Economic clout makes China tougher challenge for U.S. than Soviet Union was – Pompeo

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) – China’s global economic power makes the communist country in some ways a more difficult foe to counter than the Soviet Union during the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a visit to the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

Pompeo called on countries around Europe to rally against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he said leverages its economic might to exert its influence around the world.

“What’s happening now isn’t Cold War 2.0,” Pompeo said in a speech to the Czech Senate. “The challenge of resisting the CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult.”

“The CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.”

The Cold War reference came after China’s ambassador to London last month warned that the United States was picking a fight with Beijing ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

U.S.-China ties have quickly deteriorated this year over a range of issues including Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus; telecoms-equipment maker Huawei; China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; and the clampdown on Hong Kong.

Pompeo’s visit to the Czech Republic, part of the Soviet bloc until the 1989 democratic Velvet Revolution, marked the first stop on a swing through the region to discuss cyber and energy security.

He used the occasion to swipe at both Russian and Chinese influence and lauded officials in the central European nation of 10.7 million who took on Beijing over the past year.

He cited the Czech Republic’s efforts to set security standards for the development of 5G telecommunications networks after a government watchdog warned about using equipment made by China’s Huawei.

Pompeo and Prime Minister Andrej Babis signed a declaration on 5G security in May, but the country has not made an outright decision to ban Huawei technology. Its President Milos Zeman has been promoting closer ties with China.

Pompeo also acknowledged the chairman of the Czech Senate Milan Vystrcil, who followed through on a plan by his deceased predecessor to visit Taiwan at the end of this month, a trip that has angered China.

Pompeo said some nations in Europe would take longer to wake up to the threats, but there was a positive momentum.

“The tide has turned (in the United States), just as I see it turned here in Europe as well. The West is winning, don’t let anyone tell you about the decline of he West,” he said.

“It will take all of us… here in Prague, in Poland, in Portugal. We have the obligation to speak clearly and plainly to our people, and without fear. We must confront complex questions… and we must do so together,” he said.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn, William Maclean)

Belarus reburies over 1,200 Jews unearthed in Nazi-era mass grave

People attend a ceremony to rebury the remains of Jews killed by Nazis in a local ghetto during World War Two, which were recently found at a construction site in a residential area, in the city of Brest, Belarus May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

BREST, Belarus (Reuters) – Belarus on Wednesday buried more than 1,200 Jewish Holocaust victims whose remains were unearthed this year after builders stumbled across a Nazi-era mass grave beneath a construction site in a residential area.

Soldiers were called into the city center of Brest on Belarus’ western border with Poland where they exhumed the bones of 1,214 people killed during the Nazi occupation at the site of what served as a Jewish ghetto from 1941-42.

Their remains were buried on Wednesday in 120 blue caskets embossed with the star of David that were laid side-by-side and two-deep in a giant grave in a city cemetery to the north of Brest at a ceremony led by a local Jewish rabbi.

The funeral ceremony, which also featured a gun salute by Belarusian soldiers, was attended by around 300 people including Israel’s ambassador in Belarus and Jewish community members.

Attendees, some of whom closed their eyes in prayer, took turns to toss earth onto the caskets before the pit was filled in.

“The soul goes up to heaven through this process, so it was very important for the Jewish community that it was all done with Jewish custom,” said Israel’s ambassador in Belarus, Alon Shoham.

Nazi Germany occupied Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, during World War Two. Tens of thousands of its Jews were killed by the Nazis. Brest was part of Poland before the war.

The mass grave was uncovered by chance in January as builders were laying the foundations for an elite housing development, prompting an operation to exhume their remains.

Some of the skulls they found bore bullet holes, suggesting victims had been executed by a shot to the back of the head. Soldiers also found personal effects such as leather shoes that had not rotted.

“I have mixed feelings,” Jewish community member Regina Simonenko said after the funeral. She said she had been shaken by the sheer horror of the events, but that it was important that they had been remembered.

“If we don’t remember, then things like this can happen again.”

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Gareth Jones)

Russian nostalgia for Soviet Union reaches 13-year high

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators carry flags and a portrait of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin during a rally held by Russian Communist party to mark the Red October revolution's centenary in central Moscow, Russia November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The number of Russians who regret the break-up of the Soviet Union has risen to its highest since 2005, amid rising economic concerns and nostalgia for the Soviet welfare system, the Levada pollster said on Wednesday.

