Russia says it chased U.S. naval destroyer away from its waters

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia said one of its military vessels chased away a U.S. naval destroyer that attempted to violate Russian territorial waters during Russian-Chinese naval drills in the Sea of Japan on Friday.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. side.

The Russian defense ministry said the crew of a Russian anti-submarine vessel, the Admiral Tributs, had radioed a warning to the USS Chafee that it was “in an area closed to navigation due to exercises with artillery fire”.

The U.S. destroyer failed to change course and instead raised flags indicating it was preparing to launch a helicopter from its deck, meaning it could not turn or change speed, the Russian ministry said in a statement.

“Acting within the framework of the international rules of navigation, the Admiral Tributs set a course for ousting the intruder from Russian territorial waters,” it said.

The Chafee eventually changed course when the two vessels were less than 60 meters apart, it said. It said the incident lasted about 50 minutes and took place in Peter the Great Bay in the west of the Sea of Japan.

RIA news agency said the Russian defense ministry summoned the U.S. military attaché, who was told the of the “unprofessional actions” of the destroyer’s crew, which had “rudely violated international laws on the prevention of collisions of vessels at sea”.

It was the second time in four months Russia has said it chased a NATO-member warship from its waters. In June, Russia accused a British destroyer of breaching its territorial waters off Crimea in the Black Sea, and said it had forced it away. Britain rejected Moscow’s account of that incident, saying at the time its ship was operating lawfully in Ukrainian waters.

Earlier on Friday, Russia said it had held joint naval drills with China in the Sea of Japan and practiced how to operate together and destroy floating enemy mines with artillery fire.

Relations between Russia and the United States are at post-Cold War lows, although President Vladimir Putin said this week he had established a solid relationship with his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden and saw potential for ties to improve.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Russia says at least 49,389 people died from COVID-19 in Aug

MOSCOW (Reuters) – At least 49,389 people died in Russia in August due to the coronavirus and related causes, taking the toll to around 418,000 people since the pandemic began, state statistic service Rosstat said on Friday.

Russian authorities blame the spread of the more contagious Delta variant and a low vaccination rate for the third wave of coronavirus infections, which peaked in July.

In July, Russia saw the highest monthly coronavirus death toll of the pandemic as 51,044 people died from COVID-19 or related causes that month, the figure revised recently after the first publication.

The number reported by Rosstat exceeds the official total death toll of 214,485, published by the Russian coronavirus task force earlier on Friday.

Authorities explained the discrepancy between Rosstat and coronavirus task force data by the fact that the latter reports deaths from COVID-19 on a daily basis that do not need additional confirmation from medical examiners, whereas Rosstat publishes full data on a monthly basis.

Some epidemiologists say that measuring excess mortality is the best way to assess the death toll during a pandemic.

Based on the new data, Reuters calculated that the number of excess deaths in Russia between April 2020 and August 2021 had reached 575,000 in comparison with the average mortality rate in 2015-2019.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Writing by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Alison Williams)

Turkey’s Russian air defense systems and U.S. response

(Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan this week flagged potential further cooperation with Russia on defense industry projects including fighter jets and submarines even as the United States warned it could respond with more sanctions.

Turkey received the first deliveries of the S-400 surface-to-air systems in July 2019, prompting Washington to begin removing the NATO ally from its F-35 stealth fighter program over security concerns.

The following timeline presents the main developments in the program and Ankara’s relations with the United States.

Dec. 29, 2017 – Turkey and Russia sign an accord on deliveries of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, reportedly worth around $2.5 billion.

June 19, 2018 – A U.S. Senate committee passes a spending bill that includes a provision to block Turkey’s purchase of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets unless it drops the plan to buy the S-400s.

March 28, 2019 – U.S. Senators introduce a bipartisan bill to prohibit the transfer of F-35s to Turkey unless the U.S. administration certifies that Ankara will not take delivery of the S-400s.

June 7, 2019 – The United States decides to stop accepting any additional Turkish pilots to train on F-35 fighter jets.

