Struggle between big powers spells hostile future: report

Munich Security Conference (MSC) chairman Wolfgang Ischinger presents the Munich Security Report for 2019 in Berlin, Germany, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

BERLIN (Reuters) – A new age of competition between major global powers like China, the United States and Russia leaves the world facing an unpredictable and more hostile future, the hosts of a major security conference said on Monday.

Entitled “The Great Puzzle: Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?”, their report aims to set the agenda for leaders at the Munich Security Conference annual meeting from Thursday.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to attend the event in the Bavarian capital, which comes after Washington said earlier this month it would suspend compliance with a landmark nuclear missile pact with Russia.

“Given the prevailing strategic outlooks in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, expectations of a new era of great power competition are seeming to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the report read.

“If everyone prepares for a hostile world, its arrival is almost preordained … The post-Cold War period and the general optimism associated with it has come to an end.

“But it is unclear what kind of new order will emerge … and whether the transition period will be peaceful.”

Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, urged policymakers from mid-sized powers including the European Union to do more to preserve a liberal international order.

In a newspaper interview, Ischinger suggested France’s nuclear arsenal should serve the purpose of shielding the whole of the EU and not just France. This would mean EU countries would have to share the cost of maintaining France’s nuclear weapons, he told the Funke group of newspapers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who addresses the conference on Saturday, is using her last term to focus on a foreign policy aimed at defending and refreshing multilateralism.

But the report said Berlin and Paris needed to work together more effectively to boost the capacity of the “ill-prepared” EU to deal with heightened great power competition.

“With domestic contexts in both capitals unlikely to become less complicated, the coming year will show whether the tandem can work out its differences or whether another window of opportunity has been missed,” the report read.

Running through other mid-sized powers, the report turned to Britain and said “Brexit proceedings will continue to inflict wounds on both sides of the Channel for years to come.”

Looking further east, it said: “Those counting on Japan to anchor security in East Asia may yet have to temper their expectations.”

(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

U.N. decries Russia jailing of Dane in Jehovah’s Witnesses case

FILE PHOTO: Dennis Christensen, a Jehovah's Witness accused of extremism, leaves after a court session in handcuffs in the town of Oryol, Russia January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Osborn/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday the harsh prison sentence Russia imposed on a Danish follower of the Jehovah’s Witnesses created a dangerous precedent and violated international law guaranteeing freedom of religion.

A Russian court on Wednesday found Dennis Christensen, an adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, guilty of organizing a banned extremist group and jailed him for six years.

“The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent and effectively criminalizes the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia in contravention of the State’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

Armed police detained Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, about 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow after a regional court had outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was “extremist” and ordered it to disband nationwide.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

Christiansen’s detention, Russia’s first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness, foreshadowed dozens more with criminal cases opened against over 100 members of the group, Bachelet said.

At least 18 have been held in pre-trial detention and some have been subjected to house arrest and travel restrictions.

Bachelet urged Russia to revise its laws on combating extremist activity “with a view to clarifying the vague and open-ended definition of extremist activity, and ensuring that the definition requires an element of violence or hatred”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Ed Osmond)

For Putin, economic and political reality dampen any appetite for arms race

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – With his ratings down and state funds needed to hedge against new Western sanctions and raise living standards, Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to get sucked into a costly nuclear arms race with the United States.

Alleging Russian violations, Washington said this month it was suspending its obligations under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and starting the process of quitting it, untying its hands to develop new missiles.

That raises the prospect of a new arms race between Washington and Moscow, which denies flouting the treaty. Putin responded by saying Russia would mirror the U.S. moves by suspending its own obligations and quitting the pact.

But Putin, who has sometimes used bellicose rhetoric to talk up Russia’s standoff with the West and to rally Russians round the flag, did not up the ante.

He did not announce new missile deployments, said money for new systems must come from existing budget funds and declared that Moscow would not deploy new land-based missiles in Europe or elsewhere unless Washington did so first.

“…We must not and will not let ourselves be drawn into an expensive arms race,” Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

His statement was borne of necessity.

Harsh economic and political realities and memories of how the cost of the Cold War arms race contributed to the Soviet Union’s demise means Putin’s options are limited, a situation that may curb his appetite for expensive escalation in future.

“We need to keep in mind that the question of an arms race that could cut us into pieces is entirely realistic,” Sergei Dubinin, former governor of Russia’s central bank, told Russia’s RBC TV channel before Washington announced its exit.

He said the United States was trying to repeat its successful Cold War strategy of pushing Moscow into an arms race it could not afford and that Russia would be ill-advised to try to attain parity and needed a smart response instead.

Memories of empty supermarket shelves in the run-up to the 1991 Soviet collapse still haunt many older Russians as the then Soviet Union directed huge cash flows to the military-industrial complex to try to keep up with the United States while neglecting the consumer economy.

