Tillerson says Ukraine is biggest obstacle to normal Russia ties

Tillerson says Ukraine is biggest obstacle to normal Russia ties

By Francois Murphy and Shadia Nasralla

VIENNA (Reuters) – The United States would “badly” like to lift sanctions against Russia but will not do so until Moscow has pulled its forces out of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday, calling that the main obstacle to normal ties.

Tillerson is on a visit to Europe during which he has reassured allies with tougher rhetoric against Moscow than that of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has sought better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also attended by his Russian counterpart, Tillerson said Moscow was to blame for increased violence in eastern Ukraine and that had to stop.

“We’ve made this clear to Russia from the very beginning, that we must address Ukraine,” Tillerson told a news conference with his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz. “It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us renormalizing the relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do.”

On Wednesday, Tillerson met NATO foreign ministers and criticized Russia for the mix of state-sponsored computer hacks and Internet disinformation campaigns that NATO allies’ intelligence agencies say is targeted at the West.

The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists has claimed more than 10,000 lives since it erupted in 2014. Russia denies accusations that it fomented the conflict and provided arms and fighters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the OSCE conference that “all the responsibility is with Ukraine” as far as violence in the east was concerned.

In his speech to the gathering, Tillerson went even further in spelling out Russia’s involvement in the conflict and the consequences it faced than he had the day before in Brussels.

“We should be clear about the source of this violence,” Tillerson said, referring to increasing ceasefire violations recorded by OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine.

“Russia is arming, leading, training and fighting alongside anti-government forces. We call on Russia and its proxies to end its harassment, intimidation and its attacks on the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.”

While both sides have called for a U.N. peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine, they disagree on the terms of its deployment, and there was no sign of progress at Thursday’s meeting.

“We will continue to work with Russia to see if we could not agree a peacekeeping force that could enter Ukraine (and) reduce the violence,” Tillerson told the news conference.

In his speech, he referred to the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreement, brokered in the Belarussian capital by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

“In eastern Ukraine, we join our European partners in maintaining sanctions until Russia withdraws its forces from the Donbass (region) and meets its Minsk commitments,” Tillerson said.

He also made clear that Washington did not accept Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

“We will never accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea. Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle, Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Russian military: mission accomplished, Islamic State defeated in Syria

Russian military: mission accomplished, Islamic State defeated in Syria

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s military said on Thursday it had accomplished its mission of defeating Islamic State in Syria, and there were no remaining settlements there under the group’s control.

Russian bombers had used unprecedented force in the final stages to finish off the militant group, a senior Russian officer said.

“The mission to defeat bandit units of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the territory of Syria, carried out by the armed forces of the Russian Federation, has been accomplished,” Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, head of the general staff’s operations, said on Rossiya 24 TV channel.

Syrian government forces were now combing and de-mining areas where Islamic State had had their strongholds, he said.

“The final stage of the defeat of the terrorists was accompanied by the unprecedented deployment and intense combat use of Russia’s air force,” he said. The air strikes included 14 sorties of groups of long-range bombers from Russia made in the past month, he said.

Russia’s military deployed in Syria would now focus on preserving ceasefires and restoring peaceful life, he said.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth)

Trump’s eldest son faces questions in Congress about Russia

Trump's eldest son faces questions in Congress about Russia

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., returned to Congress on Wednesday to face questions from lawmakers about alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion with Moscow by his father’s presidential campaign.

Trump arrived shortly before 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) for what was expected to be several hours of questioning by members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, one of three main congressional committees investigating the matter.

Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller is also conducting a broad investigation of the matter. He has announced the first indictments of Trump associates, and President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents.

Trump Jr.’s appearance on Wednesday came amid mounting criticism of the Russia probes by some of his father’s fellow Republicans in Congress, who accuse investigators of bias against Trump.

The committee meeting was conducted behind closed doors, and Trump Jr. was not seen by reporters waiting outside the meeting room, although congressional officials confirmed he had arrived.

The younger Trump testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also said it wants to talk to him.

Lawmakers said they want to question him about a meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 at Trump Tower in New York at which he had said he hoped to get information about the “fitness, character and qualifications” of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrat his father defeated in last year’s race for the White House.