July 17, 2019 – The United States says it was removing Turkey from the F-35 program; Ellen Lord, Undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, says Turkey would no longer receive more than $9 billion in projected work.

July 25, 2019 – Russia completes the first shipment of its S-400 systems to Turkey, according to Turkish military officials.

Sept. 15, 2019 – Turkey’s defense ministry confirms delivery of a second battery of S-400s.

Nov. 12, 2020 – Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar says Turkey is ready to discuss U.S. concerns about the technical compatibility of Russian S-400 defense systems and U.S.-made F-35 jets, renewing Ankara’s call for a joint working group with Washington on the issue.

March 24, 2021 – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, urges Ankara to drop the S-400 system. In the same meeting, Cavusoglu told his U.S. counterpart that its purchase was “a done deal.”

July 21, 2021 – U.S. President Joe Biden is committed to maintaining sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for buying Russian missile defenses and would impose further sanctions if Ankara bought further major arms systems from Moscow, according to a senior U.S. diplomat.

Aug. 23, 2021 – The Interfax new agency reports the head of Russia’s arms exporter as saying Russia and Turkey were close to signing a new contract to supply Ankara with more S-400s in the near future.

Sept. 26, 2021 – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey still intends to buy a second batch of missile defense systems from Russia.

Sept. 30, 2021 – Turkey is considering more joint defense industry programs with Russia including fighter jets and submarines, President Erdogan says after talks with President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan did not mention further S-400 purchases or U.S. sanctions, but said “Turkey would not back down.”

(Compiled by Oben Mumcuoglu and Berna Syuleymanoglu in Gdansk; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Daren Butler)

Russia arrests top cybersecurity executive in treason case

By Tom Balmforth and Anton Zverev

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian authorities have arrested the chief executive of a leading Russian cybersecurity company on suspicion of state treason, a court said on Wednesday, sending a chill through Russia’s IT and business sectors.

Ilya Sachkov, 35, who founded Group IB, one of Russia’s most prominent cyber security firms, was arrested on Tuesday, the RTVI TV channel reported as law enforcement officers carried out searches at the Moscow offices of the firm.

State news agency TASS cited an unnamed security source as saying Sachkov was accused of working with unspecified foreign intelligence services and of treason that hurt Russia’s national interests. He denied both allegations, it said.

Group IB said in a statement it was sure Sachkov was not guilty of the allegations, but that it was unable to comment further on them. There was no official comment about the case from the security services.

Moscow’s Lefortovo district court said it had ordered Sachkov to be held in custody for two months.

State treason is punishable by up to 20 years in jail. The details of such cases seldom come to light in full because of their classified nature.

Global IB focuses on investigating high-tech crimes and online fraud, with a global client base that includes banks, energy companies, telecoms firms and Interpol.

More searches took place at the St Petersburg offices of Group IB and other unnamed companies on Wednesday, the RIA news agency cited a security source as saying.

Sachkov is a well-known figure in the business and IT sectors and has also met President Vladimir Putin at least once.

He is the latest in a long series of people, including scientists, soldiers, officials and a former journalist, to be accused of treason in recent years.

Boris Titov, presidential commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, called on investigators to disclose information about the case against Sachkov.

The Kremlin rejected the idea the case could hurt Russia’s business climate during a conference call and said it was linked to state treason, not business.

Group IB said the searches at its offices had begun on Tuesday morning, with law enforcement officials leaving that same evening. It said it had no information about why the searches were being conducted.

The RTVI TV channel said Sachkov had been detained on Tuesday, citing a source in law enforcement. An RTVI correspondent also reported that men were dragging things from Group IB’s office to a van parked outside.

Group IB said all services were still running as normal and that the security of client data was ensured by the company’s geographically distributed infrastructure.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Anton Zverev, Alexander Marrow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Nick Macfie)

‘Loss and pain’: Families testify at Dutch MH17 trial

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -A woman whose daughter was among 298 people who died when a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine said on Friday she wanted to look the suspects in the eye and “make them feel our loss and pain.”