“They (the Americans) recall that the Soviet Union collapsed in part because it tried to keep up with the United States when it came to who produced more missiles, nuclear submarines and tanks,” Viktor Litovkin, a military expert, told the Russian army’s Zvezda TV channel.

“They are trying to do the same thing today.”

COUNTING THE COSTS

With the INF treaty suspended, Washington and Moscow have said they will develop previously prohibited short- and intermediate-range land-based missiles, with Russia saying it wants them ready by 2021.

Shoigu told Putin the money to develop two new land-based missile launchers would come from this year’s budget by reallocating existing funds.

Russia does not disclose the full extent of its military and national security spending, but says it will account for around 30 percent of its 18-trillion-rouble ($273-billion) budget this year.

Oil revenues mean Russia is not short of money. Its budget surplus this year is projected to be 1.932 trillion rubles ($29.3 billion) or 1.8 percent of gross domestic product. Russia’s foreign exchange reserves stand at $478 billion, the fifth largest in the world.

But the money is already allocated in a way dictated by Moscow’s difficult geopolitical situation and by Putin’s own increasingly tricky domestic political landscape. Reallocating the money would be painful.

Moscow is hoarding cash to try to give itself a $200-billion buffer against new Western sanctions and is embarking on a multi-billion dollar spending push to try to overhaul the country’s creaky infrastructure and raise living standards.

With signs of rising discontent over years of falling real incomes, rising prices, an increase in value-added tax and an unpopular plan to raise the pension age, Putin is under pressure to deliver.

Igor Nikolaev, director of auditor FBK’s Strategic Analysis Institute, said Putin might have to take money from other parts of the budget to fund a new arms race which would force him to scale back social spending plans or dip into the national wealth fund to top up the budget.

If a burgeoning arms race intensified, such a scenario would become more likely and Putin would be reluctant to spend more on defense in the current political climate, he said.

“It would not be desirable, especially as we know what’s happening with real incomes and that there are problems with his rating,” said Nikolaev. “Cutting spending on national projects would receive a mixed reaction.”

Though re-elected last year until 2024, and therefore not under immediate political pressure, Putin’s trust rating has fallen to a 13-year low. A poll this month showed the number of Russians who believe their country is going in the wrong direction hit its highest level since 2006.

Putin’s symmetrical response to Washington, which involves developing new missiles, has already angered some Russians.

“Are new arms a source of joy?” wrote blogger Vladimir Akimov, saying the money would be better spent on lifting people out of poverty. “Why not begin by repairing the roads and knocking down the wooden shacks (that people live in) across the country.”

(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Russia jails Dane for six years in Jehovah’s Witnesses purge

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Wednesday found a Danish adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of organizing a banned extremist group and jailed him for six years in a case critics condemn as crushing religious freedom.

Armed police detained Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, some 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow after a court in the region outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was “extremist” and ordered it to disband nationwide. Christiansen’s detention, Russia’s first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness, foreshadowed dozens more.

The court in the city of Oryol on Wednesday found Christiansen guilty after a long trial, his lawyer, his wife and a representative for the Jehovah’s Witnesses told Reuters.

Christiansen had pleaded innocent, saying he was exercising freedom of religion guaranteed in Russia’s constitution.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen called on Moscow to respect religious freedom and criticized it for classifying Jehovah’s Witnesses on a par with terrorist groups.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

DOZENS MORE CAUGHT IN CRACKDOWN

But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Christiansen moved to Murmansk in northern Russia in 2000 where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were already well established and met his wife Irina there. The couple later moved to Oryol because the climate is milder and housing cheaper.

He speaks Russian and says he is a fan of Russian culture.

Anton Bogdanov, Christiansen’s lawyer, said he planned to appeal Wednesday’s verdict, which he termed illegal and feared would set a dangerous precedent.

More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses, with another 24 people in prison awaiting or on trial and a similar number under house arrest. Some of their publications are on a list of banned literature.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the verdict evoked the atheist Soviet period when Moscow persecuted the group.

“In essence we have returned to Soviet times,” said Sivulsky, whose own father Pavel was jailed for seven years in 1959 for printing bible literature. “It’s sad that in the 21st century people are being jailed for holding what the authorities believe to be the wrong beliefs.”

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said there were clearly reasons for Christiansen’s arrest but he was unaware of details.

Irina, Christiansen’s wife, said she and her husband were calm despite what they saw as an injustice. Before the verdict, she said state TV had nurtured existing widespread prejudice in Russian society against Jehovah’s Witnesses, a strategy she said helped distract people from low living standards.

