Putin says Islamic State has seized 700 hostages in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Islamic State (IS) militants had seized nearly 700 hostages in part of Syria controlled by U.S.-backed forces and had executed some of them and promised to kill more.

Speaking in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Putin said the hostages included several U.S. and European nationals, adding that Islamic State was expanding its control in territory on the left bank of the River Euphrates controlled by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.

Putin did not specify what the militants’ demands were.

“They have issued ultimatums, specific demands and warned that if these ultimatums are not met they will execute 10 people every day. The day before yesterday they executed 10 people,” Putin told the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi.

The TASS news agency reported on Wednesday that IS militants had taken around 700 hostages in Syria’s Deir-al Zor province after attacking a refugee camp in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces on Oct.13.

TASS said the militants had kidnapped around 130 families and taken them to the city of Hajin.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Sochi; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Putin calls poisoned ex-spy Skripal a scumbag and traitor

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 12, 2018. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS

By Dmitry Zhdannikov and Denis Pinchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent poisoned in Britain, a scumbag who had betrayed Russia.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury in March. Britain says they were poisoned with a nerve agent administered by Russian intelligence officers.

Russia denies involvement in the affair, which has deepened its international isolation.

“I see that some of your colleagues are pushing the theory that Mr Skripal was almost some kind of human rights activist,” Putin said at an energy forum in Moscow when asked about the case.

“He was simply a spy. A traitor to the motherland. He’s simply a scumbag, that’s all,” Putin added, in remarks that drew applause from parts of the audience.

The Russian leader, a former intelligence officer himself, said the Skripal scandal had been artificially exaggerated, but said he thought it would fade from the headlines at some point and that the sooner it quietened down the better.

Putin said Moscow was still ready to cooperate with Britain when it came to investigating what happened, an offer London has so far declined to take up.

British officials say the poisoning was carried out by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency almost certainly acting with the approval of Russian officials. Russia has denied that.

‘ONE OF OLDEST PROFESSIONS’

Putin also dismissed the allegation that Russia was responsible for the accidental poisoning of Dawn Sturgess, a Salisbury-area woman who British police said died after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok which her partner had found in a discarded perfume bottle.

“What, did some guys rock up and start poisoning homeless people over there?” said Putin, repeating a description of Sturgess and her partner used by some Russian state media. “What rubbish.”

Skripal had served time in a Russian prison for selling information to Britain, and Moscow had agreed to release him as part of a spay swap, said Putin, suggesting Russia therefore had no motive to kill him.

“We didn’t need to poison anyone over there. This traitor Skripal was caught, he was punished and did five years in prison. We let him go, he left the country and he continued to cooperate there and consult some intelligence services. So what?”

The two Russian men Britain accuses of jetting to England to try to murder Skripal said in a TV interview last month that they were innocent tourists who had visited the city of Salisbury to see its cathedral.

London says their explanation is so far-fetched as to all but prove Russia’s involvement, while investigative website Bellingcat has published a picture of a decorated Russian military intelligence colonel it named as Anatoliy Chepiga who resembles one of the two men Britain caught on CCTV.

Putin said spy scandals were nothing new.

“Did problems between intelligence services start yesterday?” quipped Putin.

“As is well known, espionage, like prostitution, is one of the world’s oldest professions.”

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and)

Russia to give Syria S-300 air defense after accusations against Israel

FILE PHOTO: Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

By Polina Nikolskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia announced on Monday it will supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks against strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow blamed Israel for indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military plane in Syria.

Last week’s crash, which killed 15 Russian service members, had forced Moscow to take “adequate retaliatory measures to increase the safety of Russian military fighting international terrorism in Syria,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday in a televised address.

“A modern S-300 air defense missile system will be transferred to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks,” he said. The system will “significantly increase the Syrian army’s combat capabilities,” he said.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government, has said Syria shot the IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target. Russia blamed Israel for creating dangerous conditions that caused the crash.

Israel, which has struck Syria scores of times during the seven-year war, said after the incident that it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them. It has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria.

Krelmin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a conference call that the decision to supply the weapons was “not directed at any third country”. “Russia needs to increase safety of its military and it should be clear for everyone,” he said.

