Putin proposes 2020 summit with leaders of Russia, France, China, U.S. and UK

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed holding a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain in 2020 to discuss the conflict in Libya and other global problems.

Putin, who was speaking during a trip to Israel, said Moscow was ready for a “serious conversation” with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that there was much to discuss and that the summit could happen anywhere in the world.

“In any country, at any point of the world that is convenient for our colleagues. Russia is ready for this kind of serious conversation,” he said.

“There are many tasks before us. We discussed one of them very recently in Berlin…That is Libya. And we need to return to this problem at the Security Council and adopt the corresponding resolution,” he said.

Putin, who was in Israel on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said holding such a summit would be an important symbolic step ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two.

“We discussed (this) with several colleagues and as far as I understand in general we saw a positive reaction to holding a meeting of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” he said.

(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Putin speeds up Russian political shake-up, details new power center

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin accelerated a shake-up of Russia’s political system on Monday, submitting a constitutional reform blueprint to parliament that will create a new center of power outside the presidency.

Putin also replaced Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who had held the role since 2006, a move suggesting his planned changes could reach beyond the political system and the government.

In a surprise move, Putin announced plans for reforms last week. Long-time ally Dmitry Medvedev then resigned as prime minister along with the government, saying he wanted to allow room for the president to make the changes.

Putin’s proposed changes are widely seen as giving him scope to retain influence once his term expires in 2024 though he said at the weekend he did not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.

In draft amendments submitted to the State Duma lower house, Putin offered a glimpse of how his reforms look on paper. Under his plan, some of the president’s broad powers would be clipped and parliament’s powers expanded.

In one of the biggest changes, the status of the State Council, now a low-profile body that advises the president, would for the first time be enshrined in the constitution.

Putin, 67, has not disclosed what he plans to do once he leaves the Kremlin. One option could be to head the beefed-up State Council once he leaves the presidency.

Under his proposals, the president would pick the make-up of the State Council which would be handed broader powers to “determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.”

His changes also envisage preventing any future president serving more than two terms. Putin first became president in 2000 and is now in his fourth term as head of state.

OPPOSITION PROTEST MARCH

Chaika, 68, has long been one of the most powerful figures in the Russian justice system and has faced allegations of corruption from the political opposition which he denies.

The Kremlin said Chaika was moving to another, unspecified, job and proposed Igor Krasnov, deputy head of the Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, to replace him.

Krasnov, 44, has led high-profile criminal investigations including the inquiry into the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.

Russia’s opposition said on Monday it planned to stage a protest march next month against the reforms.

“Society needs a big and genuinely mass protest,” wrote opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who said Putin’s changes amounted to a move to “rule forever”.

The Duma is due to discuss Putin’s amendments on Thursday.

Putin has said the public will be invited to vote on the proposed changes.

Andrei Klishas, a senior lawmaker involved in drafting the legislation, said the vote might be held once parliament approved the legislation, the RIA news agency reported.

(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Alexander Marrow and Anton Zverev, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Erdogan says up to 250,000 Syrians flee toward Turkey as crisis worsens

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterization assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing toward Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer)

Putin thanks Trump for tip Russia says foiled attacks

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Sunday it had thwarted terrorism attacks reportedly planned in St. Petersburg thanks to a tip from Washington, bringing personal thanks again from President Vladimir Putin to his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.

Russian news agencies cited the Federal Security Service (FSB) as saying that thanks to the information, two Russians were detained on Dec. 27 on suspicion of plotting attacks during New Year festivities in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin said Putin passed on his gratitude to Trump during a phone call on Sunday for the tip from U.S. special services. It gave no more details.

Diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow are fraught over disagreements from Ukraine to Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, but Trump and Putin have managed to keep personal lines open.

Two years ago, the Russian leader also phoned Trump to thank him for a tip that Russia said helped prevent a bomb attack on a cathedral in St Petersburg. Russia has repeatedly been the target of attacks by militant groups including Islamic State.

Sunday’s Kremlin statement said Putin and Trump agreed to continue bilateral cooperation to tackle terrorism.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)

Timeline: Vladimir Putin – 20 tumultuous years as Russian president or PM

Timeline: Vladimir Putin – 20 tumultuous years as Russian president or PM
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin was named acting president on Dec. 31, 1999, by then-president Boris Yeltsin. He has been in office as president or prime minister ever since, a period spanning two decades.

