Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Putin fires police generals over discredited case against journalist

Russian journalist Ivan Golunov (C), who was freed from house arrest after police abruptly dropped drugs charges against him, reacts during a meeting with the media and his supporters outside the office of criminal investigations in Moscow, Russia June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday fired two police generals involved in a discredited criminal case against a journalist, an episode that sparked a mass protest in Moscow the previous day, the Kremlin said.

Russian police abruptly dropped drugs charges on Tuesday against journalist Ivan Golunov, a rare U-turn by the authorities in the face of anger from his supporters who had alleged he was framed for his reporting.

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said at the time that he planned to ask Putin to dismiss senior police personnel involved in the case.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that Putin had fired two senior police officers, both of whom had the major-general rank.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Turkey rejects U.S. ultimatums, says it will not back down on Russian S-400s

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo - RC1BFE102410

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not back down from its decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems despite U.S. warnings that it will lead to Ankara’s exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet program, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday.

In what has become the main source of tension between Ankara and Washington, the NATO allies have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s, which Washington has said could trigger U.S. sanctions.

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan last week sent his Turkish counterpart a letter warning that Ankara would be pulled out of the F-35 jet program unless it changes course from its plans to install the defenses.

In what was Turkey’s first direct response to the letter, Cavusoglu said no one can give Turkey ultimatums.

“Turkey will not back down from its decisions with these kinds of letters,” he said. “Turkey bought S-400, it is going to be delivered and stationed in Turkey.”

The S-400s are not compatible with NATO’s defense systems and Washington says they would compromise its F-35s, which Turkey also plans to buy. Turkey has proposed that the allies form a working group to asses the impact of the S-400s, but has yet to receive a response from the United States.

Cavusoglu on Thursday repeated Turkey’s call for the joint working group, saying experts from both countries should come together to evaluate U.S. concerns.

A day earlier, President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey had completed the deal with Russia and that the systems will be delivered in July. Russia has said it will begin the delivery of the systems in July.

Erdogan also said that Ankara would challenge its potential removal from the F-35 program on every platform and hold those who exclude Turkey accountable.

The United States has threatened to impose sanctions on Ankara under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the possibility of which has spooked investors and caused a selloff in the lira this year.

The lira stood at 5.8460 at 1029 GMT on Thursday, weakening from around 5.8320, where it stood prior to Cavusoglu’s speech. It was down some 0.7% from Wednesday’s close.

While Turkey has dismissed the U.S. warnings, Washington has said discussions are taking place with Ankara on selling Turkey rival Raytheon Co-Patriot defense systems. But, Erdogan has said the U.S. offer was not “as good as the S-400s”.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has said Turkey is working on a response to Shanahan’s letter and that it will be delivered in coming days.

The ministers later spoke by telephone on Thursday and discussed the letter, Turkey’s defense ministry said, adding that Akar had “emphasized the improper wording not in line with the spirit of the Alliance” in the letter during the call.

Israel’s deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said the strains between Turkey and the United States could help strengthen ties with Israel and boost the country’s participation in the F-35 program.

“It could also very much be that..the State of Israel will get another portion within the framework of the F-35 and additional things which, in part, were meant to have been transferred to factories in Turkey,” he told Army Radio.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Angus MacSwan)

Russian police detain more than 400 at protest over journalist

Law enforcement officers detain a participant of a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed from house arrest, in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Anton Zverev and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian police detained more than 400 people, including opposition politician Alexei Navalny, at a protest in Moscow on Wednesday calling for punishment for police officers involved in the alleged framing of a journalist.

Police abruptly dropped drug charges a day earlier against investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, a rare U-turn by the authorities in the face of anger from his supporters who said he was targeted over his reporting.

Golunov, 36, known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police last Thursday and accused of dealing drugs, an allegation he denied.

The crude way supporters said Golunov was set up and detained triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift reversal from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.

The authorities had hoped freeing Golunov and promising punishment for those who allegedly framed him would appease his supporters, but they decided to go ahead with a protest on Wednesday, a public holiday in Russia, regardless.

A member of Russia's National Guard detains a man during a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed from house arrest, in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

A member of Russia’s National Guard detains a man during a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed from house arrest, in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Reuters witnesses said well over 1,000 people marched through central Moscow, chanting “Russia will be free”, “Russia without Putin” and “Down with the Tsar” as police warned them not to break the law and blocked access to certain streets.

Some of the protesters wore white T-shirts saying “I am/We are Ivan Golunov,” the same slogan as a front page headline carried by Russia’s three leading daily newspapers on Monday.

In an unexpected twist, a young woman wearing such a T-shirt managed to get a front-row seat at a ceremony in the Kremlin at which President Vladimir Putin was handing out state awards, official footage of the event showed. The ceremony was taking place at the same time as the protest in the city.