But he also repeated Moscow’s accusations that Israel was to blame for the crash: “No doubt that according to our military experts, deliberate action by Israeli pilots was the reason for the tragedy and this cannot but harm our (Russia-Israeli) ties.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s office explicitly linked the Russian decision to supply the weapons to the air crash: “President Putin held Israel responsible for bring down the plane and informed President Assad that Russia will develop Syria’s air defense systems,” the Syrian presidency said.

Shoigu said Russia will equip Syrian anti-aircraft units with Russian tracking and guidance systems in order to identify Russian aircraft.

Russia in April had hinted that it would supply the S-300 to Assad’s government despite Israeli objections.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Israel says its air strikes on Syria are not a threat to Russia’s ally Assad, but that it must carry them out to halt arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. It has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capability.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow and Ellen Francis in Beirut,; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Denis Pinchuk, Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Graff)

Turkey talking to all sides in Syria conflict for Idlib ceasefire: minister

FILE PHOTO: A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal//File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Perry

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday it was talking to all parties in the Syrian conflict to prevent a government offensive on Idlib ahead of talks between Russian and Turkish leaders, who support rival sides in the looming battle for the rebel-held region.

Ankara failed last week to win agreement for a ceasefire from Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, but there has been a recent lull in air strikes and a pro-Damascus source indicated a ground attack may not be imminent.

Rebels also said some pro-Assad forces had left frontlines in northwest Syria in recent days.

Turkey has reinforced a dozen military posts inside the Idlib region, which lies across its southern border and is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and jihadist fighters, trying to forestall a government assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had also contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with “all actors in Syria”.

“We are making an effort for a ceasefire in Idlib,” he said, repeating Turkey’s call for targeted operations against jihadist militants, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, instead of an indiscriminate onslaught.

“We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone – civilians, women, children – like this in the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane,” he said on a visit to Pakistan.

GRAPHIC: Syria’s Idlib assault – https://tmsnrt.rs/2NHAqh3

The United Nations has warned that an offensive in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe in an area where 3 million people live. Turkey, already hosting 3.5 million Syrians, says it cannot take in another wave of refugees.

RUSSIA TALKS

President Tayyip Erdogan will hold talks in Russia on Monday with Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian crisis, 10 days after similar talks in Tehran, Turkish and Russian officials said.

Despite the deadlock at the Iran meeting, calm has largely prevailed in northwest Syria this week following a wave of air strikes which killed several dozen people and generated speculation of an imminent ground offensive.

A pro-Assad source in Syria said: “There is patience and repositioning currently. The operation is not canceled, but we have time.”

A second source, an official in the regional alliance that supports Assad, said there was a “political tug of war” over Idlib, accompanied by air strikes on militants from Tahrir al-Sham.

Two rebel sources in the northwest said some government forces have been observed withdrawing from frontlines in the Hama region, which adjoins Idlib, this week.

“It appears that the Russians and the Assad regime have temporarily looked the other way,” said one of the sources, Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Ezza rebel group. He added that several hundred pro-Assad forces had withdrawn from frontlines in the northern Hama countryside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm mostly prevailed again on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be, but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee, the Interfax news agency reported.

Lavrov, who was speaking in Berlin, was cited as saying that the Russian air force would strike what he called terrorist weapons-making facilities as and when it found out about them, but would also encourage local reconciliation deals.

Putin also discussed the situation Idlib with members of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, telling them he was concerned by militant activity there, the RIA news agency cited the Kremlin as saying.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Russian warships hold drills in Bering Sea in huge military exercise

A satellite image of armored vehicles staging during the Russian military exercise known as Vostok 2018, conducted at the Tsugol training area in eastern Russia, September 13, 2018. Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian warships held drills in the Bering Sea which separates Russia from Alaska, part of Moscow’s biggest military maneuvers since the fall of the Soviet Union, footage aired by the Ministry of Defence showed on Friday.

The Vostok-2018 (East-2018) drills, which run until Sept. 17, are taking place in Siberia and in waters off Russia’s eastern coast, involving 300,000 troops, over 1,000 military aircraft and two naval fleets.