Trump Jr., like his father, denies collusion with Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 campaign to boost Trump’s chances of defeating Clinton. Moscow denies any such effort.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans criticized Mueller, the FBI and the Department of Justice at a news conference on Wednesday, ahead of congressional testimony on Thursday by the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray.

The Republican House members accused Justice, the FBI and Mueller of being biased against President Trump and having been too easy on Clinton during the investigation of her use of a private email server while leading the State Department.

While the Republicans have complained about the FBI, Clinton has made no secret of her belief that then-FBI Director James Comey’s announcement, shortly before the election, that the bureau was investigating potential new evidence in the lengthy email probe helped cost her the White House.

Republican Representative Matt Gaetz accused investigators of “unprecedented bias” against the president over the Russia matter, compared with their treatment of Clinton.

Republican Representative Jim Jordan told the news conference that investigators have “two standards of justice.”

Trump and some of his closest Republican allies in Congress, have frequently criticized the Justice Department, arguing that it has focused too many resources on the Russia investigation while neglecting conservative concerns.

Separately on Wednesday, Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Justice, announced a hearing next week with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, citing “serious concerns” about reports on the political motives of staff on Mueller’s team.

And Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said he was asking the FBI for documents relating to the activities of FBI agent Peter Strzok after reports the agent had shown political bias while handling matters in both the Clinton and Trump investigations.

Republicans control majorities in both the House and Senate.

Other lawmakers, Republicans as well as Democrats, say the goal of their investigation is to guarantee the integrity of U.S. elections, not to target Trump and his associates.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Russia says ready to exert influence on North Korea: RIA

Russia says ready to exert influence on North Korea: RIA

By Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has communication channels with North Korea open and Moscow is ready to exert its influence on Pyongyang, RIA news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov as saying on Tuesday.

“We have channels, through which we are conducting a dialogue, and we are ready to deploy them, we are ready to exert our influence on North Korea,” Morgulov was quoted as saying at a conference in Berlin.

He also said that neither Washington, not Pyongyang want a real war “but such scenarios exists”.

The Kremlin has traditionally protected the reclusive state though the latest Pyongyang tests have irked Moscow.

North Korea, which conducted its sixth and largest nuclear bomb test in September, has tested dozens of ballistic missiles under Kim Jong Un’s leadership in defiance of international sanctions.

Morgulov called for other measures than isolation to exercise in dealing with North Korea.

“We believe that the isolation alone…will not work, this won’t take us forward. By doing this, we will only worsen the situation, which is dangerous. We are really on the brink of a real war,” he said.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the Trump administration still wanted a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear and missile threat from Pyongyang but said: “(North Korea) has shown through its actions that it is not interested in talks. We must remain focused on increasing the costs for Pyongyang to continue to advance its WMD programs.”

Morgulov was also quoted as saying that North Korea was seeking a direct dialogue with the United States on its nuclear program, while it was not in need of security guarantees either from China or Russia.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syrian, Russian jets bomb residential areas in eastern Ghouta: witnesses, monitor

People are seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3,

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Jets believed to be Syrian and Russian struck heavily crowded residential areas in a besieged rebel enclave near Damascus, killing at least 27 people and injuring dozens in the third week of a stepped-up assault, residents, aid workers and a war monitor said on Monday.

Civil defense workers said at least 17 were killed in the town of Hamoriya in an aerial strike on a marketplace and nearby residential area after over nearly 30 strikes in the past 24 hours that struck several towns in the densely populated rural area east of Damascus known as the Eastern Ghouta.

Four other civilians were killed in the town of Arbin, while the rest came from strikes on Misraba and Harasta, the civil defense workers said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said the casualties on Sunday were the biggest daily death toll since the stepped-up strikes began 20 days ago. The monitor said nearly 200 civilians were killed in strikes and shelling, including many women and children, during that period.

The Eastern Ghouta has been besieged by army troops since 2013 in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission.

The government has in recent months tightened the siege in what residents and aid workers have said is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

The United Nations says about 400,00 civilians besieged in the region face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the Syrian government were blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Eastern Ghouta is the last remaining large swathe of rebel-held area around Damascus that has not reached an evacuation deal to surrender weapons in return for allowing fighters to go to other rebel-held areas farther north.