OVD-Info, a monitoring group, said police had detained over 400 people. It said police had started to release some of them without charge while drawing up charges against others.

Police said earlier they had detained over 200 people.

Many of the marchers and those forcefully detained by riot police were prominent Russian journalists and activists.

“We came to show the authorities that we have consolidated, that we are united,” said Vsevolod, 24. “We demand that hundreds of thousands of (criminal) cases where people are sitting in prison unfairly now be reviewed.”

The authorities had warned protesters that their demonstration would be illegal and could threaten public safety.

Under Russian law, the time and place of protests involving more than one person needs to be agreed with the authorities in advance. Organizers of Wednesday’s event had demanded that Moscow city officials negotiate those terms with them live on air during a TV broadcast, a demand they said officials refused.

A Reuters witness saw at least three police officers bundle opposition politician Alexei Navalny into a truck.

Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, said on Twitter that Navalny was accused of breaking Russia’s protest laws, something he has been repeatedly found guilty of, and faced up to 30 days in jail.

Navalny, who said police had accused him of organizing the march, said on Twitter he had been glad to march “among honest people”.

One protester, Ivan, 28, explained why marchers had defied the police. “The freeing of Golunov was not a victory. It was a tactical move by the authorities to prevent disorder breaking out today. But we came here anyway.”

(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Maxim Shemetov, Maria Vasilyeva and Dmitry Madorsky; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Frances Kerry)

Turkey chafes at U.S. pressure over Russian defenses

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Tuesday a U.S. House of Representatives’ resolution condemning Ankara’s purchase of Russian defense systems and urging potential sanctions was unacceptably threatening.

Relations between the two NATO members have been strained on several fronts including Ankara’s plans to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey, and conflicting strategy over Syria and Iran.

The standoff threatens to bring U.S. sanctions, which would hurt Turkey’s already recession-hit economy, and raise questions over its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The resolution, introduced in May and entitled “Expressing concern for the United States-Turkey alliance”, was agreed in the House on Monday.

It urges Turkey to cancel the S-400 purchase and calls for sanctions if it accepts their delivery, which may come as soon as July. That, the resolution said, would undermine the U.S.-led transatlantic defense alliance.

In response, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that its foreign policy and judicial system were being maligned by “unfair” and “unfounded” allegations in the resolution.

“It is unacceptable to take decisions which do not serve to increase mutual trust, to continue to keep the language of threats and sanctions on the agenda and to set various artificial deadlines,” it added.

PILOT PROGRAM WOUND DOWN

President Tayyip Erdogan’s government faces a balancing act in its ties with the West and Russia, with which it has close energy ties and is also cooperating in neighboring Syria.

The United States is also pressuring Turkey and other nations to isolate Iran, including blocking oil exports.

U.S. officials said on Monday the training of Turkish pilots on F-35 fighter jets had come to a faster-than-expected halt at an air base in Arizona, as Ankara’s involvement was wound down over the S-400 controversy.

The United States says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defenses poses a threat to Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealth fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.

“We rarely see it in foreign affairs, but this is a black and white issue. There is no middle ground. Either Mr. Erdogan cancels the Russian deal, or he doesn’t,” Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said on the House floor on Monday.

“There is no future for Turkey having both Russian weapons and American F-35s. There’s no third option.”

Regardless of the U.S. warnings, Turkey appeared to be moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. Erdogan said last week it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow.

(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Cawthorne)

Russian police drop drugs case against investigative journalist: RIA

FILE PHOTO: Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, speaks inside a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian police on Tuesday dropped drugs charges against journalist Ivan Golunov, a rare U-turn by the authorities in the face of anger from his supporters who alleged he was framed for his reporting and threatened to stage a mass protest in Moscow.

Golunov, a 36-year-old journalist known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police on Thursday last week and accused of serious drug offenses which he flatly denied.

Russian journalists critical of authorities have led a dangerous existence since the 1990s – sometimes threatened, physically attacked, and even murdered for their work.

But the crude way supporters said Golunov was set up triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift response from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said in a statement that the criminal case against Golunov was being dropped due to a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing on his part. He said he would be freed from house arrest later on Tuesday.

Some police officers involved in the case were being temporarily removed from duty pending an investigation, he said, adding that he planned to ask Putin to dismiss other more senior police personnel.

“I believe that the rights of every citizen, regardless of his profession, must be protected,” said Kolokoltsev.

Before the police backed down, nearly 25,000 people had signed up to a Facebook page expressing their intention to take part in a protest march on Wednesday in solidarity with Golunov.

The authorities had said the protesters did not have approval, and that their protest could threaten public safety.

The march presented the Kremlin with a quandary: either use force to break up the protest, and risk provoking more anger, or stand aside and let the protest take place, which risked revealing weakness to the Kremlin’s opponents.