The drills are taking place at a time of heightened tension between the West and Russia, and NATO has said it will monitor the exercise closely, as will the United States which has a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

President Vladimir Putin inspected the war games on Thursday, vowing in a speech to soldiers to strengthen the Russian army and supply it with new generation weapons and equipment.

Putin said Russia was a peaceful country ready for cooperation with any state interested in partnership, but that it was a soldier’s duty to be ready to defend his country and its allies.

The Ministry of Defence aired footage on Friday of the Northern Fleet’s Vice-Admiral Kulakov destroyer and the Alexander Obrakovsky landing ship taking part in a mock-up rescue operation in the Bering Sea.

Other footage showed scores of paratroopers leaping from a plane and descending from helicopters by ropes in the eastern Siberian territory of Zabaikalsk.

The ministry also broadcast clips of missiles being launched from its S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system and its Buk medium-range missile system.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Turkey calls for ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib, Russia opposes

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, Iran September 7, 2018. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

(Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire in the rebel-held region of Idlib in northwest Syria on Friday and said an anticipated government assault on insurgents there could result in a massacre.

But Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Moscow opposed a truce, and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.

The three presidents, whose countries’ are key foreign players in Syria’s long civil war, were speaking at a summit in Tehran aimed at charting a way to end the conflict.

The situation in Idlib, the insurgents’ only remaining major stronghold, is an immediate issue as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, prepare for what could be the conflict’s last decisive battle.

The United Nations has warned a full-scale assault could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

But as the leaders gathered in Tehran, Russian and Syrian government warplanes hit rebel-held parts of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.

Their discussions in Tehran mark a crucial point in a seven-year-old war which has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.

Erdogan called on Putin and Rouhani to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib, saying such an accord would be a “victory” of their summit. Turkey could no longer take in any more refugees from any new assault in Idlib, he said.

However, Putin responded that he opposed a ceasefire because Nusra Front and Islamic State militants located there were not part of peace talks. Syria should regain control of all its territory, he said.

“The fact is that there are no representatives of the armed opposition here around this table. And more still, there are no representatives of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS or the Syrian army,” Putin said.

“I think in general the Turkish president is right. It would be good. But I can’t speak for them, and even more so can’t talk for terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs.”

FINAL MAJOR BATTLE

Rouhani also said the battle in Syria would continue until militants were pushed out of the whole country, especially in Idlib, but he added that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.

He called on all militants in Syria to disarm and seek a peaceful end to the conflict.

“The fight against terrorism in Idlib is an indispensable part of the mission to return peace and stability to Syria, but this fight should not harm civilians and lead to a “scorched-earth” policy,” Rouhani said.

Erdogan also said Turkey no longer had the capacity to take in any more refugees from Syria should the government offensive in Idlib go ahead. Turkey has accepted 3.5 million refugees from Syria since the start of the war in 2011.

“Whatever reason there is an attack that has been made or will be made will result in disaster, massacre and humanitarian drama,” he said. “Millions will be coming to Turkey’s borders because they have nowhere to go. Turkey has filled its capacity to host refugees.”

The Assad government was not directly represented at the summit, nor was the United States or other Western powers.

Widely abhorred internationality for the brutal conduct of the war, Assad has largely reclaimed most of Syrian territory though much of it is ravaged.

As the conflict approaches its endgame, Iran, Turkey and Russia are seeking to safeguard their own interests after investing heavily militarily and diplomatically in Syria.

Meanwhile, the fate of Idlib hung in the balance.

“The battle for Idlib is going to be the final major battle,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told Reuters before the summit.

“It will be waged irrespective of civilian casualties, even though they will make an effort to minimize it.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Russia tells Washington curbs on its banks would be act of economic war

The U.S. dollar sign is seen on an electronic board next to a traffic light in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned the United States on Friday it would regard any U.S. move to curb the activities of its banks as a declaration of economic war which it would retaliate against, stepping up a war of words with Washington over spiraling sanctions.

The warning, from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, reflects Russian fears over the impact of new restrictions on its economy and assets, including the rouble which has lost nearly six percent of its value this week on sanctions jitters.

Economists expect the economy to grow by 1.8 percent this year. But if new sanctions proposed by Congress and the State Department are implemented in full, something that remains uncertain, some economists fear growth would be almost cut to zero in future.