“They are targeting civilians … a jet hit us there, no rebels or checkpoints,” Sadeq Ibrahim, a trader, said by phone in Hamoriya.

“May God take his revenge on the regime and Russia,” said Abdullah Khalil, another resident, who said he lost members of his family in the air strike on Arbin and was searching for survivors among the rubble.

A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3,

A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The intensified bombardment of Eastern Ghouta follows a rebel attack last month on an army complex in the heart of the region that the army had used to bomb nearby rebel-held areas.

Residents said, however, that the failure of the army to dislodge rebels from the complex had prompted what they believe were retaliatory indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Eastern Ghouta.

Government advances since last year have forced people to flee deeper into its increasingly overcrowded towns. The loss of farmland is increasing pressure on scarce food supplies.

The Eastern Ghouta is part of several de-escalation zones that Russia has brokered with rebels across Syria that has freed the army to redeploy in areas where it can regain ground.

Rebels accuse the Syrian government and Russia of violating the zones and say they were meant as a charade to divert attention from the heavy daily bombing of civilian areas. The Syrian government and Russia deny their jets bomb civilians and insist they only strike militant hideouts.

 

 

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Peter Cooney)

 

Syrian walkout from talks ‘an embarrassment to Russia’: opposition

Syrian government negotiator quits Geneva talks, says may not return

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian government’s decision to quit peace talks last week was an embarrassment to its main supporter Russia, which wants both sides to reach a deal quickly, opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said on Monday.

The delegation left the U.N.-backed talks in Geneva on Friday, blaming the opposition’s demands that President Bashar al-Assad should play no role in any interim post-war government.

“I don’t think that those who support the regime are happy with such a position being taken by the regime. This is an embarrassment to Russia,” Aridi said at the hotel where the opposition delegation is staying in Geneva.

“We understand the Russian position now. They are… in a hurry to find a solution.”

There was no immediate comment from Russian officials at the talks on the withdrawal of the government delegation.

Russia helped to turn the Syrian war in Assad’s favor and has become the key force in the push for a diplomatic solution. Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin said a political settlement should be finalised within the U.N. Geneva process.

The opposition, long wary of Russia’s role, now accepts it. Western diplomats say Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev was present at the Riyadh meeting last month where the opposition drew up its statement rejecting any future role for Assad.

Asked if the opposition was willing to compromise on Assad’s role in any post-war government, Aridi said his delegation’s demands were based on the wishes of the Syrian people.

“I believe that our mere presence in Geneva is in itself a compromise. We are sitting with a regime that has been carrying out all these atrocities for the past seven years. What other compromise could we make?”

A source close to government delegation told Reuters on Monday that Damascus was still studying the feasibility of participation in the talks and when a decision was reached it would be sent through ordinary diplomatic channels.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

 

South Korea, U.S. launch aerial drills amid North Korean warnings of nuclear war

The South Korean army's K-55 self-propelled artillery vehicles take part in a military exercise near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, November 29, 2017.

By Christine Kim and Philip Wen

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States and South Korea went ahead with large-scale joint aerial drills on Monday, a move North Korea had said would push the Korean peninsula to “the brink of nuclear war”, ignoring calls from Russia and China to call them off.

The drills come a week after North Korea said it had tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States as part of a weapons program that it has conducted in defiance of international sanctions and condemnation.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was “regrettable” that all parties had not “grasped the window of opportunity” presented by two months of relative calm before the North’s most recent test.

China and Russia had proposed that the United States and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programs. Beijing formally calls the idea the “dual suspension” proposal.

The annual U.S.-South Korean drill, called Vigilant Ace, will run until Friday, with six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to be deployed among the more than 230 aircraft taking part.

North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country called U.S. President Donald Trump “insane” on Sunday and said the drills would “push the already acute situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war”.

F-35 fighters will also join the drills, which will include the largest number of 5th generation fighters ever to have taken part, according to a South Korea-based U.S. Air Force spokesman.

Around 12,000 U.S. service members, including from the Marines and Navy, will join South Korean troops. Aircraft taking part will be flown from eight U.S. and South Korean military installations.

South Korean media reports said B-1B Lancer bombers could join the exercise this week. The U.S. Air Force spokesman could not confirm the reports.