The charges against Golunov inflamed opinion among urban professionals, a group that is in a minority nationwide, but which has outsize influence in Moscow.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Russian media, celebrities protest against investigative journalist’s drug bust

Russia's leading newspapers (L to R) RBK, Kommersant and Vedomosti, which published the same front page in support of detained journalist Ivan Golunov, are pictured in Moscow, Russia June 10, 2019. The headline reads "I am/We are Ivan Golunov." REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Three of Russia’s leading newspapers took the unusual step on Monday of publishing identical front page headlines to protest over what they suspect is the framing of an investigative journalist on drug charges.

Ivan Golunov, a 36-year-old journalist known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police on Thursday and accused of serious drug offenses which he denies.

Russian journalists critical of authorities have led a dangerous existence since the 1990s – sometimes threatened, physically attacked, and even murdered for their work.

But the crude way supporters say Golunov was set up has triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift response from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.

Police say they found drugs in Golunov’s rucksack, and he faces between 10 and 20 years in jail if found guilty.

Fellow journalists and members of Russia’s cultural elite suspect a fit-up by corrupt officials wanting to silence him. Golunov’s lawyer says he was assaulted and punched by police officers, something they deny.

The three leading daily newspapers – Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBK — all carried the same headline on Monday in a rare show of solidarity: “I am/We are Ivan Golunov.”

A lawyer comforts Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. The writing on the T-shirt reads "Editorial desk demands blood". REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

A lawyer comforts Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. The writing on the T-shirt reads “Editorial desk demands blood”. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

In a joint statement, they said evidence against Golunov was shaky, cast doubt over the legality of his detention, and demanded a review of police behavior.

“We expect law enforcement agencies to scrupulously observe the law and demand maximum openness when it comes to the investigation,” the statement said. “We demand the law be respected by everyone and for everyone.”

Journalists protested outside Moscow’s police headquarters on Friday and over the weekend to demand the case be dropped.

Celebrities and even some high-profile journalists at state media have spoken out for Golunov, criticizing either the accusations against him or the harsh manner of his detention.

In what some supporters saw as a small victory, a court on Saturday rejected a request to hold Golunov in a pre-trial detention facility and ordered instead that he be held under house arrest for two months while he is investigated.

It is unusual, given the gravity of the accusations, for a court to agree to house arrest and the decision was seen by supporters as a sign that authorities were nervous at the outcry.

State TV on Sunday broadcast a program in which police operatives defended their evidence, but the same program also said that the police’s actions needed to be checked.

The Kremlin said on Monday that the way Golunov’s case had been handled raised many questions.

“We are closely following how this case unfolds and all its nuances,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov, Tom Balmforth, and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to stop training Turkish F-35 pilots because of Russia deal: sources

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The United States has decided to stop accepting any more Turkish pilots who had planned to train in the United States on F-35 fighter jets, three U.S. officials said, in a sign of an escalating dispute over Ankara’s plans to purchase Russian air defenses. The two NATO allies have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s order for Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which Washington says poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.

The United States says Turkey cannot have both, but had avoided taking steps to curtail or halt planned training of Turkish pilots in the program, a reprisal that could be seen as an embarrassment in Turkey.

The three U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters this week on condition of anonymity, left open the possibility the decision could be reversed, perhaps if Turkey altered its plans. They said the decision so far only applied to upcoming rounds of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews who would have normally trained in the United States.

Reuters was first to report the U.S. decision on pilots, which traders said pressured the Turkish lira on Friday.

A spokesman for Turkey’s Defense Ministry declined comment on Friday.

The Pentagon declined comment on whether it would accept new Turkish pilots. But it has stressed discussions are taking place with Ankara on potentially selling Turkey Patriot missile defenses, which are made by Raytheon Co.

The United States also has threatened to halt training of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews already in the United States, two of the officials said. Reuters reported last week that the step was being seriously considered.

One official said the pilots in the United States could be removed by the end of July.

Four Turkish pilots are currently training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Two additional Turkish pilots are there working as instructors. Beyond those six Turkish officers, there are an additional 20 Turkish aircraft maintainers at the base undergoing training as well, the U.S. military says.

Turkey has expressed an interest in buying 100 of the fighters, which would have a total value of $9 billion at current prices.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIP

If Turkey were removed from the F-35 program, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two allies, experts said.

Strains in their ties already extend beyond the F-35 to include conflicting strategy in Syria, Iran sanctions and the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey.

The disclosure of the decision on the pilots follows signs that Turkey is moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on May 22 that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia to use the S-400, and that Russian personnel may go to Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow.

Erdogan said the United States had not “given us an offer as good as the S-400s.”

The Turkish lira declined as much as 1.5% on Friday before recovering some losses. The currency has shed nearly 10% of its value against the dollar this year in part on fraying diplomatic ties and the risk of U.S. sanctions if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400s.