In a sign of how seriously Russia is taking the threat, President Vladimir Putin discussed what the Kremlin called “possible new unfriendly steps by Washington” with his Security Council on Friday.

Moscow’s strategy of trying to improve battered U.S.-Russia ties by attempting to build bridges with President Donald Trump is backfiring after U.S. lawmakers launched a new sanctions drive last week because they fear Trump is too soft on Russia.

That, in turn, has piled pressure on Trump to show he is tough on Russia ahead of mid-term elections.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions that pushed the rouble to two-year lows and sparked a wider sell-off over fears Russia was locked in a spiral of never-ending sanctions.

Separate legislation introduced last week in draft form by Republican and Democratic senators, dubbed “the sanctions bill from hell” by one of its backers, proposes curbs on the operations of several state-owned Russian banks in the United States and restrictions on their use of the dollar.

Medvedev said Moscow would take economic, political or other retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington targeted Russian banks.

“I would not like to comment on talks about future sanctions, but I can say one thing: If some ban on banks’ operations or on their use of one or another currency follows, it would be possible to clearly call it a declaration of economic war,” said Medvedev.

“And it would be necessary, it would be needed to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means. And our American friends need to understand this,” he said, speaking on a trip to the Russian Far East.

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

FEW GOOD RETALIATORY OPTIONS

In practice, however, there is little Russia could do to hit back at the United States without damaging its own economy or depriving its consumers of sought-after goods, and officials in Moscow have made clear they do not want to get drawn into what they describe as a mutually-damaging tit-for-tat sanctions war.

The threat of more U.S. sanctions kept the rouble under pressure on Friday, sending it crashing past two-year lows at one point before it recouped some of its losses.

The Russian central bank said the rouble’s fall to multi-month lows on news of new U.S. sanctions was a “natural reaction” and that it had the necessary tools to prevent any threat to financial stability.

One tool it said it might use was limiting market volatility by adjusting how much foreign currency it buys. Central bank data showed on Friday it had started buying less foreign currency on Wednesday, the first day of the rouble’s slide.

The fate of the U.S. bill Medvedev was referring to is not certain.

The full U.S. Congress will not be back in Washington until September, and even then, congressional aides said they did not expect the measure would pass in its entirety.

While it was difficult to assess so far in advance, they said it was more likely that only some of its provisions would be included as amendments in another piece of legislation, such as a spending bill Congress must pass before Sept. 30 to prevent a government shutdown.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Patricia Zengerle in Washington Writing by Andrew Osborn Editing by William Maclean)

Russia reels, denounces new U.S. sanctions as illegal, unfriendly

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

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia condemned a new round of U.S. sanctions as illegal on Thursday after news of the measures sent the rouble tumbling to two-year lows and sparked a wider asset sell-off over fears that Moscow was locked in a spiral of never-ending curbs by the West.

Moscow has been trying with mixed success to improve battered U.S.-Russia ties since Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and Russia’s political elite was quick to chalk up a summit last month between Trump and Vladimir Putin as a victory.

But initial triumphalism swiftly turned sour as anger over what some U.S. lawmakers saw as an over deferential performance by Trump and his failure to confront Putin over Moscow’s alleged meddling in U.S. politics galvanized a new sanctions push.

Having bet heavily on improving ties with Washington via Trump, Moscow now finds that Trump is under mounting pressure from U.S. lawmakers to show he is tough on Russia ahead of mid-term elections.

In the latest broadside, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday it would impose fresh sanctions by the month’s end after determining that Moscow had used a nerve agent against a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, in Britain, something Moscow denies.

In an early reaction, the Kremlin said the sanctions were illegal and unfriendly and that the U.S. move was at odds with the “constructive atmosphere” of Trump and Putin’s encounter in Helsinki.

The new sanctions come in two tranches. The first, which targets U.S. exports of sensitive national-security related goods, comes with deep exemptions and many of the items it covers have already been banned by previous restrictions.

However, the second tranche, activated after 90 days if Moscow fails to provide “reliable assurances” it will no longer use chemical weapons and allow on-site inspections by the United Nations or other international observer groups, is more serious.

NBC, citing U.S. officials, said the second tranche could include downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending the state airline Aeroflot’s ability to fly to the United States and cutting off nearly all exports and imports.