Trump said last week that additional major sanctions would be imposed on North Korea after Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Earlier last month, Trump put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that allows the United States to impose more sanctions.

Russia has accused the United States of trying to provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into “flying off the handle” over his missile program to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country.

Speaking at a news briefing in Beijing, Wang said China consistently opposed any behavior that elevated tensions.

“And measures that don’t abide by or are outside the UN Security Council resolutions lack basis in international law and damage the rights of United Nations members,” Wang said when asked about the prospect of further U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

China’s Air Force said on Monday that its surveillance aircraft had in recent days conducted drills in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea to “improve combat-readiness and safeguard the country’s strategic interests”.

The aircraft took a flight path not previously flown to regions they had never previously operated in, and coordinated with fighter jets, alert aircraft and guided missile forces, spokesman Shen Jinke said, according to a post on the Air Force’s official microblog.

The joint exercises between South Korea and United States are designed to enhance readiness and operational capability and to ensure peace and security on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. military had said before the drills began.

The North’s KCNA state news agency, citing a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Saturday the Trump administration was “begging for nuclear war by staging an extremely dangerous nuclear gamble on the Korean peninsula”.

North Korea regularly uses its state media to threaten the United States and its allies.

North Korea has tested dozens of ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and largest nuclear bomb test in September, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

It has said its weapons programs are a necessary defense against U.S. plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, denies any such intention.

 

 

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Philip Wen in BEIJING; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

Flynn pleads guilty to lying on Russia, cooperates with U.S. probe

Flynn pleads guilty to lying on Russia, cooperates with U.S. probe

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, and he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving into the actions of President Donald Trump’s inner circle before he took office.

The dramatic turn of events also raised new questions about whether Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had a role in those Russia contacts.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election and potential collusion by Trump aides.

Under a plea bargain deal, Flynn admitted in a Washington court that he lied when asked by FBI investigators about his conversations last December with Russia’s then-ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, just weeks before Trump took office.

Prosecutors said the two men discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia and that Flynn also asked Kislyak to help delay a U.N. vote seen as damaging to Israel. On both occasions, he appeared to be undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama.

They also said a “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team had told Flynn to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the U.N. vote.

Sources told Reuters that the “very senior” official was Kushner, a key member of Trump’s transition team and now the president’s senior adviser.

Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has previously said Kushner has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and would continue to do so.

Flynn’s decision to cooperate with Mueller’s team marked a major escalation in a probe that has dogged the president since he took office in January.

There was nothing in the court hearing that pointed to any evidence against Trump, and the White House said Flynn’s guilty plea implicated him alone.

“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn,” said Ty Cobb, a White House attorney.

Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general, only served as Trump’s national security adviser for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Kislyak.

But Flynn had been an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s election campaign and the president continued to praise him even after he left the administration, saying Flynn had been treated “very, very unfairly” by the news media.

A small group of protesters yelled “Lock him up!” as Flynn left the courthouse on Friday, echoing the “Lock her up!” chant that Flynn himself led against Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in vitriolic appearances on the campaign trail.

SANCTIONS

Mueller’s team is also looking at whether members of Trump’s campaign may have sought to ease sanctions on Russia in return for financial gain or because Russian officials held some leverage over them, people familiar with the probe say.

Prosecutors said Flynn and Kislyak last December discussed economic sanctions that Obama’s administration had just imposed on Moscow for allegedly interfering in the election.

Flynn asked Kislyak to refrain from escalating a diplomatic dispute with Washington over the sanctions, and later falsely told FBI officials that he did not make that request, court documents showed.

Prosecutors said Flynn had earlier consulted with a senior member of Trump’s presidential transition team about what to communicate to the Russian ambassador.

“Flynn called the Russian ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. sanctions in a reciprocal manner,” the prosecutors said in court documents, adding that Flynn then called the Trump official again to recount the conversation with Kislyak.

They did not name the senior official in the Trump team but U.S. media reports identified former adviser K.T. McFarland as the person. Reuters was unable to verify the reports.

On Dec. 28, 2016, the day before prosecutors say the call between the Trump aides took place, Trump had publicly played down the need to sanction Russia for allegedly hacking U.S. Democratic operatives.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort.