Here are some highlights of Putin’s 20 years in power:

Aug. 9, 1999 – During an economic crisis, President Yeltsin names little-known security chief Vladimir Putin as his fifth acting prime minister in less than a year, and says he wants Putin to succeed him as president. In the following weeks, bombings of apartment blocks across Russia kill more than 300 people, in attacks Putin blames on Chechen militants. His popularity is boosted by his tough response, which includes the aerial bombing of parts of Chechnya and an assault to recapture the breakaway southern province. Some Kremlin critics question if Chechen militants were really behind the apartment bombings.

Dec. 31, 1999 – An ailing Yeltsin resigns and names Putin acting president.

March 26, 2000 – Putin wins his first presidential election.

Aug. 12, 2000 – The Kursk nuclear-powered submarine sinks to the bottom of the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crew after an explosion onboard. Putin’s image suffers a jolt after he comments on the crisis only after four days.

2002 – Chechen militants take more than 800 people hostage at a Moscow theater. Special forces end the siege, but use a poison gas in the process which kills many of the hostages.

2003 – Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is arrested and charged with fraud. He is later found guilty and jailed in a case his supporters say was punishment for his meddling in politics. He is only released in 2013 after Putin pardons him.

March 2004 – Putin wins second term as president with more than 70 percent of the vote after oil prices fuel a consumer boom and raise living standards, a trend that continues for another four years.

September 2004 – Islamist fighters seize more than 1,000 people in a school in Beslan, southern Russia, triggering a three-day siege that ends in gunfire. A total of 334 hostages are killed, more than half of them children. Some parents say the authorities botched the handling of the siege and blame Putin.

December 2004 – Putin scraps direct elections for regional governors, effectively making them Kremlin appointees. Putin says the move is needed to keep Russia united.

2005 – Putin describes the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

2006 – Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of rights abuses in Chechnya, is murdered in Moscow on Putin’s birthday. Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko dies in London that same year after being poisoned with a radioactive substance. A British inquiry years later concludes he was killed by Russian agents.

2007 – Putin gives a speech in Munich in which he lashes out at the United States, accusing Washington of the “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations”.

May 2008 – Constitutional limits on him serving more than two consecutive presidential terms see Putin become prime minister after his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, becomes president.

August 2008 – Russia fights and wins a short war with Georgia. Tbilisi loses control over two breakaway regions that are garrisoned with Russian troops.

2012 – Putin returns to the presidency, winning re-election with over 60% of the vote after a decision to extend presidential terms to six from four years. Large anti-Putin protests take place before and after the vote, with critics alleging voter fraud.

Feb. 7-23, 2014 – Russia hosts the winter Olympic games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Feb. 27, 2014 – Russian forces start annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region after Ukrainian protesters oust their country’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovich. Russia incorporates Crimea the following month after a referendum condemned by the West. The United States and EU go on to impose sanctions on Moscow.

April 2014 – A pro-Russian separatist revolt breaks out in eastern Ukraine which results in a conflict, still ongoing, which hands the rebels control of a vast swath of territory and leaves more than 13,000 people dead. Western nations accuse Russia of backing the revolt; Moscow denies direct involvement.

Sept. 30, 2015 – Russia launches air strikes in Syria in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

November 2016 – Donald Trump is elected president of the United States after promising to improve battered ties with Moscow. However, U.S. authorities determine Russia tried to interfere in the election in Trump’s favor, casting a pall over U.S-Russia ties despite Moscow’s denials.

March 4, 2018 – A former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter are poisoned in England with a nerve agent. They survive but a woman who lives nearby dies after her partner brings home the poison found in a discarded perfume bottle. Britain accuses Russia, which denies involvement.

March 19, 2018 – Putin wins a landslide re-election victory and a mandate to stay in office until 2024.

June/July 2018 – Russia hosts the men’s soccer FIFA World Cup.

July 2019 – Protests break out in Moscow over a municipal election which the anti-Kremlin opposition says is unfair. Those protests grow into Moscow’s biggest sustained protest movement in years before fizzling out.

December 2019 – Putin boasts of his country’s lead in hypersonic weapons and says other countries are trying to catch up.

(Writing and reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Russian court extends detention of ex-Marine Moscow calls a spy

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Tuesday extended by three months the detention of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused by Moscow of spying, a decision his family and U.S. officials condemned as unjust.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 last year.

Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan says he was set up in a sting and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

He has been held in pre-trial detention while investigators look into his case. A Moscow court on Tuesday ruled to extend his detention by three months until March 29.

Whelan’s sister Elizabeth said on social media that no credible evidence of a crime had been presented and described what was happening to her brother as part of “a nasty political game”.

Whelan, who is not allowed to speak to reporters in court, on Tuesday held up signs protesting his innocence and asking U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to help him.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross complained that he had not been allowed to speak in court.