President Vladimir Putin famously dubbed the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century and he and many Russians have long lamented the blow its demise dealt to Moscow’s great power status.

The number of Russians pining for the Soviet past has been steadily rising under Putin since he returned to the presidency in 2012, poll data issued by the independent Levada Center on Wednesday showed.

In the survey, 66 percent of Russians said they regretted the Soviet break-up, a level not seen since 2005 when Levada recorded 65 percent and Putin was on his second term in the Kremlin.

The number of nostalgic Russians fell gradually from 2004, reaching a low of 49 percent in 2012, before rising to its current level, the pollster found, on a par with the 1990s after the Soviet collapse.

Karina Pipiya, a sociologist at Levada, said that in the past such feelings were often triggered by a loss of international prestige and questions of national identity.

“Now the nostalgia is more determined by economic factors and regret that there used to be more social justice and that the government worked for the people and that it was better in terms of care for citizens and paternalistic expectations,” she said.

Ordinary Russians have faced stagnating incomes, a weaker rouble and inflation since 2014, when the Russian economy entered recession amid falling oil prices and Western sanctions.

To help balance state coffers, the Kremlin this year raised the retirement age for both men and women in a highly unpopular measure that dented Putin’s popularity rating.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed off the findings of the nostalgia poll.

“Other sociologists will say that people are always inclined to retrospectively idealize what happened to them in their youth and that everything that happened in youth was tastier, more reliable and greater,” said Peskov.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Andrew Roche)

Former President George H.W. Bush remembered for role in Cold War, Iraq

A flag is draped over the gate to the neighborhood of the home of former President George H.W. Bush, a day after he passed away in Houston, Texas, U.S. December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Gary McWilliams

By Gary McWilliams and Bill Trott

HOUSTON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tributes to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who died at the age of 94, poured in from around the world on Saturday as global leaders honored him for his role in helping to end the Cold War and reduce the threat of nuclear annihilation.

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) picks up the formal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in Houston March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Donna Carson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) picks up the formal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in Houston March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Donna Carson/File Photo

Bush, the 41st U.S. president who served in the office from 1989 to 1993, also routed President Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War but lost his chance for a second term in the White House after breaking a no-new-

taxes pledge.

“Many of my memories are linked to him,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, with whom Bush signed a strategic arms reduction treaty that scaled back the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.

“We happened to work together in years of great changes. It was a dramatic time demanding huge responsibility from everyone,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying.

Bush, who also served for eight years as U.S. vice president during Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency and earlier as head of the CIA, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. His death was announced by his longtime spokesman Jim McGrath.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Awards dinner in Washington May 21, 1988. REUTERS/Stelios Varias/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Awards dinner in Washington May 21, 1988. REUTERS/Stelios Varias/File Photo

Speaking in Buenos Aires, U.S. President Donald Trump called Bush “a high-quality man.”

“He was a very fine man. I met him on numerous occasions. He was just a high-quality man who truly loved his family,” Trump told reporters at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires. “He was a terrific guy and he’ll be missed. He led a full life, and a very exemplary life, too.”

The White House said a state funeral will be held on Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington. Trump, who plans to attend the funeral with first lady Melania Trump, also designated Wednesday as a national day of mourning and ordered the lowering of the American flag for 30 days.

Former U.S. presidents lauded Bush. “His administration was marked by grace, civility and social conscience,” Jimmy Carter, a Bush predecessor and now the oldest living former president at 94, said in a statement.

Barack Obama described Bush as “a patriot and humble servant” while Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential election, recalled his “great long life of service, love and friendship.”

FILE PHOTO: George H. W. Bush, in uniform as a Naval Aviator Cadet, is pictured in this early 1943 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: George H. W. Bush, in uniform as a Naval Aviator Cadet, is pictured in this early 1943 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Bush, a U.S. naval aviator during World War Two, was the father of former President George W. Bush, who served two terms in the White House in the 2000s, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican nomination for president. Like his sons, he was a Republican.

After falling short of his party’s presidential nomination in 1980, Bush ran for the presidency again in 1988 and defeated Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis, winning 40 of the 50 U.S. states.

His death came seven months after that of his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, to whom he was married for 73 years. He was admitted to a Houston hospital with a blood infection that led to sepsis a day after her funeral in April.

“The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41’s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens,” George W. Bush said in a statement.