Relatives of the victims of flight MH17, brought down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014, denounced the “senseless and brutal” deaths of their loved ones during the trial of four suspects accused in the disaster.

Their testimony concluded three weeks of statements from 90 relatives from eight countries. They told the judges about the impact of the loss on their lives and their hopes for justice.

Prosecutor Alwin Dam said many relatives have issues with the “amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories that are spread about MH17” and the fact that no one has claimed responsibility.

The plane was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit by what international investigators and prosecutors say was a Russian surface-to-air missile.

Jeanne Hornikx’s daughter Astrid, 31, and Astrid’s partner Bart, 40, were among those on board.

Hornikx showed the judges a tattoo of her daughter’s fingerprint, saying “that is how she was identified”.

“I would like to look the suspects straight in the eye and make them feel our loss and pain. That our suffering becomes their suffering, that maybe grief shared – and remorse – can become grief halved,” Hornikx said.

Dutch prosecutors have brought charges against three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen, all suspected of having key roles in transporting the missile system. They went on trial for murder last year.

Two-thirds of the victims were Dutch citizens and the Netherlands blames Moscow for the attack.

Russia, which maintains that it has not funded or supported pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops, has refused to extradite the suspects. Only one defendant has appointed a lawyer.

The court adjourned until November with the prosecution closing statement expected on Nov. 15, judges said. A verdict will likely be handed down late next year.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Giles Elgood)

Russia’s COVID-19 deaths return to record daily highs

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia on Thursday reported 820 coronavirus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, matching an all-time high set on Aug. 26, and authorities warned that cases were again rising rapidly.

Moscow recorded 3,445 new infections in the last 24 hours, the most reported in a single day since July 31 following a case surge over the summer, authorities said. There were 21,438 cases recorded nationwide, they said.

The Kremlin told reporters that officials were not discussing the idea of re-imposing lockdown measures or other restrictions, but that the government and regional officials were monitoring the situation closely.

“As far as I know, despite the increase in numbers, no decisions have yet been made anywhere (in Russia),” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Thirty-six regions have recorded case increases this week, Anna Popova, the head of consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, said on Wednesday.

She said the virus was spreading fastest in regions where there were fewer vaccinated people. Russia, which has a population of more than 144 million, says almost 40 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Russia has recorded a total of 7,354,995 cases, authorities say.

The government coronavirus task force says 201,445 people have died of coronavirus-related causes so far, while the federal statistics agency gives a higher number of 365,000 deaths from April 2020 to July 2021.

Reuters calculations based on official statistics show there were 528,000 excess deaths between April 2020 and July 2021. Some epidemiologists say excess deaths are the best way to measure the real death toll from COVID-19.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov and Alexander Marrow; editing by Tom Balmforth and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

The third man: UK charges another Russian for nerve attack on double agent

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -British police said on Tuesday a third Russian had been charged in absentia with the 2018 Novichok murder attempt on former double agent Sergei Skripal, saying they could also now confirm the three suspects were military intelligence operatives.

The attack on Skripal, who sold Russian secrets to Britain, caused one of the biggest rows between Russia and the West since the Cold War, leading to the tit-for-tat expulsion of dozens of diplomats after Britain pointed the finger of blame at Moscow.

Russia has rejected any involvement, casting the accusations as anti-Russian propaganda.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious, slumped on a public bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March 2018. They and a police officer who went to his house were left critically ill in hospital from exposure to the military-grade nerve agent.

A woman later also died from Novichok poisoning after her partner found a counterfeit perfume bottle which police believe had been used to smuggle the poison into the country.

In September 2018, British prosecutors charged two Russians, then identified by the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with conspiracy to murder Skripal and the attempted murder of Yulia and the officer, Nick Bailey.

Dean Haydon, Britain’s Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism Policing, said prosecutors had now authorized them to charge a third man, Sergey Fedotov, who was aged about 50, with the same offences.

Haydon also said Petrov and Boshirov were really named Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, and Fedotov’s true name was Denis Sergeev. All three were believed to be in Russia, he said. Britain has no extradition treaty with Russia, and Moscow has so far refused to hand over Petrov and Boshirov.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said the issue would be raised with the Russian ambassador to London.

Russians “should recognize that our sense that justice must be done is not abated,” Johnson told Sky News in an interview while on a trip to the United States.

The Russian foreign ministry said Britain was using the poisoning to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

‘DANGEROUS INDIVIDUALS’

The Skripal suspects were a three-man GRU team which had carried out operations on behalf of the Russian state in other countries, and there had been discussions with Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, Haydon said.

“We can’t go into the detail of how, but we have the evidence that links them to the GRU,” Haydon told reporters, the first time police had categorically identified them as Russian spies. “All three of them are dangerous individuals.”

As with the other two Russians, British police had obtained an arrest warrant for Fedotov and they were applying for Interpol notices against him, he said.

The police announcement came on the same day that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for the 2006 killing of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned at a London hotel with Polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope.

British police say Petrov and Boshirov carried out the Skripal attack, while Fedotov met them several times over the weekend of March 2-4 when the poisoning occurred.

After they were accused by Britain, Boshirov and Petrov appeared on Russian TV to say they were tourists who had travelled to Salisbury to do some sightseeing.

“There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral. It’s famous not only in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123 meter-spire,” Boshirov said.

(additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

Rivals allege mass fraud as Russian pro-Putin party wins big majority

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Opponents accused Russian authorities of mass fraud on Monday after the ruling United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin, won a bigger than expected parliamentary majority despite unease over living standards.

With over 99% of ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said United Russia had won nearly 50% of the vote, with its nearest rival, the Communist Party, taking just under 19%.

The scale of the victory means United Russia will have more than two-thirds of deputies in the 450-seat State Duma lower house of parliament. This will enable it to continue to push through laws without having to rely on other parties.

United Russia, a party that Putin helped found, had always been expected to win. Its most vociferous critics, allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, were prevented from taking part after a court branded them extremists in June.

Pre-vote surveys had suggested that discontent over years of faltering living standards and corruption allegations would dent United Russia’s support. In the event, near final official results showed it securing around only 4% less than the last time a similar election was held in 2016.

Some Moscow-based Communists who felt cheated called for a protest in the Russian capital on Monday evening. The central square they named as the venue was sealed off by police beforehand.

One of the disappointed Communists, Mikhail Lobanov, had been far ahead, based on a regular voting tally, but suddenly learned he had lost out to a United Russia candidate once electronic votes were added in after a long delay.

“I know that such a result is simply not possible,” Lobanov wrote on Twitter, calling for people to gather to discuss “next steps.”

Candidates opposed to United Russia in Moscow had been ahead in more than half of 15 electoral districts, but all lost after electronic voters were added in.

“With such a colossal number of violations, the results of the State Duma elections cannot be recognized as clean, honest or legitimate,” said Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally.

Sobol had hoped to run for parliament herself but Navalny’s allies were barred from taking part after the extremism designation. Critical media and non-governmental organizations were also targeted by the authorities in the election run-up.

Navalny’s allies had tried to drain support from United Russia with an online tactical voting campaign which the authorities had tried to block.

Electoral authorities said they had voided any results at voting stations where there had been obvious irregularities and that the overall contest had been fair.

According to Ella Pamfilova, the head of the election commission, the vote was exceptionally clean and transparent. She told Putin she would look into any complaints before declaring final results on Friday.

Putin gave a short statement, thanking voters after the Kremlin had hailed the result, saying United Russia had confirmed its role as the leading party. The Kremlin said the election had been competitive, open and honest.

‘PUTIN! PUTIN! PUTIN!’

The outcome is unlikely to change the political landscape, with Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, still dominating before the next presidential election in 2024.

Putin has yet to say whether he will run.

The 68-year-old leader remains a popular figure with many Russians who credit him with standing up to the West and restoring national pride.

The near complete results showed the Communist Party finishing in second, followed by the nationalist LDPR party and the Fair Russia party with around 7.5% each. All three parties usually back the Kremlin on most key issues.

A new party called “New People”, appeared to have squeezed into parliament with just over 5%.

At a celebratory rally at United Russia’s headquarters broadcast on state television, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of the Russian leader, shouted “Putin! Putin! Putin!” to a flag-waving crowd that echoed his chant.

Golos, an election watchdog accused by authorities of being a foreign agent, recorded thousands of violations, including threats against observers and ballot stuffing, blatant examples of which circulated on social media. Some individuals were shown on camera appearing to deposit bundles of votes in urns.

One Moscow pensioner who gave his name only as Anatoly said he voted United Russia because he was proud of Putin’s efforts to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful great-power status.

“Countries like the United States and Britain more or less respect us now like they respected the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. … The Anglo-Saxons only understand the language of force,” he said.

With official turnout reported to be around 52%, there were signs of apathy.

“I don’t see the point in voting,” said one Moscow hairdresser who gave her name as Irina. “It’s all been decided for us anyway.”

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Polina Nikolskaya, Tom Balmforth, Anton Zverev and Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Peter Cooney, Gerry Doyle and Timothy Heritage)

China will soon surpass Russia as a nuclear threat –senior U.S. military official

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China, in the midst of a rapid nuclear weapons buildup, will soon surpass Russia as the United States’ top nuclear threat, a senior U.S. military official said on Friday, warning that the two countries have no mechanisms to avert miscommunication.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Bussiere, the deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal, said China’s development of nuclear capabilities “can no longer be aligned” with its public claim that it wants to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent.

“There’s going to be a point, a crossover point, where the number of threats presented by China will exceed the number of threats that currently Russia presents,” Bussiere told an online forum.

He said the determination would not be based solely on the number of Beijing’s stockpiled nuclear warheads, but also on how they are “operationally fielded.”

“There will be a crossover point, we believe, in the next few years,” Bussiere said.

Unlike with Russia, the United States did not have any treaties or dialogue mechanism with China on the issue to “alleviate any misperceptions or confusion,” he added.

Bussiere’s comments come as the United States is attempting to realign its foreign policy to put greater emphasis in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing economic and military might.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed deep concern about China’s growing nuclear arsenal during a meeting with foreign ministers of Asian countries and partner nations in early August.

Think-tank reports based on satellite imagery say China appears to be constructing hundreds of new silos for nuclear missiles, and Washington has accused Beijing of resisting nuclear arms talks.

China says its arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia, and that it is ready for dialogue, but only if Washington reduces its nuclear stockpile to China’s level.

In a 2020 report to Congress, the Pentagon estimated China’s operational nuclear warhead stockpile to be in “the low 200s,” and said it was projected to at least double in size as Beijing expands and modernizes its forces.

According to a State Department fact sheet, the United States had 1,357 nuclear warheads deployed as of March 1.

China’s advances in missile technology to deliver those warheads are also a concern for the United States, and Bussiere said China last year tested more ballistic missile capabilities than the rest of the world combined.

(Reporting by Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Russia says U.S. asked 24 of its diplomats to leave by Sept. 3

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s ambassador to the United States said Washington had asked 24 Russian diplomats to leave the country by Sept. 3 after their visas expired.

Anatoly Antonov did not say whether the U.S. request was prompted by any particular dispute, and there was no immediate comment from Washington.

“Almost all of them will leave without replacements because Washington has abruptly tightened visa issuing procedures,” Antonov said in an interview with the National Interest magazine published on Sunday.

Moscow and Washington have long differed over a range of issues, and ties slumped further after U.S. President Joe Biden said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a killer.

Tensions somewhat eased after Biden met Putin for talks on June 16, which even led to the return of some foreign investors’ money into Russian government bonds.

“We hope that common sense will prevail and we will be able to normalize the life of Russian and American diplomats in the United States and Russia on the principle of reciprocity,” Antonov said.

Antonov also said he hoped that the recently started dialogue between the United States and Russia on cybersecurity issues will continue.

“As an option, we can debate on cyber threats to arms control systems, etc.”

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Howard Goller)