“Enough is enough. Let Paul go home,” Ross wrote on social media.

(Reporting by Andrey Kuzmin; Writing by Anastasia Teterevleva/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alex Richardson)

U.S. asks Russia to free incarcerated ex-Marine Paul Whelan

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A senior U.S. diplomat on Monday called for Russia to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine accused by Moscow of espionage, saying there was no evidence against him and he had committed no crime.

Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman made the pre-Christmas appeal to Russia outside a Moscow prison after he and diplomats from Britain, Canada and Ireland had visited Whelan.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 last year.

Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan says he was set up in a sting and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

He has been held in pre-trial detention while investigators look into his case.

Gorman urged Russia to allow an outside doctor to examine Whelan, who has a medical condition, and for the former Marine to be allowed to phone his parents, something he has so far been denied.

“In a case where there is no evidence and no crime it’s time to have him released,” Gorman said.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn,; Editing by Ed Osmond)

‘Before it is too late’: Diplomats race to defuse tensions ahead of North Korea’s deadline

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A last minute flurry of diplomacy aimed at engaging with North Korea ahead of its declared year-end deadline for talks has been met with stony silence from Pyongyang so far, with the looming crisis expected to top the agenda at summits in China next week.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was due to leave Beijing on Friday after meeting with Chinese officials. Earlier in the week, Biegun also made stops in Seoul and Tokyo for discussions with counterparts.

It is unclear if Biegun had any behind-the-scenes contact with North Korean officials, but his overtures and calls for new talks were not publicly answered by Pyongyang.

Biegun’s trip came as China and Russia teamed up this week to propose a resolution that would ease some United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea as a way to jumpstart talks.

Next week, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese leaders are due to meet in China, with North Korea likely to top the agenda.

“It’s kind of creepy that there haven’t been any statements from high level (North Korea) Foreign Ministry officials this week…,” Jenny Town, managing editor at the North Korea monitoring website 38 North, said on Twitter. “The silence, even after Biegun’s speech in Seoul, makes me concerned.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has given the United States until the end of the year to propose new concessions in talks over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and reducing tensions between the long-time adversaries.

North Korea has said it is up to the United States to decide what “Christmas gift” it will receive this year, without specifying what Kim’s decision may be.

The prospect that 2020 may see a return to heightened tensions and major missile or weapons tests by North Korea has led politicians, diplomats, and analysts around the world to debate how to salvage diplomacy after U.S. President Donald Trump’s unprecedented summits with Kim over the past two years failed to make a breakthrough.

On Wednesday, four leading Democrats in the U.S. Senate wrote a letter to Trump arguing that U.S. efforts to establish peace on the peninsula and denuclearize North Korea “appear to be stalled and on the brink of failure”.

“We reiterate our hope that you will execute a serious diplomatic plan before it is too late,” the letter said.

‘THE BEST PLAN’

The Senate Democrats’ letter called for the administration to seek an interim agreement to freeze and roll back some of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes in conjunction with reduced pressure from sanctions.

“While such an agreement would of course only be a first step in a longer process, it would nonetheless be an important effort to create the sort of real and durable diplomatic process that is necessary,” they wrote.

China and Russia on Monday introduced a joint proposal that calls on the U.N. Security Council to lift some sanctions on exports and foreign workers, with Chinese officials calling it the “the best plan in the current situation to resolve the stalemate”.

The United States has said it is opposed to any sanctions relief at the moment, but has also said it is willing to be flexible in discussions.

Meanwhile, analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that has often advocated for a hard line against countries such as North Korea and Iran, called for the Trump administration to turn to implement a “maximum pressure 2.0” campaign.

The United States should increase sanctions, target North Korea with offensive cyber operations, and carry out an “aggressive” information campaign against the country, the foundation wrote in a report earlier in December.

A study commissioned by peace activists reported last month that sanctions were disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations in North Korea.

The report for Korea Peace Now! called for lifting all sanctions that may be violating international law or undermining human rights, and to “urgently” try to mitigate the impact on humanitarian efforts.

MILITARY TENSIONS

Recent weeks have seen some U.S. and North Korean officials discussing possible military actions once again.

Earlier this month, Trump angered North Korean officials by suggesting the United States could use military force “if we have to.”

Those remarks led North Korea’s army chief to warn that North Korea would take “prompt corresponding actions at any level.”

North Korea launched several dozen short-range missiles in 2019, and the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific said this week that he suspects “some kind of long-range missile” could be North Korea’s “Christmas gift.”

