Estonia says Russia may put troops in Belarus to challenge NATO

FILE PHOTO: Estonia’s Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna speaks during the official ceremony welcoming the deployment of a multi-national NATO battalion in Tapa, Estonia, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

VALETTA (Reuters) – Estonia’s defense minister said on Thursday that Russia may use large-scale military exercises to move thousands of troops permanently into Belarus later this year in a warning to NATO.

Russia and Belarus aim to hold joint war games in September that some North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies believe could number more than 100,000 troops and involve nuclear weapons training, the biggest such exercise since 2013.

Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna said Estonia and other NATO governments had intelligence suggesting Moscow may leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the so-called Zapad 2017 exercises are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway traffic to Belarus.

Tsahkna cited plans to send 4,000 railway carriages to Belarus to transport Russian troops and gear there, possibly to set up a military outpost in its closest ally.

“For Russian troops going to Belarus, it is a one-way ticket,” Tsahkna told Reuters in an interview in Malta.

“This is not my personal opinion, we are analyzing very deeply how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises,” he said before a meeting of EU defense ministers.

Russia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment on the subject.

Moscow denies any plans to threaten NATO and says it is the U.S.-led alliance that is risking stability in eastern Europe. The Kremlin has not said how many troops will take part in Zapad 2017.

“We see what they are doing on the other side of the EU-NATO border. Troops may remain there after Zapad,” Tsahkna said, saying that Tallinn had shared its concerns with Baltic and NATO allies. He put the number of potential troops in the thousands.

Such a move could see Russian troops on the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia just as the U.S.-led NATO alliance stations multinational battalions in the Baltic region in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

“QUESTION OF TRUST”

The scale of this year’s Zapad exercises, which date from Soviet times when they were first used to test new weapon systems, is one of NATO’s most pressing concerns, as diplomats say the war games are no simple military drill.

Previous large-scale exercises in 2013 employed special forces training, longer-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that were later used in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and in its intervention in Syria, NATO diplomats said.

Russia, bridling at NATO’s expansion eastwards into its old Soviet sphere of influence, says its exercises are a response to NATO’s 4,000-strong new deterrent force in the Baltics and Poland that will begin to rotate through the region from June.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in January the scenario for the Zapad 2017 exercises would “take into account the situation linked to increased NATO activity along the borders of the Union state,” Russian media cited, in a reference to the union of Russia and Belarus.

The exercises, to be held simultaneously on military training grounds in Russia and Belarus, aim to focus on joint planning, command tactics and joint troop formations, he said.

“In the future we plan to strengthen the practical nature of such exercises, taking into account the emerging foreign policy realities,” Shoigu added, in an apparent reference to the expansion of NATO, which is soon to include Montenegro.

The U.S. Army’s top European commander has called on Russia to open its exercises to observers to calm Baltic concerns.

Asked about Moscow’s possible motives for leaving troops in Belarus, Tsahkna said it was likely about President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong leader at home, as well as cementing ties with Belarus, which was alarmed by the Crimea annexation.

“Russia has presidential elections next year and Putin needs to show strength to the Russian people,” Tsahkna said. “It’s also a question of trust with Belarus.”

The West has sought to improve ties with Belarus over the past two years, lifting some sanctions in an overture to the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko, the man the West calls Europe’s “last dictator.”

But Belarus remains Russia’s ally and a member of Putin’s Eurasian trade bloc. Belarus Defence Minister Andrei Ravkov has echoed Russia’s position that NATO is a threat, also accusing Ukraine of raising tensions by aligning itself with the West.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Anti-Putin protesters get a smart phone app to help get out of jail

Alexander Litreev, developer of the "Red Button" phone application used to tackle police detention of protesters at demonstrations across the country, poses for a picture in Moscow, Russia, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Parniyan Zemaryalai

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Anti-Kremlin protesters who run the regular risk of being detained by the police are being given a helping hand: A smart phone app that allows them to instantly inform others where and when they have been arrested.