Trump said he spoke on Saturday to George W. Bush and Jeb Bush about their father’s death.

At a gate outside the Houston neighborhood where the Bushes lived, residents on Saturday created a makeshift memorial by laying flowers before a U.S. flag.

“They weren’t just the president and former first lady, they were part of the neighborhood,” said Ellen Prelle, who added a poinsettia and remembered the former first couple as involved and caring.

At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled visiting him in the White House. “He was the father or one of the fathers of German reunification and we will never forget that,” she said.

Bush served as president during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“His ethos of public service was the guiding thread of his life and an example to us all,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May. “In navigating a peaceful end to the Cold War, he made the world a safer place for generations to come.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Bush “faithfully served his country all his life – with a gun in his hand during the war years and in high government roles in peacetime,” according to Russian state news agency TASS.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H. W. Bush waves goodbye to U.S. Marines and members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade as they conclude a Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in the Saudi desert November 22, 1990. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H. W. Bush waves goodbye to U.S. Marines and members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade as they conclude a Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in the Saudi desert November 22, 1990. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

EXTENSIVE POLITICAL RESUME

George Herbert Walker Bush, a Connecticut Yankee who came to Texas to be an oilman, died as the patriarch of a Republican political dynasty. He and George W. Bush were only the second father and son to hold the office of president, after John Adams (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829).

His second son, Jeb, undertook his own campaign for the presidency in 2015 before dropping out. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

Trump signed an order closing the federal government on Wednesday in a show of respect for Bush. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq will also be closed on Wednesday in his honor.

Bush’s body will arrive at the U.S. Capitol on Monday and lie in state through Wednesday morning. The public will be able to line up to view Bush’s casket continuously from Monday evening until Wednesday morning.

Trump said the presidential plane will be flown to Houston to bring Bush’s body to Washington after Trump returns from Argentina. Bush’s body will be returned to Houston on Wednesday and a service will be held on Thursday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church there.

Bush’s casket will then travel by train from nearby Spring, Texas to College Station. He will be buried on Thursday on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University, the school said. He will be buried in a family plot next to his late wife.

Bush had first sought the presidency in 1980, campaigning on experience gathered as a U.S. congressman from Texas, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, United Nations ambassador and chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Reagan, the former actor and California governor, vanquished Bush in the Republican primaries but chose him as his running mate, hoping Bush’s reputation as a moderate would balance his own hard, conservative image.

The high points of Bush’s presidency included the end of the Cold War, which brought the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its hold on former Eastern Bloc countries.

“He was the only one of the world leaders at the time (who) did so much to overcome communism and help Poland,” said Lech Walesa, the former head of Poland’s Solidarity trade union who led protests and strikes that shook communist rule in the 1980s.

“He will remain in hearts and memory forever,” Walesa said on Twitter.

Bush won a decisive victory in ousting Saddam’s Iraqi army from Kuwait, bringing him popularity at home, and made progress on Middle East peace. But Bush’s foreign affairs victories were overshadowed by a stagnant economy at home. He broke his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes and lost his 1992 re-election bid to Clinton, a Democrat.

Bush, who was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, grew up wealthy, attending elite schools but putting off college so he could enlist in the Navy at 18. He flew 58 missions off aircraft carriers in World War Two and survived being shot down over the Pacific Ocean.

After returning from the war, he married Barbara Pierce, with whom he would have six children. After he graduated from Yale University on an accelerated schedule, the Bushes headed to the oil fields of West Texas.

It was there that Bush became involved in politics, first losing a U.S. Senate race in 1964 before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966.

After two terms and another failed Senate bid in 1970, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 1974, President Gerald Ford made him an envoy to China and later director of the CIA.

Bush did not endorse fellow Republican Trump, the eventual winner of the 2016 presidential election who attacked both Jeb and George W. Bush during his campaign. He did not publicly say whom he voted for in the election, but a source told CNN he went for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Bush did send Trump a letter in January 2017 saying he would not be able to attend his inauguration because of health concerns but wishing him the best.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; Bill Trott, David Morgan, David Shepardson and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Roberta Rampton in Buenos Aires; Mark Heinrich in London; Andrew Osborn in Moscow; and Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)

Nowhere to hide from Russia, says Ukrainian journalist named on hit-list

Ukrainian journalist Matvey Ganapolsky speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kiev, Ukraine June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Olena Vasina and Sergei Karazy

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian journalist Matvei Ganapolsky sees no point in hiding abroad from Russians who might be trying to kill him, because if they want to find him, geography won’t stop them.