Kathryn Wheelbarger, one of the Pentagon’s most senior policy officials, said last week that Turkey’s completion of the transaction with Russia would be “devastating,” dealing heavy blows to the F-35 program and to Turkish interoperability within the NATO alliance.

“The S-400 is a Russian system designed to shoot down an aircraft like the F-35,” said Wheelbarger, an acting assistant secretary of defense. “And it is inconceivable to imagine Russia not taking advantage of that (intelligence) collection opportunity.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Mike Stone and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney and Howard Goller)

U.S. and Russia blame each other for near collision in East China Sea

A screen grab from video shows the Russian naval destroyer Udaloy making what the U.S. Navy describes as an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea June 7, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS.

By Andrew Osborn and Tim Kelly

MOSCOW/TOKYO (Reuters) – Russia and the United States blamed each other for a near collision between their warships in the East China Sea on Friday with both countries accusing one another of dangerous and unprofessional behavior.

A surveillance photo shows the Russian naval destroyer Udaloy making what the U.S. Navy describes as an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea June 7, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS.

A surveillance photo shows the Russian naval destroyer Udaloy making what the U.S. Navy describes as an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea June 7, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS.

Russia’s Pacific Fleet said that the USS Chancellorsville, a guided-missile cruiser, had come within just 50 meters (165 feet) of the Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov which had been forced to take emergency action to avoid a collision, Russian news agencies reported.

They cited a Russian Pacific Fleet statement as saying the incident took place in the early hours of Friday morning in the eastern part of the East China Sea at a time when a group of Russian warships was on a parallel course with a U.S. naval strike group.

“The U.S guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville suddenly changed course and cut across the path of the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov coming within 50 meters of the ship,” the statement said.

“A protest over the international radio frequency was made to the commanders of the American ship who were warned about the unacceptable nature of such actions,” it said.

That version of events was rejected by the U.S. Navy, which said the behavior of the Russian ship had been “unsafe and unprofessional”.

“While operating in the Philippine Sea, a Russian Destroyer…made an unsafe maneuver against USS Chancellorsville,” U.S. Seventh Fleet spokesman Commander Clayton Doss said.

A screen grab from video shows the Russian naval destroyer Udaloy making what the U.S. Navy describes as an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea June 7, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS.

A screen grab from video shows the Russian naval destroyer Udaloy making what the U.S. Navy describes as an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea June 7, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS.

“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision.”

He described a Russian assertion that the U.S. ship had acted dangerously as “propaganda”. The Russian destroyer came within 50 to 100 feet of the Chancellorsville, he said, putting the safety of her crew and the ship at risk.

The incident comes days after Washington and Moscow sparred over an allegedly unsafe spy plane intercept by a Russian fighter jet near Syria.

(Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Putin to Britain: Let’s forget about the Skripal poisoning

Police officers guard a cordoned off area in the city centre where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay - RC1CDB2BFBB0

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn

ST PETERSBURG/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped Britain’s next prime minister would forget about the poisoning of a former double agent in England last year in order to improve battered ties.

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury with a nerve agent prompted a wave of diplomatic expulsions and recriminations with ties between London and Moscow shriveling to a post-Cold War low in its wake.

British prosecutors have since charged two Russian military intelligence officers, known by the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempted murder in their absence, though the Kremlin has repeatedly denied Russian involvement.

Putin, speaking to media on the sidelines of an economic forum in St Petersburg, said he hoped whoever succeeded Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister would see what he described as the bigger picture and move on from the Skripal incident.

May is due to step down soon after failing to persuade parliament to back a deal on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The ruling Conservative Party is in the process of choosing her successor.

“When all’s said and done we need to turn this page connected with spies and assassination attempts,” said Putin, who described Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, as London’s spy.

“He’s your agent not ours. That means you spied against us and it’s hard for me to say what happened with him subsequently. We need to forget about all this in the final analysis,” said Putin.

The Russian leader recalled his own lengthy experience working first for the Soviet Union’s KGB spy service and then Russia’s FSB security service, which he suggested meant he knew what he was talking about.

“Global issues linked with common national interests in the economic, social and security spheres are more important than games played by intelligence services. I’m talking to you as an expert, believe me. We need to cast off this fluff and get down to business.”

Putin said better ties between London and Moscow would benefit the interests of 600 British companies he said were working in Russia.

“They want to feel secure …. and we regard them as friends.”

May’s spokeswoman, reacting to Putin’s statement, said London would continue to engage with Russia on matters of international security, but that Moscow had to change its behavior.

“We have been clear that Russia’s pattern of aggression and destabilizing behavior undermines its claims to be a responsible international partner,” she said.

“…The PM has made clear on numerous occasions we can only have a different relationship if Russia changes its behavior.”

(Additional reporting by William James in London and by Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)