Russia faces a presidential election next year, which Vladimir Putin is expected to contest, and was last month shaken by large anti-government protests. More are planned.

The result of a collaboration between a Russian firm, a human rights group and an opposition movement, the notification system, called Red Button, automatically transmits the location and emergency contact details of a detained protester.

That, says its St Petersburg-based developer Alexander Litreev, should allow others to act quickly to help free them as it will include details of the police station where the individual is being held.

“Using this information, human rights defenders can help this person in some way, like sending him a lawyer,” Litreev told Reuters in an interview.

“When I see that people are being detained and experiencing violence at the hands of the authorities, and people can’t do anything about it, I think this must be fought against,” he said.

Litreev said he sympathized with the country’s liberal opposition and sometimes attended protests himself.

President Vladimir Putin remains by far the most popular politician in Russia, but opponents argue he keeps a check on dissent through control of the media, especially television, and limiting protest.

In developing the app, he partnered with the Open Russia foundation, founded by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and OVD-Info, a human rights organization that monitors detentions.

The app will also allow observers to track how protests unfold as it is linked to a special Twitter page that will generate maps and notifications.

It is currently available for devices on iOS and Android and, according to Litreev, some 4,000 users have already downloaded the app, which is free. A version for Windows will launch in the summer.

The alert system is due to go live on April 29 — the day when Open Russia has called for nationwide demonstrations against the government. Another protest, organized by opposition politician Alexei Navalny, is scheduled for June 12.

(Editing by Andrew Osborn and)

Russia, ahead of planned protest, bans Kremlin critic’s foundation

Former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event at Canary Wharf in London, Britain, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Polina Devitt and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it had banned a pro-democracy movement founded by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky which has called for big anti-government protests on Saturday ahead of a presidential election next year.

In a statement, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it had decided that the activity of the Open Russia foundation, which it called a British organization, was “undesirable” in Russia.

The ban comes days before what Open Russia hopes will be large anti-government protests it has called to try to put pressure on Putin, who is expected to run for what would be a fourth presidential term next year, to leave politics.

Khodorkovsky, a prominent Kremlin critic, said in a social media posting that prosecutors had acted because they were “touched to the quick” by the planned rallies.

The authorities regard any demonstrations not sanctioned in advance as illegal and were taken aback by the scale of large anti-corruption protests last month.

Along with Khodorkovsky’s foundation, the Prosecutor’s Office said it was also banning the Institute of Modern Russia, which it said was a U.S. organization, and the Open Russia Civic Movement, which it said was British.

“These organizations are carrying out special programs and projects on the territory of the Russian Federation aimed at discrediting the upcoming election results in Russia and having them declared illegitimate,” it said.

“Their activity is aimed at inciting protest actions and destabilizing the domestic political situation, which poses a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system and state security.”

Under a 2015 law, organizations deemed “undesirable” can be banned and their members can be fined or jailed for up to six years for ignoring the ban.

Putin freed Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, in 2013 after he had spent a decade in jail for fraud, a charge Khodorkovsky said had been fabricated to punish him for funding political opposition to Putin. The president has said he regards the businessman as a common thief.

“Russian authorities have worked relentlessly for many years to create the most hostile environment for civil society possible,” Sergei Nikitin, the head of Amnesty International’s Russian branch, said in a statement.

“Open Russia’s activity was a huge obstacle for them, be it defending human rights, supporting independent candidates in elections at different levels, and acting as a media outlet. By banning this organization, they think they’ve overcome this obstacle.”

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

Russia says U.S. missile strike on Syria was a threat to its forces

FILE PHOTO: Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017. DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu complained on Wednesday that a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base earlier this month had posed a threat to Russian troops and was forcing Moscow to take extra measures to protect them.

Speaking at a security conference in Moscow, Shoigu restated Russia’s view that the strike — which Washington conducted in response to what it said was a deadly chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces — was “a crude violation of international law.”

U.S. officials said at the time that they had informed Russian forces ahead of the strikes. No Russian personnel were injured in the attack.