Ganapolsky is on a list of 47 people who Ukraine says Russia has targeted for assassination, a list which also includes Yevgeny Kiselyov, a veteran anchorman who became one of Russia’s best known television journalists in the 1990s.

Ukrainian authorities say they obtained the list after faking the murder of exiled Russian dissident Arkady Babchenko, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, in a ruse staged to flush out a genuine plot against him.

Ganapolsky, 64, was offered protection by the Ukrainian state after being told, after Babchenko’s sudden reappearance, that he too was a Russian target.

Fleeing abroad won’t help, he says, as the poisoning of the Russian former spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in March showed.

“The Skripals were poisoned in Great Britain,” Ganapolsky told Reuters in an interview.

“To send a man to kill somebody is a question of the price of a plane ticket. And, in low season, tickets are on sale with a discount. And moreover you have low-cost airlines nowadays. That’s why geography doesn’t matter in this case.”

Born in western Ukraine, Ganapolsky moved to Moscow in 1973 and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, made his name as a journalist with outspoken criticism of corruption in Russian law enforcement and restrictions on free speech.

He eventually came back to Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was given Ukrainian citizenship by President Petro Poroshenko.

He and Kiselyov came forward on Friday to say they had been contacted by the Ukrainian authorities after Babchenko’s faked murder.

Kiselyov, one of Russia’s most prominent liberal journalists of the post-Soviet era who co-founded Russia’s NTV, came to Ukraine in 2008 saying he had been squeezed out of the mainstream media.

“I despise Putin. I am not afraid of him,” Kiselyov told Reuters in an interview. “I am not saying that I do not sometimes feel fear for my life, or security of my family, my friends and relatives, but the feeling that I have is a feeling of … contempt.”

Kiselyov supports Ukraine in its standoff with Russia over Crimea and the outbreak of a Russian-backed separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

“If you are a political journalist, a commentator, and you take sides in this war, and I am taking Ukrainian side, well it involves certain risks,” he said.

Ukraine has received both praise and criticism for the stunt to fake Babchenko’s death. Some said the incident, which involved the phoney distribution of lurid details about his shooting, was a stunt in poor taste which had sparked a false outpouring of grief and finger-pointing at Russia.

For Ganapolsky, it is better to believe the threat is real than not believe it. “… Babchenko believed in it and maybe that was what saved his life,” he said.

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Putin, newly inaugurated, reviews Russia’s ‘invincible weapons’ on Red Square

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes as he takes part in the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Christian Lowe and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Vladimir Putin watched advanced jets carrying a hypersonic missile he has touted as invincible scream over Red Square on Wednesday, days after the start of his fourth presidential term.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Part of an annual event marking the Soviet Union’s World War Two victory over the Nazis, Putin looked on as thousands of troops marched past him and columns of tanks rumbled across the famous square in a show of military might reminiscent of those displayed during the Cold War.

Putin reviewed the parade from a tribune packed with Soviet war veterans, some of whom wore rows of campaign medals and clutched red roses. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Moscow for talks on Syria, was also present, as was Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Hollywood actor Steven Seagal, who was given a passport by Putin in 2016, was also a guest.

The authorities, backed by state media, use the event to boost patriotic feeling and show the world and potential buyers of military hardware how a multi-billion dollar modernization program is changing the face of the Russian military.

Putin, whose relations with the West are on a hostile trajectory, has said he does not want an arms race while warning potential enemies that his country has developed a new generation of invincible weapons to protect itself just in case.

“We remember the tragedies of the two world wars, about the lessons of history which do not allow us to become blind. The same old ugly traits are appearing along with new threats: egoism, intolerance, aggressive nationalism and claims to exceptionalism,” Putin told the parade.

“We understand the full seriousness of those threats,” added Putin, who complained about what he said were unacceptable attempts to rewrite history while saying Russia was open to talks on global security if they helped keep world peace.

Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Putin has sharply increased military spending over the 18 years he has dominated Russian politics, handed the Russian military significant policy-making clout, and deployed Russian forces in Ukraine and Syria, stoking tensions with the West.

