Defence spending has soared, the military has been deployed in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria and its actions are used to foster patriotism.

The military’s growing political and foreign policy muscle is most noticeable when it comes to Syria.

After going to Damascus twice earlier this year for talks with Assad, Shoigu was at Putin’s side this week when the president flew in to meet the Syrian leader. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has not visited Syria at all in 2017.

Unusually for a defense minister, Shoigu has been involved in diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Syria. In this role he has spoken about the importance of a new draft constitution for the country, met the U.N. special envoy on Syria and had talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

A Western official who has direct contact with the foreign and defense ministries said the Russian military had real heft in Damascus of a kind the foreign ministry did not.

There was “strong mutual trust” between the Russian military and senior people in Damascus, the official said, because “the Russians saved their asses and the Syrians respect that.”

The foreign ministry retains strong Middle East experts and continues to play an important Syria role, helping run peace talks taking place in Kazakhstan. But Lavrov’s own efforts to secure a U.S.-Russia deal on cooperating in Syria have shown how differently the foreign and defense ministries sometimes think.

Lavrov is still seen as a formidable diplomat whom Putin trusts and respects. But Western officials say he is not summoned to all important meetings and is not informed about major military operations in Syria.

POLICY INTERVENTIONS

The military’s other foreign policy interventions include a role in Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies say.

They say the GRU, Russia’s military foreign intelligence agency, hacked email accounts belonging to Democratic Party officials and politicians, and organized their leaking to the media to try to sway public opinion against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s main rival.

The Kremlin denies the allegations.

Other policy interventions included a news briefing in December 2015 at which the defense ministry said it had proof that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his family were benefiting from illegal smuggling of oil from Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan said the allegations, made at a briefing held a week after a Turkish air force jet shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border, amounted to slander.

The defense ministry’s response to the incident was much sharper than that of Russian diplomats, part of a wide-ranging communications policy that has included frequent criticism of the U.S. State Department and Washington’s foreign policy.

Other areas of interest for the defense ministry have included Egypt, Sudan and Libya.

Shoigu was involved in talks between Putin and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Moscow last month and the ministry hosted Khalifa Haftar, Eastern Libya’s dominant military figure, aboard its sole aircraft carrier in January. During the visit, Haftar spoke to Shoigu via video link about fighting terrorism in the Middle East.

One Western official told Reuters such incidents were fuelling fears that Russia plans to expand its footprint beyond Syria, where it has an air base and a naval facility, to centers such as Yemen, Sudan or Afghanistan.

The military’s influence in domestic policy-making has expanded too, Russian analysts and Western officials say, with Putin seeking its views on everything from the digital economy to food security.

That is in part because Putin, since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, has altered the way he takes decisions and widened the scope of what the Security Council, which he chairs, discusses to include many domestic policy questions.

“At a time when there’s a feeling that Russia is increasingly surrounded by enemies, Putin is consulting the intelligence services and the military more when he takes all decisions. He’s meeting them all the time,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies think tank.

Stanovaya said that did not mean the military was initiating ideas, but that its opinions were taken into account far more by Putin now than in the past and that it now had an important voice on domestic policy areas.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Putin says U.S. gripped by fabricated spymania, praises Trump

Putin says U.S. gripped by fabricated spymania, praises Trump

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Jack Stubbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the United States was in the grip of a fabricated spymania whipped up by President Donald Trump’s opponents but he thought battered U.S.-Russia relations would recover one day.

Putin also praised the U.S. president for what he said were his achievements.

“I’m not the one to evaluate the (U.S.) president’s work. That needs to be done by the voters, the American people,” Putin told his annual news conference in Moscow, in answer to a question.

“(But) we are objectively seeing that there have been some major accomplishments, even in the short time he has been working. Look at how the markets have grown. This speaks to investors’ trust in the American economy.”

Trump took office in January, saying he was keen to mend ties which had fallen to a post-Cold War low. But since then, ties have soured further after U.S. officials said Russia meddled in the presidential election, something Moscow denies.

Congress is also investigating alleged contacts between the Trump election campaign and Russian officials amid fears that Moscow may have tried to exercise improper influence.

Putin dismissed those allegations and the idea of a Russia connection as “fabricated”.

“This is all invented by people who oppose Trump to give his work an illegitimate character. The people who do this are dealing a blow to the state of (U.S.) domestic politics,” he added, saying the accusations were disrespectful to U.S. voters.

Moscow understood that Trump’s scope to improve ties with Russia was limited by the scandal, said Putin, but remained keen to try to improve relations.

“COMMON THREATS”

Washington and Moscow had many common interests, he said, citing the Middle East, North Korea, international terrorism, environmental problems and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“You have to ask him (Trump) if he has such a desire (to improve ties) … or whether it has disappeared. I hope that he has such a desire,” said Putin.

“We are normalizing our relations and will develop (them) and overcome common threats.”

Putin, who is running for re-election in March, agreed with a questioner who said he faced no credible high-profile political opponents, but pledged to work to try to create a more balanced political system.

The promise drew mockery from his critics, who accuse him of using state TV, the courts and the police to demonize and marginalize the liberal opposition.

He seems sure to win comfortably in March and extend his grip on power into a third decade.

He said he planned to run as an independent candidate and garner support from more than one party, in a sign the former KGB officer may be keen to strengthen his image as a “father of the nation” rather than as a party political figure.

Putin said it was too early to set out his electoral program, but named priority issues as helping forge what he called a flexible political system, nurturing a high-tech economy, improving infrastructure, healthcare, education and productivity and increasing people’s real incomes.

Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since the end of 1999.

(Reporting by Moscow bureau; writing by Andrew Osborn; editing by Andrew Roche)