As well as housing Syrian military jets, satellite imagery suggested that the base which was struck was home to Russian special forces and military helicopters, part of the Kremlin’s effort to help the Syrian government fight Islamic State and other militant groups.

“Washington’s action created a threat to the lives of our servicemen who are fighting against terrorism in Syria,” said Shoigu.

“Such steps are forcing us to take extra measures to ensure the safety of Russian forces.” He did not specify what those measures were.

The Russian Defence Ministry said after the U.S. strike that Syrian air defenses would be beefed up, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev complained that the attack was just one step away from clashing with the Russian military.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Andrey Ostroukh)

Air strikes kill at least 12, damage hospital in Syria’s Idlib: medics, monitor

Damaged vehicles and hospital are pictured at a site hit by overnight airstrike, in Kafr Takharim, northwest of Idlib city, Syria April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian or Russian air strikes killed more than a dozen people and severely damaged a hospital in and around a town in rebel-held Idlib province on Tuesday, local medical workers and a monitoring group said.

The attacks came as Syria’s air force and Russian jets intensified their bombardment of Idlib, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Idlib is an insurgent stronghold, one of the few large areas still under rebel control in the west of the country. Rebels and their families who have chosen to leave areas under government siege around Damascus in evacuation deals have headed for Idlib.

A spokesman at the hospital in Kafr Takharim in Idlib told Reuters an air strike hit its courtyard killing 14 people, including patients.

The Observatory said there were no deaths from the hospital strike, but that the bombardment had put it out of action.

Separate air strikes southwest of Kafr Takharim killed at least 12 people including civilians and rebel fighters, the Observatory said.

(Reporting by Ammar Abdullah and John Davison; Editing by Alison Williams)

Ukraine cuts power to pro-Russia separatist region

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine cut electricity to parts of an eastern region controlled by pro-Russian separatists on Tuesday, citing unpaid debt – a step the Kremlin said amounted to a rejection by Kiev of breakaway territories.

Three years after Moscow annexed the Crimean region, tensions between Ukraine and separatists in the Russian-held eastern part of the country remain high and a 2015 ceasefire is violated regularly.

“This night, the power supply to the temporarily occupied territory of Luhansk region was completely halted,” Vsevolod Kovalchuk, head of the state power distributor Ukrenergo, said on Facebook.

Local media quoted a separatist official as saying the rebel-held territory, which borders Russia, had been prepared for the suspension and would connect to other sources.

Boris Gryzlov, Moscow’s envoy to the long-running Ukraine peace talks, criticised the move as politically motivated and said Russia would provide power to the affected territory.

Luhansk residents told Reuters by phone that electricity supplies appeared to be working as normal.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the decision to cut power to the territory was “another step by Ukraine on the road to rejecting territory,” which has been under separatist control since 2014.

Ukraine cut gas supplies to Luhansk in 2015, also blaming unpaid debts, and imposed a trade blockade on the occupied regions in March.

Kiev has accused the area of accumulating 2.6 billion hryvnias ($97.67 million) in unpaid electricity charges.

An American paramedic working for European security watchdog OSCE’s monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine was killed and two others injured on Sunday when their vehicle struck a mine near small village of Pryshyb, closed to Luhansk.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Editing by Andrew Heavens and Richard Lough)

Top U.S. general in Afghanistan sees Russia sending weapons to Taliban

U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) hold a news conference at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Idrees Ali

KABUL (Reuters) – The head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan said on Monday he was “not refuting” reports that Russia was providing support, including weapons, to the Taliban.

General John Nicholson was speaking in Kabul during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

For some time, American officials have complained of what Nicholson once called “malign influence” by Russia in Afghanistan, but Monday’s comments are among the strongest suggestions yet that Moscow is providing arms to the Taliban.

Asked about reports that Russia was providing a range of help, including weapons, to the Taliban, who control large areas of Afghanistan, Nicholson replied: “Oh no, I am not refuting that.”

Moscow has been critical of the United States over its handling of the war in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union fought a bloody and disastrous war of its own in the 1980s.

Russia has previously denied providing any material or financial aid to the insurgent group, but has said it maintains ties with Taliban officials in order to push for peace negotiations.

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that intelligence showed that Russia was providing monetary and weapons support to the Taliban, specifically weapons such as machine guns.

The supply of weapons has accelerated in the past 18 months, the official said.

Mattis, visiting Afghanistan for the first time as President Donald Trump’s defense secretary, said that “any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law.”

As recently as late last month, on a visit to London, Mattis had declined to say whether Russian aid had included weapons.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Ralph Boulton and Ian Geoghegan)

Russia complains to U.S. over exclusion from Syria chemical probe

A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has told the United States it regrets Washington’s opposition to letting its inspectors take part in an investigation into a chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

It said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the two sides agreed to consider one more time an “objective investigation into the incident” under the aegis of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The U.S. State Department said that during the call Tillerson reiterated to Lavrov his support for the OPCW’s existing investigative mechanism. They also discussed a range of issues, including those covered during Tillerson’s April 11-12 visit to Moscow, the department said in a statement.

The United States accused the Syrian army of carrying out the April 4 attack in which scores of people died from poison gas, and it responded by launching cruise missiles against a Syrian air base.

Russia has defended its ally Damascus and blamed the incident on rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The episode added to a long list of disputes between the two countries and has dashed Russian hopes that ties might improve with Donald Trump in the White House. Trump said last week that relations with Moscow “may be at an all-time low.”

Referring to another irritant in the relationship, the Russian ministry said Lavrov called on Tillerson to hand back “Russian diplomatic property in the USA unlawfully confiscated by the Barack Obama administration.”

Former President Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in December and ordered the Russians to depart two countryside vacation retreats outside Washington and New York that he said were linked to espionage..

The ministry said the parties had agreed to launch a working group soon “to seek ways to get rid of irritants in bilateral relations.”

(writing by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Cynthia Osterman)

Top U.S. officials to testify in Trump-Russia probe reboot

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), accompanied by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chairman of the committee, speaks at a news conference to discuss their probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said on Friday it had invited FBI, NSA and Obama administration officials to testify as it restarts its investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

After stalling over the committee chairman’s ties to President Donald Trump’s White House and disagreements over who should testify, the bipartisan committee said it sent a letter inviting James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, to appear behind closed doors on May 2.

A second letter invited three officials who left the government as President Barack Obama’s administration ended – former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates – to appear at a public hearing to be scheduled after May 2.

The planned hearings are the first the committee has announced since its chairman, Republican Representative Devin Nunes, recused himself from the Russia investigation on April 6 after receiving information at the White House about surveillance that swept up some information about members of Trump’s transition team.

Echoing Trump, Nunes suggested that Obama’s administration had handled that information incorrectly.

Nunes remains the committee’s chairman.

TIES TO TRUMP

Comey and Rogers testified in a public hearing on March 20. At that hearing, Comey confirmed for the first time that the FBI was investigating possible ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia as Moscow sought to influence the election.

Nunes was a supporter of Trump’s campaign and a member of his transition team. His decision two days after the public hearing to hold a press conference about the information and discuss it with Trump before disclosing it to Democrats raised questions about whether he could lead a credible investigation.

Committee Democrats also were angered when Nunes scrapped a scheduled public hearing with Brennan, Yates and Clapper. A planned closed hearing with Comey and Rogers also was put off.

The House panel is examining whether Russia tried to influence the election in Trump’s favor, mostly by hacking Democratic operatives’ emails and releasing embarrassing information, or possibly by colluding with Trump associates.

Russia denies the allegations, which Trump also dismisses.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting a separate, similar investigation.

Senate investigators currently are interviewing analysts and intelligence agents who prepared public and classified reports in January that concluded that Russia had interfered in last year’s election on Trump’s behalf, an official familiar with the congressional activity said.

At this point they are a long way from scheduling interviews or hearings with any principal witnesses from either the Obama or Trump administrations, the official said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Mary Milliken)