(Additonal reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and by Andreas Mortensen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Iran warns Israel against further air strikes in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran?s Supreme National Security Council Director, speaks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/File Photo

LONDON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Iran warned Israel on Tuesday of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continued attacking targets in Syria, where Tehran has backed President Bashar al-Assad and his forces in their nearly eight-year war against rebels and militants.

Without responding directly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless said it was important to block Iranian influence in Syria.

Israel, which views Tehran as its biggest security threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets and those of allied militia in Syria. With an election looming in April, Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes.

In a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said the Israeli attacks violated Syria’s territorial integrity and were unacceptable.

“If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he would hold talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 21, focussing on Iran’s threat along the Syrian border.

Moscow is a main backer of the Damascus government.

“It’s very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria. In many ways we blocked that advance. But we are committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said.

In January, Israeli warplanes carried out a strike on what they called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, and Netanyahu has said attacks will continue.

Syria’s Moualem was quoted on Tuesday by a Hezbollah-run media unit as saying: “The Syrian government considers it to be its duty to keep Iranian security forces in Syrian territory.”

Iran has also repeatedly said it will keep forces there.

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 about the situation in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)

Russia plans new missile systems to counter U.S. by 2021

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump are seen during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci/File Pho

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will race to develop two new land-based missile launch systems before 2021 to respond to Washington’s planned exit from a landmark nuclear arms control pact, it said on Tuesday.

President Vladimir Putin said at the weekend that Russia had suspended the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans both nations from stationing short- and intermediate-range land-based missiles in Europe.

Moscow and Washington accuse each other of violating the treaty and Putin said Russia had acted after the United States announced it was withdrawing from the pact.

Washington had made clear it planned to start research, development and design work on new missile systems and Moscow would do the same, Putin said.

The Russian military should start work on creating land-based launch systems for an existing ship-launched cruise missile, the Kalibr, and for longer-range hypersonic missiles which travel at least five times the speed of sound, he said.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday ordered work to begin on developing the new systems.

Shoigu, a close Putin ally, said he wanted the work completed by the end of next year so the new systems were ready by 2021.

“From Feb. 2, the United States suspended its obligations under the INF treaty,” Shoigu told a meeting of defense chiefs.

“At the same time they are actively working to create a land-based missile with a range of more than 500 km which is outside the treaty’s limits. President Putin has given the defense ministry the task of taking symmetrical measures.”

Moscow denies flouting the 1987 pact. It says Washington is the one violating it and has accused the United States of inventing a false pretext to exit a treaty it wanted to leave anyway in order to develop new missiles. Washington denies that.

U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Tuesday that the United States would reconsider its withdrawal from the INF treaty “should Russia return to full and verifiable compliance.”

“This is Russia’s final opportunity to return to compliance,” Wood said.

(Additional reporting by Ekaterina Golubkova in Moscow and by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Senate breaks from Trump with Syria troop vote

FILE PHOTO: Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria Nov. 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate backed largely symbolic legislation on Monday that broke with President Donald Trump by opposing plans for any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

The Senate voted 70-26 in favor of a non-binding amendment, drafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying it was the sense of the Senate that Islamist militant groups in both countries still pose a “serious threat” to the United States.

The amendment acknowledged progress against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and Afghanistan but warned that “a precipitous withdrawal” could destabilize the region and create a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or Russia.

It called on the Trump administration to certify conditions had been met for the groups’ “enduring defeat” before any significant withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

Before the vote, McConnell said he introduced the bill so the Senate could “speak clearly and directly about the importance of the” missions in Afghanistan and Syria.

Passage was expected, after the Senate voted to advance it in a procedural vote last week. After concerns from some Democrats, the Senate approved a change to the bill making it clear the amendment was not intended to be a declaration of war or authorization to use military force.

The vote added the amendment to a broader Middle East security bill making its way through Congress. The Senate voted 72-24 to advance the broader bill in a procedural vote on Monday after the amendment vote.

To become law, however, the bill would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, where it is unlikely to move without significant changes because of concerns about a provision addressing the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement concerned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The votes marked the second time in two months that the Senate supported a measure contradicting Trump’s foreign policy, although legislation to change his policies has yet to become law.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans strongly disagreed with his plans to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria on the grounds that militants no longer pose a threat.

Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disputed before Monday’s vote that the amendment rebuked or insulted Trump. “As I read it, it recognizes … his effort for us to examine exactly what we are doing in these places,” Risch said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump says U.S. military intervention in Venezuela ‘an option;’ Russia objects

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido and his wife Fabiana Rosales gesture during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option” as Western nations boost pressure on socialist leader Nicolas Maduro to step down, while the troubled OPEC nation’s ally Russia warned against “destructive meddling.”

The United States, Canada, and several Latin American countries have disavowed Maduro over his disputed re-election last year and recognized self-proclaimed President Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.