TESTIMONY

Ryan Goodman, a professor at New York University Law School, said Flynn’s plea deal shows Mueller is scrutinizing the truthfulness of testimony given to his investigators. Kushner is potentially liable for making false statements if his testimony is contradicted by Flynn, Goodman said.

Earlier on Friday, ABC News cited a Flynn confidant as saying Flynn was ready to testify that Trump directed him to make contact with Russians before he became president, initially as a way to work together to fight the Islamic State group in Syria.

Reuters could not immediately verify the ABC News report.

U.S. stocks, the dollar and Treasury yields fell sharply after the ABC report, although they partially rebounded on optimism that a Republican bill to cut taxes will be approved in the U.S. Senate.

If Trump directed Flynn to contact Russian officials, that might not necessarily amount to a crime. It would be a crime if it were proven that Trump directed Flynn to lie to the FBI.

Moscow has denied what U.S. intelligence agencies say was meddling in the election campaign to try to sway the vote in Trump’s favor. Trump has called Mueller’s probe a witch hunt.

In May, the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who later accused Trump of trying to hinder his investigation into the Russia allegations. Comey also said he believed Trump had asked him to drop the FBI’s probe into Flynn.

Comey on Friday tweeted a cryptic message about justice.

“But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, ‘Amos 5:24’,” he wrote, quoting the Biblical book of Amos.

Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s presidential campaign for several months last year, was charged in October with conspiring to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as a foreign agent of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government.

Manafort, who did not join Trump’s administration, and a business associate who was charged with him both pleaded not guilty.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Tim Ahmann, John Walcott, Mark Hosenball and Nathan Layne in Washington and Jan Wolfe in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Frances Kerry and Mary Milliken)

Flynn prepared to testify Trump directed him to contact Russians: ABC

Flynn prepared to testify Trump directed him to contact Russians: ABC

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – ABC News reported on Friday that former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn is prepared to testify that President Donald Trump directed him to make contact with Russians when he was a presidential candidate.

Reuters could not immediately verify the report, which cited a Flynn confidant. The news sent U.S. stocks sharply lower. [nL3N1O14E8]

Flynn, a former top Trump campaign aide and a central figure in a federal investigation into Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI.

His plea agreement, and his decision to cooperate with the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, marked a major escalation in a probe that has dogged Trump’s administration since the Republican president took office in January.

Flynn acknowledged making false statements about contacts he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, last year. The charges carry sentence of up to five years in prison.

Flynn was fired from his White House post in February for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the ambassador.

Moscow has denied a conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that it meddled in the election campaign to try to sway the vote in Trump’s favor. Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; Additional reporting by John Walcott and Nathan Layne; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry)

As West frowns on Putin, young Russians learn the military way

As West frowns on Putin, young Russians learn the military way

STAVROPOL, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin may be criticized by the West for the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, but at home his public approval ratings have been boosted.

The operation to seize the peninsula, hailed by Russian nationalists as “The Crimean Spring”, led to an upsurge in what is called “military and patriotic education” of Russian youths.

In the southern region of Stavropol, interest has been revived in the Cossacks, a warrior class in tsarist times, and in the history of tsarist and modern wars which Moscow fought in the North Caucasus region.

The Cossacks, who were portrayed as peaceful ploughmen in quiet times, were swift to repel attacks from nearby regions, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, or join Moscow’s military campaigns elsewhere.

“Tomorrow begins today,” reads the motto of a cadet school in Stavropol that was named after Alexei Yermolov, a 19th century Russian general who conquered the Caucasus for the Russian empire.

A Reuters photo essay (http://reut.rs/2jp4dgu) captures images from the General Yermolov Cadet School training in Stavropol and in the countryside.

Most cadets come from families of active Russian soldiers or officers from other security forces. About 40 percent of school leavers join the military or law enforcement agencies.

Many instructors spent years in “hot spots” or conflict zones.

A group of teenagers from the “Patriot” club in Crimea visited the school’s field camp, named “Russian Knights”, over the summer. Up to 600 boys and girls train there each summer.

This camp trains more than 1,500 teenagers a year.

Physical exercises go hand-in-hand with weapons training, marksmanship tests, car driving and even parachuting.

(Reporting by Eduard Korniyenko; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Edmund Blair)