As commander-in-chief, he has also at times donned military uniform himself and been filmed at the controls of a strategic bomber and on the conning tower of a submarine in photo opportunities designed to boost his man of action image.

Weapons displayed on Red Square included Russia’s Yars mobile intercontinental nuclear missile launcher, its Iskander-M ballistic missile launchers, and its advanced S-400 air defense missile system, which Moscow has deployed in Syria to protect its forces.

Russian army MiG-29 jet fighters of the Strizhi (Swifts) and Su-30 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic teams fly in formation during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russian army MiG-29 jet fighters of the Strizhi (Swifts) and Su-30 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic teams fly in formation during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

‘INVINCIBLE MISSILE’

The first public outing of the Kinjal (Dagger) hypersonic missile, carried by advanced MiG-31K interceptor jets, was one of several world premieres for Russian weapons.

Putin disclosed the Kinjal’s existence in March along with other missile systems he touted as unbeatable, describing how it could evade any enemy defenses.

Russian media have said it can hit targets up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles) distant with nuclear or conventional warheads and that the missiles have already been deployed in Russia’s southern military district.

Russia’s most advanced fifth generation Su-57 stealth fighter, which has undergone testing in Syria, also took part in the parade for the first time, as did an unmanned armored reconnaissance and infantry support vehicle, the Uran-9.

Armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, a machine gun, anti-tank missiles and a rocket launcher, it looks like something out of a Hollywood science fiction film.

An unmanned de-mining vehicle, the Uran-6, was also put on show, as were Russia’s latest military drones and an armored vehicle designed to support tanks on the battlefield dubbed “The Terminator” by its maker.

An advanced Russian military snowmobile fitted with a machine gun, the Berkut, built to bolster Moscow’s Arctic ambitions, also traversed the cobbled square.

The Moscow parade was one of many which took place across Russia on Wednesday involving a total of 55,000 troops, 1,200 weapons systems and 150 war planes in 28 Russian cities.

Some politicians in former Soviet republics and satellite states regard the parade as crude sabre-rattling by a resurgent Russia they say poses a threat to Europe’s security. Russia dismisses such allegations as nonsense.

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Soviet-era scientist says he helped create poison in UK spy attack row

ILE PHOTO: Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Sen

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Cold War-era scientist acknowledged on Tuesday he had helped create the nerve agent that Britain says was used to poison an ex-spy and his daughter, contradicting Moscow’s insistence that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union ever had such a program.

However, Professor Leonid Rink told the RIA news agency that the attack did not look like Moscow’s work because Sergei and Yulia Skripal had not died immediately.

The Skripals remain alive but in critical condition more than two weeks after they were found unconscious in the English cathedral town of Salisbury. A policeman who helped them is also in hospital in a serious condition.

Rink said he worked under the Soviet Union at a chemical weapons facility where the Novichok military-grade nerve agent was developed. Asked if he was one of Novichok’s creators, he told RIA: “Yes. It was the basis for my doctoral dissertation.”

Moscow has denied any involvement in the Skripals’ case or that the Soviet Union or its successor state Russia developed Novichok at all.

Echoing a theory floated in Russian state media, Rink said the British could have been behind the attack.

“It’s hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive,” he said. “Such outrageous incompetence by the alleged (Russian) spies would have simply been laughable and unacceptable.”

Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog have begun examining the poison used in the attack which London blames on Moscow.

Rink told RIA he had worked at a Soviet chemicals weapons research facility in the town of Shikhany in Russia’s Saratov Region for 27 years until the early 1990s. Novichok was not a single substance, he said, but a system of using chemical weapons and had been called ‘Novichok-5’ by the Soviet Union.

“A big group of specialists in Shikhany and in Moscow worked on Novichok – on the technologies, toxicologies and biochemistry,” he said. “In the end we achieved very good results.”

Rink confessed to having secretly supplied a military-grade poison for cash that was used to murder a Russian banking magnate and his secretary in 1995. In a statement to investigators after his arrest, viewed by Reuters, Rink said he was in possession of poisons created as part of the chemical weapons program which he stored in his garage.

Rink received a one-year suspended prison sentence for “misuse of powers” after a secret trial, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

‘HEIGHT OF IDIOCY’

Rink told RIA it would have been absurd for Russian spies to have used Novichok to try to kill the Skripals because of its obviously Russian origin and Russian name.