The State Department’s announcement fueled already worsening investor sentiment about the possible impact of more sanctions on Russian assets and the rouble at one point slid by over 1 percent against the dollar, hitting a two-year low, before recouping some of its losses.

The U.S. move also triggered a sell-off in Russian government bonds and the dollar-denominated RTS index fell to its lowest since April 11.

“There is local panic on the currency market,” BCS Brokerage said in a note. “At times, the number of those who want to ditch the rouble is becoming so high so there is not enough liquidity.”

ILLEGAL

The Kremlin said the new sanctions were “illegal and do not correspond to international law.”

“…Such decisions taken by the American side are absolutely unfriendly and can hardly be somehow associated with the constructive – not simple but constructive – atmosphere that there was at the last meeting of the two presidents,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Washington had become an unpredictable player on the international stage, Peskov added, saying “anything could be expected” from it and that it was important that Russia’s financial system, which he described as stable, was prepared.

In a sign the Kremlin was not eager to escalate an already difficult situation however, Peskov said it was too early to talk about Russian countermeasures.

He criticized the U.S. decision to link the sanctions to the British nerve agent case, an incident the Kremlin has long cast as a Western plot to damage its reputation and provide a pretext for more sanctions.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

European countries and the United States expelled 100 Russian diplomats after the attack, in the strongest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the upper house of parliament’s international affairs committee, was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying it looked like Washington was now behaving like “a police state.”

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former colonel in the Russian army, said the State Department’s move looked like the latest salvo in what he called a hybrid war.

“Sanctions are the U.S. weapon of choice,” Trenin wrote on Twitter.

“They are not an instrument, but the policy itself. Russia will have to brace for more to come over the next several years, prepare for the worst and push back where it can.”

At variance with Moscow over Ukraine and Syria, Western sanctions have already drastically reduced Western involvement in Russian energy and commodities projects, including large-scale financing and exploration of hard-to-recover and deep water resources.

Proposed U.S. legislation prepared by several senators calls on Trump to widen the sanctions further to include virtually all Russian energy projects and effectively bar Western companies from any involvement in the country.

Introduced by Republican and Democratic senators last week in draft form, Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the measure’s lead sponsors, has called it “the sanctions bill from hell.”

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov, Tom Balmforth, Denis Pinchuk, Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Trump invites Putin to Washington despite U.S. uproar over Helsinki summit

U.S. President Donald Trump walks from Marine One as he arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington this autumn, the White House said on Thursday, a daring rebuttal to the torrent of criticism in the United States over Trump’s failure to publicly confront Putin at their first summit for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Four days after Trump stunned the world by siding with Putin in Helsinki over his intelligence agencies, the president asked national security adviser John Bolton to issue the invitation to the Russian leader, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

What happened at Monday’s one-on-one between Trump and Putin with only interpreters present remained a mystery, even to top officials and U.S. lawmakers who said they had not been briefed.

Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said in response to a question at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado: “Well, you’re right, I don’t know what happened at that meeting.”

The coveted invitation was sure to be seen as a victory by Putin, whose last official visit to the United States was in July 2007, when he spent two days at the Bush family compound.

Both Trump and Putin earlier on Thursday praised their first meeting as a success and blamed forces in the United States for trying to belittle its achievements, Trump citing discussions on counterterrorism, Israel’s security, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace and North Korea.

In one Twitter post, Trump blamed the media. “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”

In Moscow, Putin said the summit “was successful overall and led to some useful agreements” without elaborating on the agreements.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer criticized the invitation. “Until we know what happened at that two hour meeting in Helsinki, the president should have no more one-on-one interactions with Putin. In the United States, in Russia, or anywhere else,” he said in a statement.

Coats, who on Monday roundly defended the intelligence agencies’ findings of Russian meddling, also advised against a one-on-one meeting with Putin, saying he “would look for a different way of doing it.”

An official visit by a Russian president to the United States is a rare event: the last time was in June 2010 with Dmitri Medvedev, now Russian prime minister.

