Moscow says U.S. rehearsed nuclear strike against Russia this month

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia’s defense minister on Tuesday accused U.S. bombers of rehearsing a nuclear strike on Russia from two different directions earlier this month and complained that the planes had come within 20 km (12.4 miles) of the Russian border.

The accusation comes at a time of high tension between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, with U.S. officials voicing concerns about a possible Russian attack on its southern neighbor – a suggestion the Kremlin has dismissed as false.

Moscow has in turn accused the United States, NATO and Ukraine of provocative and irresponsible behavior, pointing to U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine, Ukraine’s use of Turkish strike drones against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and NATO military exercises close to its borders.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Moscow had noted a significant increase in the activity by U.S. strategic bombers which he said had carried out 30 flights close to Russia this month. That, he said, was 2.5 times more than the same period last year.

Shoigu complained in particular of what he said was a simulated U.S. nuclear strike against Russia earlier this month.

“The defense minister underlined that during the U.S. military exercises ‘Global Thunder,’ 10 American strategic bombers rehearsed launching nuclear weapons against Russia from the western and eastern directions,” Shoigu was quoted as saying in a defense ministry statement.

“The minimum proximity to our state border was 20 km.”

Shoigu was quoted as saying that Russian air defense units had spotted and tracked the U.S. strategic bombers and taken unspecified measures to avoid any incidents.

Global Thunder, which this year put U.S. nuclear-capable B-52 bombers through their paces, is the U.S. Strategic Command’s annual nuclear and command exercise designed to test and demonstrate the readiness of U.S. nuclear capabilities.

President Vladimir Putin referenced the apparent episode briefly last week, complaining of Western strategic bombers carrying “very serious weapons” close to Russia. He said the West was taking Moscow’s warnings not to cross its “red lines” too lightly.

Shoigu made the comments in a video conference with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. He said that U.S. bomber flights close to Russia’s eastern borders were also a threat to China.

“Against this backdrop, Russo-Chinese coordination is becoming a stabilizing factor in world affairs,” said Shoigu.

Russia and China agreed at the meeting to step up cooperation between their armed forces when it came to strategic military exercises and joint patrols, the defense ministry said.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn Additional reporting by Polina Devitt and Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Putin says West taking Russia’s ‘red lines’ too lightly

By Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the West was taking Russia’s warnings not to cross its “red lines” too lightly and that Moscow needed serious security guarantees from the West.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech, the Kremlin leader also described relations with the United States as “unsatisfactory” but said Russia remained open to dialogue with Washington.

The Kremlin said in September that NATO would overstep a Russian red line if it expanded its military infrastructure in Ukraine, and Moscow has since accused Ukraine and NATO of destabilizing behavior, including in the Black Sea.

In the televised speech, Putin complained that Western strategic bombers carrying “very serious weapons” were flying within 20 km (12.5 miles) of Russia’s borders.

“We’re constantly voicing our concerns about this, talking about red lines, but we understand our partners – how shall I put it mildly – have a very superficial attitude to all our warnings and talk of red lines,” Putin said.

NATO – with which Moscow severed ties last month – had destroyed all mechanisms for dialogue, Putin said.

He told foreign ministry officials that Russia needed to seek long-term guarantees of its security from the West, though he said this would be difficult and did not spell out what form the assurances should take.

Russia-West ties have been at post-Cold War lows for years, but the tone has sharpened in recent weeks as Ukraine and NATO countries have raised fears over Russian troop movements near Ukraine’s borders and tried to guess Moscow’s real intentions.

But despite a growing list of disputes, the Kremlin has maintained high-level contacts with Washington and spoken repeatedly of a possible summit between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden to follow up their initial meeting in Geneva in June, which Putin said had opened up room for an improvement in ties.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed cybersecurity, Ukraine and the migrant crisis on the Belarus border in a phone call on Wednesday, the Kremlin said.

“This was all in the framework of preparation for … high-level contact,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Tom Balmforth and Darya Korsunskaya; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Putin warns West of harsh response if it crosses Russia’s “red lines”

By Gleb Stolyarov and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin warned the West on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines”, saying Moscow would respond swiftly and harshly to any provocations and those responsible would regret it.

At a time of acute crisis in ties with the United States and Europe, with Russian troops massed near Ukraine and opposition leader Alexei Navalny on hunger strike in jail, the Kremlin leader used his state of the nation speech to project a message of Russian strength and defiance in the face of outside threats.

“We want good relations…and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Putin told both houses of parliament.

“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”

Russia would determine where its red line lay in each specific case, he said, comparing the country to a tiger surrounded by hyenas.

His comments came at the climax of a 78-minute speech dominated by Russia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic hardship.

“In some countries, they have developed a highly unseemly habit of picking on Russia for any reason, and most often for no reason at all – a kind of sport,” said Putin, standing alone on a vast stage flanked by white, blue and red national flags and a backdrop of a giant double-headed eagle.

“Organizers of any provocations that threaten our core security interests will regret what they have done like they’ve never regretted anything for a long time.”

Putin, who is 68 and has dominated Russia for two decades, made no mention of Navalny. The opposition leader is ill in prison after starving himself for three weeks to demand access to his own doctors.

The rouble firmed after Putin’s speech, with markets interpreting it as not escalating tensions with the West.

CONFRONTATION WITH WEST

Recent weeks have seen an intensification of confrontation between Russia and Western countries, which are alarmed by Navalny’s worsening condition and by what they say is the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Last week, Washington tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations of computer hacking and election interference, and the Czech Republic accused Moscow of a role in explosions at an arms depot in 2014. Both expelled Russian diplomats. Russia denied wrongdoing and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.

Tensions are also strained over the fate of Navalny, whose supporters were trying to rally across Russia on Wednesday in his support.

Two of Navalny’s closest allies were arrested on Wednesday, their lawyers said. Lyubov Sobol, one of the faces of Navalny’s popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, were both detained in Moscow.

“As usual, they think that if they isolate the ‘leaders’, there won’t be any protest,” said Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny associate. “Of course that’s wrong.”

Another Navalny aide, Ruslan Shaveddinov, tweeted: “Right now across the whole of Russia they are detaining potential protesters. This is repression. This cannot be accepted. We need to fight this darkness.”

European Council President Charles Michel called the arrests “deplorable” and urged Russian authorities to respect people’s right to assemble.

The Russian government has said the gatherings are illegal. Previous pro-Navalny rallies have been dispersed by force, with thousands of arrests.

The OVD-Info monitoring group said more than 50 people had been arrested as demonstrations got under way, beginning in the far east.

Four doctors from outside Russia’s federal prison service visited Navalny on Tuesday and found his health to be satisfactory, Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said.

In his speech, Putin urged all citizens to get vaccinated and predicted that Russia would achieve collective immunity by the autumn.

On the eve of an online climate summit to be hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, Putin also called for tougher “polluter pays” rules and set a goal for Russia to cut its greenhouse gas emissions below those of the European Union in the next 30 years.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Gleb Stolyarov, Tatiana Voronova, Olesya Astakhova, Oksana Kobzeva, Daria Korsunskaya , Elena Fabrichnaya, Ekaterina Golubkova, Andrey Ostroukh, Anastasia Lyrchikova, Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber, Tom Balmforth, Polina Ivanova, Anton Zverev and Anton Kolodyazhny; Writing by Mark Trevelyan/Andrew Osborn; editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)