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Gen. Charles Brown said the U.S. military could “dust off pretty quickly and be ready to use” options it had developed during the height of tensions in 2017.

“If the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we’ve got to be ready…we’re already thinking ahead,” he said.

(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

Putin says impeachment case against Trump is ‘fabricated’

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that U.S. Democrats had impeached President Donald Trump for “fabricated” reasons in order to reverse his 2016 election victory.

Putin, speaking at his annual year-end news conference, said he expected Trump to survive the proceedings and stay in office.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to impeach Trump, but Putin, like most observers, said he expected the Republican Senate to acquit him.

“It’s unlikely they will want to remove from power a representative of their party based on what are, in my opinion, completely fabricated reasons,” said Putin.

“This is simply a continuation of the (U.S.) intra-political battle where one party that lost an election, the Democratic Party, is trying to achieve results using other methods and means.

“They first accused Trump of a conspiracy with Russia. Then it turned out there wasn’t a conspiracy and that it couldn’t be the basis for impeachment. Now they have dreamt up (the idea) of some kind of pressure being exerted on Ukraine.”

Putin nevertheless criticized the United States in general for what he called unfriendly steps toward Russia, saying Moscow had adopted a policy of responding in kind.

In particular, he complained about what he said was a refusal to respond to Moscow’s proposals to extend the New START arms control treaty, which limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the world’s two biggest nuclear powers can deploy.

Regarded by many experts as the only thing preventing an unfettered arms race between the two Cold War rivals, the treaty can be extended for another five years, beyond its expiry date in February 2021, by mutual agreement.

“So far there’s been no answer to our proposals,” said Putin. “And if the New START treaty doesn’t exist anymore, there will be nothing in the world to curb the arms race. And that, in my view, would be bad.”

(Reporting by Reuters reporters; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Mistakes, but no political bias in FBI probe of Trump campaign: watchdog

By Sarah N. Lynch, Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Monday that it found numerous errors but no evidence of political bias by the FBI when it opened an investigation into contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia in 2016.

The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz gave ammunition to both Trump’s supporters and his Democratic critics in the debate about the legitimacy of an investigation that clouded the first two years of his presidency.

It will not be the last word on the subject.

Federal prosecutor John Durham, who is running a separate criminal investigation on the origins of the Russia probe, said he did not agree with some of the report’s conclusions.

Horowitz found that the FBI had a legal “authorized purpose” to ask for court approval to begin surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

But he also found a total of 17 “basic and fundamental” errors and omissions in its applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) that made the case appear stronger than it was.

For example, the FBI continued to rely on information assembled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele in its warrant applications even after one of Steele’s sources told the agency that his statements had been mischaracterized or exaggerated.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said that effectively turned the investigation into a “criminal enterprise” to defraud the court and violate Page’s rights.

“I don’t fault anybody for looking into allegations like this. I do fault them for lying and misrepresenting to the court,” said Graham, who will hold a hearing on Wednesday examining the report’s findings.

The report also singled out an FBI lawyer for altering an email in a renewal of the warrant application to claim that Page was not a source for another U.S. government agency, when in fact he did work from 2008 to 2013 with another agency that was not identified in the report. The lawyer, identified by Republicans as Kevin Clinesmith, did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats said the report showed that there was no basis for Trump’s repeated charges that the FBI was trying to undermine his chances of winning the White House.

“This report conclusively debunks the baseless conspiracy that the investigations into Mr. Trump’s campaign and its ties to Russia originated with political bias,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference.

Trump called the investigation a witch hunt and assailed FBI leaders and career staffers who worked on it.

“This was an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

The FBI investigation was taken over in May 2017 by former FBI chief Robert Mueller after Trump fired James Comey as the agency’s director.

“Those who attacked the FBI for two years should admit they were wrong,” Comey said in a Washington Post op-ed.

Mueller’s 22-month special counsel investigation detailed a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States and help Trump defeat Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Mueller documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Moscow but found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy.

Attorney General William Barr, who ordered the Durham investigation, said the report showed that the FBI launched its investigation “on the thinnest of suspicions.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said he had ordered dozens of revisions to fix problems highlighted in the report, such as changes to warrant applications and methods for dealing with informants. The FBI would review the conduct of employees mentioned in the report, he said.

Horowitz said his office on Monday began a new review to further scrutinize the FBI’s compliance with its own fact-checking policies used to get applications to surveil U.S. persons in counterterrorism investigations, as well as counterintelligence probes.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Brad Heath and Andy Sullivan; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Jonathan Oatis, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)