A senior White House official said Bolton extended the official invitation to Putin on Thursday via his Russian counterpart. No date has been set and it was unclear whether it would be timed for the U.N. General Assembly in late September.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

REJECTION OF PUTIN PROPOSAL

The week was one of the toughest for Trump since he took office 18 months ago as aides struggled with damage control and convincing Americans that the president did not favor Russian interests over his own country’s. Forty-two percent of registered voters said they approved of Trump’s overall job performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll taken after the summit.

Bolton on Tuesday laid out four talking points for the crisis-hit White House, according to one official: that Trump stress he supports U.S. intelligence agencies, that there was never any Russian collusion with his campaign, that Russian meddling is unacceptable and the United States is doing everything it can to protect elections in 2018 and beyond.

With Trump under fierce criticism in the United States, the White House on Thursday rejected Putin’s proposal that Russian authorities be present for the questioning of Americans it accuses of “illegal activities,” including a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

It was the latest about-face in a week of multiple reversals. Critics complained that Trump was given ample opportunity at a joint news conference on Monday to scold Putin over Russian interference in the election but instead accepted Putin’s denials over the word of American intelligence agencies.

Trump on Tuesday said he misspoke during the news conference. On Wednesday, Trump answered “no” to a reporter’s question on whether Russia was still targeting the United States, only to have Sanders say later he was saying “no” to answering any questions – not to the question itself.

Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers grappled with Trump’s conflicting statements as they discussed ways to show their opposition to what they saw in Helsinki, including strengthening sanctions.

On Monday, Putin described the proposal when he was asked about the possible extradition of 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted in the United States on charges of interfering in the 2016 election by carrying out cyber attacks on Democratic Party networks.

Putin indicated he would permit American law enforcement officials to observe questioning by Russian officials of the indicted Russians and vice versa for Russian investigations. He mentioned London-based financier Bill Browder, a onetime investor in Russia who said he exposed corruption there. Standing alongside Putin, Trump called the idea “an incredible offer.”

Sanders on Thursday said, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” a day after saying the proposal was going to be discussed by Trump’s team. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey in Washington and Andrew Osborn and Olesya Astakhova in Moscow; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Mary Milliken; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

Putin accuses U.S. forces of trying to ruin Trump summit outcome

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Russian ambassadors and representatives to international organisations in Moscow, Russia, July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Andrew Osborn and Olesya Astakhova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused forces in the United States of trying to undermine the success of his first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, but said the two leaders had begun to improve U.S.-Russia ties anyway.

Putin and Trump sat down for their first summit in Helsinki on Monday, an event that sparked a storm of criticism in the United States after Trump refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, something Putin denies.

Trump later said he had misspoken and accused “some people” of hating the fact that he got along with Putin. The White House has been struggling to contain a political outcry and confusion over the summit ever since.

Putin, speaking to Russian diplomats from around the world assembled in Moscow, said on Thursday the Helsinki summit had been successful.

“It was successful overall and led to some useful agreements. Of course, let’s see how events will develop further,” he said, without disclosing the nature of the agreements he referred to.

However, Putin said “powerful” U.S. forces were trying to sabotage what the summit had achieved.

“We see that there are forces in the United States that are prepared to casually sacrifice Russian-U.S. relations, to sacrifice them for their ambitions in an internal political battle in the United States.”

Those same forces appeared ready to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs and hurt U.S. business and security while waging their divisive political battle, Putin said.

‘NARROW PARTY INTERESTS’

Putin did not name names, but spoke of U.S. politicians who put their “narrow party interests” above the best interests of the United States and were powerful enough to be able to foist their questionable “stories” on millions of Americans.

He said it would have been naive to expect that the Helsinki summit could have resolved problems that had built up over many years in the space of a few hours.

“Despite the difference in opinions (with Trump), we did agree that Russian-U.S. relations are in an extremely unsatisfactory state. In many respects, they are even worse than during the Cold War,” he said.

But the two leaders had at least made a start when it came to improving relations.

“The path to positive changes has all the same begun,” said Putin. “It’s important that a full-scale meeting has finally taken place allowing us to talk directly.”

Putin warned however of the dangers of Moscow and Washington failing to continue to mend ties, saying the New START strategic arms reduction treaty would expire soon unless both countries took action.

“If today, right now, work on extending it is not begun it will simply expire in a year and a half.”

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)