Trump said U.S. military intervention was under consideration in an interview with CBS aired on Sunday.

“Certainly, it’s something that’s on the – it’s an option,” Trump said, adding that Maduro requested a meeting months ago.

“I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process,” he said in a “Face the Nation” interview. “So, I think the process is playing out.”

The Trump administration last week issued crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, a key source of revenue for the country, which is experiencing medicine shortages and malnutrition.

Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse and the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, maintains the backing of Russia, China and Turkey, and the critical support of the military.

Russia, a major creditor to Venezuela in recent years, urged restraint.

“The international community’s goal should be to help (Venezuela), without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Latin America department at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told Interfax.

France and Austria said they would recognize Guaido if Maduro did not respond to the European Union’s call for a free and fair presidential election by Sunday night.

“We don’t accept ultimatums from anyone,” Maduro said in a defiant interview with Spanish television channel La Sexta carried out last week and broadcast on Sunday.

“I refuse to call for elections now – there will be elections in 2024. We don’t care what Europe says.”

EMBOLDENED OPPOSITION

The 35-year-old Guaido, head of the country’s National Assembly, has breathed new life into a previously fractured and weary opposition. Tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of various Venezuelan cities on Saturday to protest Maduro’s government.

Guaido allies plan to take a large quantity of food and medicine donated by the United States, multilateral organizations and non-profit groups across the Colombian border into the Venezuelan state of Tachira this week, according to a person directly involved in the effort.

The group has not yet determined which border point it will cross, said the person, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

It is unclear whether Maduro’s government, which denies the country is suffering a humanitarian crisis, will let any foreign aid through.

The embattled president on Sunday promised peace for Venezuela without specifically responding to Trump.

“In Venezuela, there will be peace, and we will guarantee this peace with the civil-military union,” he told state television, in the company of khaki and black-clad soldiers who were earlier shown carrying guns and jumping from helicopters into the sea.

Maduro has overseen several such military drills since Guaido declared himself president to display he has the backing of the military, and that Venezuela’s armed forces are ready to defend the country.

Air Force General Francisco Yanez disavowed Maduro in a video this weekend, calling on members of the military to defect. But there were no signs the armed forces were turning against Maduro.

Venezuela has as many as 2,000 generals, according to unofficial estimates, many of whom do not command troops and whose defection would not necessarily weaken the ruling socialists.

The police have also fallen in line with Maduro.

A special forces unit called FAES led home raids following unrest associated with opposition protests in January, killing as many as 10 people in a single operation in a hillside slum of Caracas.

Venezuela’s ambassador to Iraq, Jonathan Velasco, became the latest official to recognize opposition leader Guaido this weekend.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

U.S. suspends compliance on weapons treaty with Russia, may withdraw in six months

FILE PHOTO: Components of SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system are on display during a news briefing, organized by Russian defence and foreign ministries, at Patriot Expocentre near Moscow, Russia January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will suspend compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia on Saturday and formally withdraw in six months if Moscow does not end its alleged violation of the pact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday.

The United States would reconsider its withdrawal if Russia, which denies violating the landmark 1987 arms control pact, came into compliance with the treaty, which bans either side from stationing short- and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe.

“Russia has refused to take any steps to return (to) real and verifiable compliance,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “We will provide Russia and the other treaty parties with formal notice that the United States is withdrawing from the INF treaty, effective in six months.

“If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty within this six-month period by verifiably destroying its INF-violating missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment, the treaty will terminate.”

The United States alleges a new Russian cruise missile violates the pact. The missile, the Novator 9M729, is known as the SSC-8 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russia says the missile’s range puts it outside the treaty, and has accused the United States of inventing a false pretext to exit a treaty that it wants to leave anyway so it can develop new missiles. Russia also has rejected a U.S. demand to destroy the new missile.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday the United States had been unwilling to discuss the issue.

A few hours before Pompeo’s announcement a statement from NATO said the alliance would “fully support” the U.S. withdrawal notice.

Some experts believe the collapse of the INF treaty could undermine other arms control agreements and speed an erosion of the global system designed to block the spread of nuclear arms.

European officials are especially worried about the treaty’s possible collapse, fearful that Europe could again become an arena for nuclear-armed, intermediate-range missile buildups by the United States and Russia.

Speaking before Pompeo’s announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized the importance of using the six-month window to keep talking.

“It is clear to us that Russia has violated this treaty …,” she said. “The important thing is to keep the window for dialogue open.”

Senator Bob Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Trump failing to grasp the importance of arms control treaties or of having a wider strategy to control the spread of nuclear weapons.

“Today’s withdrawal is yet another geo-strategic gift to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin,” he said in a statement.

(Reporting By Makini Brice, Susan Heavey, Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott)