White House says it retains right to self-defense in Syria; Moscow warns Washington

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) in the Mediterranean Sea June 28, 2016. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan U. Kledzik/Handout via Reuters

By Steve Holland, Phil Stewart and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The White House said on Monday that coalition forces fighting Islamic State militants in Syria retained the right to self-defense as Russia warned it viewed any planes flying in its area of operations as potential targets.

Tensions escalated on Sunday as the U.S. military brought down a Syrian military jet near Raqqa for bombing near U.S.-allied forces on the ground, the first time Washington had carried out such an action in the multi-pronged civil war.

It was also the first time the U.S. Air Force had shot down a manned aircraft since May 1999.

In a move that will fan tensions between Washington and Moscow, Russia made clear it was changing its military posture in response to the U.S. downing of the jet.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it would treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River in Syria as potential targets and track them with missile systems and military aircraft. It stopped short of saying it would shoot them down.

The Russian Defence Ministry said it was also immediately scrapping a Syrian air safety agreement with Washington designed to avoid collisions and dangerous incidents.

Moscow accused Washington of failing to honor the pact by not informing it of the decision to shoot down the Syrian plane despite Russian aircraft being airborne at the same time.

Washington hit back, saying it would “do what we can to protect our interests.”

“The escalation of hostilities among the many factions that are operating in this region doesn’t help anybody. And the Syrian regime and others in the regime need to understand that we will retain the right of self-defense, of coalition forces aligned against ISIS,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

The U.S. military said it was repositioning its aircraft over Syria to ensure the safety of American air crews targeting Islamic State.

The White House also said it would work to keep lines of communication open with Russia amid the new tensions. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the United States was working to restore a “deconfliction” communications line with Russia meant to avoid an accidental clash over Syria.

Marine General Joseph Dunford said there were still communications between a U.S. air operations center in Qatar and Russian forces on the ground in Syria, adding: “We’ll work diplomatically and military in the coming hours to re-establish deconfliction.”

The U.S. Central Command had issued a statement saying the downed Syrian military jet had been dropping bombs near U.S.-backed SDF forces, which are seeking to oust Islamic State from the city of Raqqa.

It said the shooting down of the plane was “collective self-defense” and the coalition had contacted Russian counterparts by telephone via an established “de-confliction line to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing.

Russia is supporting Assad militarily with air power, advisers and special forces as he tries to roll back Islamic State and other militant groups. Unlike the United States, it says its presence is sanctioned by the Syrian government.

Adding to the tension, Iran launched missiles at Islamic State targets in eastern Syria on Sunday, a strike seen as a projection of military power into part of Syria identified as a top priority by Damascus and its allies.

(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.N. mediator targets fresh Syria talks for July 10

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference during the Intra Syria talks at the United Nations Offices in Geneva, Switzerland, May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

VIENNA (Reuters) – The United Nations special mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, wants to start a fresh round of talks between Syrian factions on July 10, his office said on Saturday.

Since a resumption of negotiations last year, there have been multiple rounds brokered by the United Nations between representatives of Syrian rebels or the government of Bashar al-Assad, resulting in scant progress.

“(De Mistura) wishes to announce he will convene a seventh round of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.  The target date for arrival of invitees is July 9, with the round beginning on July 10,” it said in an emailed statement.

“He intends to convene further rounds of talks in August and in September.”

De Mistura said earlier this week such talks would depend on the progress made in setting up “de-escalation” zones in Syria, where over six years of conflict have killed more than 400,000 people.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss these zones would take place in the Kazakh city of Astana in early July.

Russia and Iran back Assad against rebels supported by Western powers, while both sides, aided by Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, fight against Islamic State militants.

(Reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Putin: more U.S. sanctions would be harmful, talk of retaliation premature

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with journalists following a live nationwide broadcast call-in in Moscow, Russia June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said new sanctions under consideration by the United States would damage relations between the two countries, but it was too early to talk about retaliation, state news agency RIA reported on Saturday.

The U.S. Senate voted nearly unanimously earlier this week for legislation to impose new sanctions on Moscow and force President Donald Trump to get Congress’ approval before easing any existing sanctions.

“This will, indeed, complicate Russia-American relations. I think this is harmful,” Putin said, according to RIA.

In an interview with Rossiya1 state TV channel, excerpts of which were shown during the day on Saturday, Putin said he needed to see how the situation with sanctions evolved.

“That is why it is premature to speak publicly about our retaliatory actions,” RIA quoted him as saying.

Russia and the West have traded economic blows since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and lent support to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The West imposed economic and financial sanctions that battered the rouble and the export-dependent economy. Moscow retaliated by banning imports of Western food, which also hit ordinary Russians by spurring inflation, and barred some individuals from entering Russia.

The threat of a new wave of sanctions emerged this month as U.S. policymakers backed the idea of punishing Russia for alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and for supporting Syria’s government in the six-year-long civil war.

Putin had previously dismissed the proposed sanctions, saying they reflected an internal political struggle in the United States, and that Washington had always used such methods as a means of trying to contain Russia.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Trump acknowledges he is under investigation in Russia probe

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia, from the White House in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump acknowledged on Friday he is under investigation in a probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race and possible collusion by his campaign – and seemed to assail the Justice Department official overseeing the inquiry.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel named by the department to investigate the Russia matter, is now examining whether Trump or others sought to obstruct the probe, a person familiar with the inquiry said on Thursday.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to his May 9 dismissal of James Comey.

Trump did not identify “the man” but appeared to be questioning the integrity of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department’s No. 2 official who appointed Mueller on May 17, supervises the probe and wrote a memo to Trump critical of Comey that preceded Comey’s firing.

Hours later, a source close to Trump’s outside legal team said Trump did not intend his tweet to be confirmation of the investigation but rather was reacting to a Washington Post story on Wednesday about the probe. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rosenstein has said privately he may need to recuse himself from matters relating to the Russia probe because he could become a witness in the investigation, ABC News reported on Friday. ABC said Rosenstein told Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand she would have authority over the probe if he were to step aside.

The Democratic National Committee called on Rosenstein to recuse himself from the Russia matter, but it said authority over the investigation should be given to Mueller and not another Trump appointee.

While the Republican Trump administration initially said Rosenstein’s letter was the reason the president fired Comey on May 9, Trump later said he did so because of the “Russia thing.”

Comey told a Senate panel last week he believed Trump fired him to undermine the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Russia probe. Comey testified that Trump directed him in February to drop an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn relating to the Russia matter.

Comey testified it would be up to Mueller to decide whether Trump’s action amounted to obstruction of justice, an act that could be cited in any effort in the Republican-led Congress to impeach him and remove him from office.

TRUMP’S LAWYER HIRES A LAWYER

The Russia issue has cast a shadow over Trump’s five months in office.

In another indication of the seriousness of the probe, Michael Cohen, a personal attorney to Trump, said he has retained attorney Stephen Ryan, a former assistant U.S. attorney, to represent him in the ongoing probes. Cohen has received a subpoena from one of the congressional committees looking into the Russia issue.

Rosenstein has authority over the inquiry because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on March 2 after revelations of previously undisclosed meetings with Russia’s ambassador to Washington while he was a Trump campaign adviser.

Brand was confirmed as the No. 3 Justice Department official on a 52-46 vote in the Senate on May 18, with Democrats lining up against her.

From 2011 until her confirmation, she was a lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business lobbying group’s legal arm, which played a major role in marshaling legal opposition to environmental and labor regulations championed by Democratic former President Barack Obama.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Senate Intelligence Committee member, said she was “increasingly concerned” Trump would try to fire not only Mueller, but also Rosenstein.

“The message the president is sending through his tweets is that he believes the rule of law doesn’t apply to him and that anyone who thinks otherwise will be fired,” Feinstein said.

A Trump confidant said this week the president had considered firing Mueller. Rosenstein, who would be responsible for actually dismissing Mueller, told U.S. lawmakers he would fire him only with good cause.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russia interfered in the presidential race to try to help Trump win, in part by hacking and releasing emails damaging to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Moscow has denied any interference. The White House denies any collusion.

Trump kept up his criticism of the investigations, writing on Twitter, “After 7 months of investigations & committee hearings about my ‘collusion with the Russians,’ nobody has been able to show any proof. Sad!”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle, Lawrence Hurley, David Alexander, Dustin Volz, Roberta Rampton and Julia Edwards Ainsley in Washington; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and Howard Goller)

U.S. Senate votes near unanimously for Russia, Iran sanctions

National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted nearly unanimously on Thursday for legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia and force President Donald Trump to get Congress’ approval before easing any existing sanctions on Russia.

In a move that could complicate U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire for warmer relations with Moscow, the Senate backed the measure by 98-2. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, were the only two “no” votes.

The measure is intended to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for Syria’s government in the six-year-long civil war.

If passed in the House of Representatives and signed into law by Trump, it would put into law sanctions previously established via former President Barack Obama’s executive orders, including some on Russian energy projects. The legislation also allows new sanctions on Russian mining, metals, shipping and railways and targets Russians guilty of conducting cyber attacks or supplying weapons to Syria’s government.

“The legislation sends a very, very strong signal to Russia, the nefarious activities they’ve been involved in,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as lawmakers debated the measure.

If the measure became law, it could complicate relations with some countries in Europe. Germany and Austria said the new punitive measures could expose European companies involved in projects in Russia to fines.

The legislation sets up a review process that would require Trump to get Congress’ approval before taking any action to ease, suspend or lift any sanctions on Russia.

Trump was especially effusive about Russian president Vladimir Putin during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, though his openness to closer ties to Moscow has tempered somewhat, with his administration on the defensive over investigations into Russian meddling in the election.

Putin dismissed the proposed sanctions, saying they reflected an internal political struggle in the United States, and that Washington’s policy of imposing sanctions on Moscow had always been to try to contain Russia.

The bill also includes new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and other activities not related to the international nuclear agreement reached with the United States and other world powers.

UNCERTAIN PATH IN HOUSE

To become law, the legislation must pass the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump. House aides said they expected the chamber would begin to debate the measure in coming weeks.

However, they could not predict if it would come up for a final vote before lawmakers leave Washington at the end of July for their summer recess.

Senior aides told Reuters they expected some sanctions package would eventually pass, but they expected the measure would be changed in the House. The Trump administration has pushed back against the bill, and his fellow Republicans hold a commanding 238- to 193-seat majority in the chamber.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson questioned the legislation on Wednesday, urging Congress to ensure that any sanctions package “allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation.”

Previously, U.S. energy sanctions had only targeted Russia’s future high-tech energy projects, such as drilling for oil in the Arctic, fracking and offshore drilling. They blocked U.S. companies such as Exxon Mobil, where Tillerson was chairman, from investing in such projects.

The new bill would slap sanctions on companies in other countries looking to invest in those projects in the absence of U.S. companies, a practice known as backfilling.

Also included for the first time are discretionary measures the Trump administration could impose on investments by companies in Western countries on Russia energy export pipelines to Europe.

The Senate also voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to add provisions to the bill allowing the U.S. space agency NASA to continue using Russian-made rocket engines and the 100 senators voted unanimously for an amendment reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance.

(Additional reporting by Tim Gardner; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Tom Brown)

Russia’s military says may have killed IS leader Baghdadi

By Dmitry Solovyov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Friday it was checking information that a Russian air strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa may have killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May.

The air strike was launched after the Russian forces in Syria received intelligence that a meeting of Islamic State leaders was being planned, the ministry said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

“On May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of IS leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located,” the statement said.

“According to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike,” the ministry said.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said it could not confirm the Russian report that Baghdadi may have been killed.

The strike is believed to have killed several other senior leaders of the group, as well as around 30 field commanders and up to 300 of their personal guards, the Russian defense ministry statement said.

The IS leaders had gathered at the command center, in a southern suburb of Raqqa, to discuss possible routes for the militants’ retreat from the city, the statement said.

The United States was informed in advance about the place and time of the strike, the Russian military said.

Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group’s territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

Russian forces support the Syrian government which is fighting against Islamic State mainly from the west, while a U.S.-led coalition supports Iraqi government forces fighting against Islamic State from the east.

The last public video footage of Baghdadi shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group’s leader Osama bin Laden.

Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, cast doubt on the report Baghdadi may have been killed. He said that according to his information, Baghdadi was located in another part of Syria at the end of May.

“The information is that as of the end of last month Baghdadi was in Deir al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory,” he said by phone.

Questioning what Baghdadi would have been doing in that location, he said: “Is it reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (U.S.-led) coalition and Russia?”

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in MOSCOW and Tom Perry in BEIRUT; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and Christian Lowe; Editing by)

Trump under investigation for possible obstruction of justice: Washington Post

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at Newark International airport in Newark, NJ U.S., to spend a weekend at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminister, New Jersey, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for possible obstruction of justice, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing unidentified officials.

Mueller is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Former FBI Director James Comey told Congress last week he believes he was fired by Trump to undermine the agency’s Russia probe.

The Washington Post, citing five people briefed on the requests who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, and Richard Ledgett, the former deputy director at the NSA, had agreed to be interviewed by Mueller’s investigators as early as this week.

The obstruction of justice investigation into Trump began days after Comey was fired on May 9, according to people familiar with the matter, the Washington Post said.

Trump’s legal team quickly denounced the report on Wednesday.

“The FBI leak of information regarding the President is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal,” a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, Mark Corallo, said.

A spokesman for Mueller’s team declined to comment.

Several legal experts told Reuters that Comey’s testimony last week that Trump expected loyalty and told Comey he hoped he could drop an investigation of a former top aide could bolster obstruction of justice allegations against Trump.

Comey would not say in his testimony last week whether he thought the president sought to obstruct justice, but added it would be up to special counsel Mueller “to sort that out.”

After Comey’s testimony, Trump said he had been vindicated because his former FBI director confirmed telling Trump on three occasions that he was not under investigation.

While a sitting president is unlikely to face criminal prosecution, obstruction of justice could form the basis for impeachment. Any such step would face a steep hurdle as it would require approval by the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland Nathan Layne; Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Howard Goller)

In Russia, state TV and the Internet tell a tale of two protests

Riot police detain a man during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow, Russia. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Some of the biggest anti-Kremlin protests in years swept across Russia on Monday with over 1,000 people detained by the police ahead of a presidential election next year. But anyone relying on state TV would have concluded they were a non-event.

Vremya, state TV’s flagship evening news show, relegated news of the protests to item nine of 10, and, in a report lasting around 30 seconds, said less than 2,000 people had shown up in Moscow. Some 150 people had been detained for disobeying the police elsewhere in the city, it said.

The main news of the day, according to Vremya, had instead been President Vladimir Putin’s handing out of state awards.

The Internet, awash with images and videos of police hauling people off across the country and, in at least one case, of a protester being punched, had a different take.

A live feed organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained in Moscow before he could attend what the authorities said was an illegal protest, showed demonstrations in scores of cities from Vladivostok to St Petersburg and thousands of people converging on central Moscow.

Other footage showed some protesters chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Down with the Tsar.”

The competing versions of one day in Vladimir Putin’s Russia highlight the battle being fought between state TV, where most Russians get their news, and the Internet, which Putin critic Navalny is using to try to unseat the veteran Russian leader.

Ahead of a presidential election in March which Putin is expected to contest and that Navalny hopes to run in, the battle for Russians’ hearts and minds is escalating.

On the face of it, the contest is one-sided. Polls show that Putin, who has dominated Russian political life for the last 17 years, will comfortably win if he stands, while a poll last month said only 1 percent would vote for Navalny.

Putin has enjoyed glowing Soviet-style coverage on state TV for almost two decades. Navalny barely gets a look in, and if he does it is inevitably a negative reference.

The Kremlin and top government officials deliberately try not to mention his name, and state TV largely ignored Navalny’s last big protests, in March, too. Dmitry Kiselyov, anchor of Russia’s main weekly TV news show “Vesti Nedeli,” explained then that his show had ignored the demonstrations, the largest since 2012, because he viewed Navalny as a corrupt political chancer.

“Our Western colleagues would have done exactly the same,” said Kiselyov.

Handed a five-year suspended prison sentence in February for embezzlement, Navalny says he is not corrupt and that the conviction was politically-motivated to try to kill off his presidential campaign.

The 41-year-old lawyer has been trying to use the Internet to circumvent what he says is a TV blackout. He has set up his own You Tube channel, which has over 300,000 subscribers, become a prolific social media poster, and regularly circulates clips of himself criticizing Putin, 64, whom he calls “the old man.”

Partly funded by supporters’ campaign contributions, his online push has had some success, particularly among school children and students, though his support base includes older people, too, who typically live in Russia’s big cities.

A video he made accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin ally, of living a luxury lifestyle far outstripping his official salary, has so far racked up more than 22 million online views. Medvedev said the allegations were nonsense.

Navalny’s detractors have gone online too.

A video likening him to Adolf Hitler has racked up over 2 million views on You Tube, as has a music video released ahead of Monday’s protests by pop singer Alisa Voks who urged young fans to “stay out of politics” and do their homework instead.

Businessman Alisher Usmanov, whom Navalny targeted in his Medvedev video, also used the Internet to hit back, making two videos of his own questioning Navalny’s probity.

Navalny’s critics, including some other anti-Kremlin politicians, accuse him of holding dangerously nationalist views and of having denigrated migrants in the past. Navalny says he is able to talk to, and connect with, different parts of the electorate.

Serving out a 30-day jail sentence for his role in organizing Monday’s protests, Navalny has mocked his opponents’ efforts to use the Internet.

He says his Medvedev video has been watched by more people than some TV programs, but for now he says state TV has the upper hand.

“Right now TV is more effective,” he told supporters after his release from jail in April after the last round of protests. “But we’re looking for new methods. We need to keep making videos.”

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Islamic State calls for attacks in United States, Russia, Middle East, Asia during Ramadan

CAIRO (Reuters) – An audio message purporting to come from the spokesman of Islamic State called on followers to launch attacks in the United States, Europe, Russia, Australia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the Philippines during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began in late May.

The audio clip was distributed on Monday on Islamic State’s channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging application. It was attributed to the militant group’s official spokesman, Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer.

The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified, but the voice was the same as a previous audio message purported to be from the spokesman.

“O lions of Mosul, Raqqa, and Tal Afar, God bless those pure arms and bright faces, charge against the rejectionists and the apostates and fight them with the strength of one man,” said al-Muhajer. Rejectionist is a derogatory term used to refer to Shi’ite Muslims.

“To the brethren of faith and belief in Europe, America, Russia, Australia, and others. Your brothers in your land have done well so take them as role models and do as they have done.”

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Alison Williams)

Anti-Kremlin protests fill Russian streets, Putin critic Navalny detained

Demonstrators take part in an anti-corruption protest in central St. Petersburg.

By Svetlana Reiter and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Baton-wielding riot police broke up anti-corruption protests and detained hundreds of demonstrators in Moscow and other Russian cities on Monday soon after arresting opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The protests, called by Navalny, a strong critic of Russian President Vladmir Putin, drew thousands of people and were some of the biggest in Russia since 2012.

“Russia without Putin” and “Russia will be free” chanted the demonstrators, including many young people, who crowded into central Moscow on a public holiday.

Navalny, who is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat Putin in an election next year, had called for mass protests in Moscow and other cities against official corruption.

The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny’s graft allegations, accusing him of irresponsibly trying to whip up unrest.

The scale of Monday’s protests in Moscow and smaller ones in St. Petersburg and scores of other cities suggests Navalny has maintained his campaign’s momentum despite more than 1,000 people being arrested after the last such protest in March.

That is likely to embolden him to call for more protests and keep Putin, who is expected to run for and win re-election next year, under rare domestic pressure.

“Neither mass detentions nor criminal cases after March 26 (the last protest) worked,” wrote Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally, on social media. “People are not afraid.”

The OVD-Info monitoring group, a non-profit organization said preliminary figures showed 730 people had been detained in Moscow. The Interior Ministry said 500 people were detained in St Petersburg.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said her husband had been detained as he tried to leave their home. Reuters witnesses saw a police car leaving his apartment compound at high speed, followed a few minutes later by a minibus carrying about 10 policemen.

Electricity in his office was cut at around the same time as he was detained, briefly bringing down a live feed of the protests, Navalny’s spokeswoman said.

Navalny was accused of violating the law on organizing public meetings and of disobeying a police officer, police said.

Authorities in Moscow said Monday’s protest was illegal and drafted in riot police who fired pepper spray and used batons to break it up, detaining people and bundling them onto buses.

Roman, a 19-year-old student, said Navalny’s campaign against official corruption had struck a chord.

“I’m sick of the Putin system,” he said. “It’s been unchanged for the last 17 years. There is so much evidence that our officials are stealing with impunity.”

Dima, an 18-year-old florist, said he wanted Prime Minister Medvedev to return what he said were the politician’s ill-gotten gains. Medvedev, a close Putin ally, flatly denies wrongdoing.

“I’m not afraid if I get detained,” Dima said.

The Interior Ministry said the turnout at the Moscow protest was about 4,500 — significantly fewer than the numbers estimated by Reuters reporters, who put the turnout in the low tens of thousands.

Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-corruption protest in central St. Petersburg, Russia, June 12, 2017

Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-corruption protest in central St. Petersburg, Russia, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

CHANGES

State media ignored the demonstrations, broadcasting Soviet-style coverage of Putin handing out state awards instead.

Navalny brought thousands onto the streets across Russia in March, the largest such protests since a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2012. Navalny was fined and jailed for 15 days for his role in those protests.

Moscow authorities had initially authorized a venue for Monday’s protest away from the city center. But Navalny switched it to Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main avenue near the Kremlin. The General Prosecutor’s Office had warned that a protest there would be illegal.

The area of Tsverskaya Street near where Navalny’s supporters congregated was hosting an officially-organized festival, with actors re-enacting periods of Russian history.

Video footage showed a protester clambering onto a mock-up of a wartime sandbag fortification holding a poster calling Putin a liar, before being pulled to the ground by a cast member dressed as a World War Two Soviet soldier.

Riot police detain a demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow.

Riot police detain a demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

For now, polls suggest Navalny has scant chance of unseating Putin, who enjoys high ratings. It is unclear too if the Kremlin will even let Navalny run for the presidency.

But the 41-year-old lawyer turned political street campaigner hopes anger over corruption may boost his support.

A video he made accusing Medvedev of living far beyond his means has garnered over 22 million online views to date.

Navalny, who had a green liquid thrown in his face in April, robbing him of some of his sight, said hundreds of people had also attended demonstrations in Russia’s Far East on Monday morning.

“I want changes,” wrote Navalny in a blog post last week. “I want to live in a modern democratic state and I want our taxes to be converted into roads, schools and hospitals, not into yachts, palaces and vineyards.”

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Jack Stubbs, Maria Tsvetkova, Dmitry Solovyov, Gleb Stolyarov, and Anton Zverev in Moscow and Natasha Shurmina in Ekaterinburg; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Angus MacSwan)