“There are lots of more suitable substances,” he said. “To fire the equivalent of a powerful rocket at someone who is not a threat and to miss would be the height of idiocy.”

He dismissed British media reports that Yulia Skripal could have unwittingly carried Novichok from Moscow as “utter nonsense”, saying Novichok would not have survived the journey.

Once secret, Rink said the technology behind Novichok was now known to many countries including Britain, the United States and China, who he said were capable of manufacturing a version of Novichok.

However, he said the exact formula devised by the Soviet Union was unique and that it should be possible, based on a sample of the toxin used in the Salisbury attack, to say it was not “cooked up” in Russia.

Another Russian scientist called Vil Mirzayanov had done a lot to publicize the formulas used to produce Novichok, Rink said.

Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States, told Reuters this month that only the Russian government could have carried out the attack.

Rink said he knew of “about five” scientists familiar with the Novichok technology who had left Russia in the 1990s.

“Permission to let them leave generated great surprise in our institute,” Rink told RIA.

(Corrects in third para to “two weeks” from “three weeks”.)

(Editing by David Stamp)

Putin orders ‘significant part’ of Russian forces in Syria to withdraw

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017.

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin ordered “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent in Syria to start withdrawing on Monday, saying Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of destroying Islamic State in just over two years.

Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria, where he held talks with President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.

The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor, while dramatically increasing Moscow’s own influence in the region.

Syrian state television quoted Assad as thanking Putin for Russia’s help, saying the blood of Moscow’s “martyrs” had been mixed with the blood of the Syrian army.

Russia’s campaign, which has been extensively covered on state TV, has not caught the imagination of most Russians. But nor has it stirred unease of the kind the Soviet Union faced with its calamitous 1980s intervention in Afghanistan.

The use of private military contractors, something which has been documented by Reuters but denied by the defense ministry, has allowed Moscow to keep the public casualty toll fairly low.

Russia’s “mission completed” moment in Syria may help Putin increase the turnout at the March presidential election by appealing to the patriotism of voters.

Though polls show he will easily win, they also show that some Russians are increasingly apathetic about politics, and Putin’s supporters are keen to get him re-elected on a big turnout, which in their eyes confers legitimacy.

‘THE MOTHERLAND AWAITS’

Putin, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for the last 17 years with the help of state television, told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors.

“The task of fighting armed bandits here in Syria, a task that it was essential to solve with the help of extensive use of armed force, has for the most part been solved, and solved spectacularly,” said Putin.

Wearing a dark suit and speaking in front of a row of servicemen holding Russian flags, Putin said his military had proved its might, that Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a “sovereign independent state” and that the conditions had been created for a political solution.

Putin is keen to organize a special event in Russia – the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue – that Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and opposition and try to hammer out a new constitution.

“I congratulate you!” Putin told the servicemen.

“A significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home, to Russia. The Motherland is waiting for you.”

Putin made clear however that while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria was a permanent one and that it would retain enough firepower to destroy any Islamic State comeback.

Russia will keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province and its naval facility in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous “on a permanent basis,” said Putin.

Both bases are protected by sophisticated air defense missile systems.

Separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan would discuss a possible political resolution to Syria’s more than six-year-old war when they met later on Monday in Ankara, as well as preparations for the work of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue.

(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya and Beirut newsroom; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Life under Russia not all it was cracked up to be: Crimean ex-leader

Sevastopol Mayor Alexei Chaliy applauds during a meeting of deputies of the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, with members of the Crimean parliamentary delegation in Moscow

By Darya Korsunskaya and Anton Zverev

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (Reuters) – The pro-Moscow Crimean politician who signed a document handing control over the Ukrainian peninsula to Russia in March 2014 said the three years since had been a time of disappointment for many people in the region.

Alexei Chaliy, who at the time of Russia’s annexation was the self-proclaimed governor of Crimea’s biggest city Sevastopol, said he has no regrets about the region becoming part of Russia – a status that Ukraine and most other countries do not recognize.

But he took issue with the way the region had been run since, saying local leaders who took over from him were ineffective, plans to develop the economy had gone nowhere, and prices for consumer goods had shot up.

“If we’re talking about changes linked to quality of life in the region, then here – we have to acknowledge – in a significant way things don’t correspond to what was expected,” Chaliy said.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in the days after an uprising installed pro-Western leaders in the Ukrainian capital, prompted Europe and the United States to impose sanctions on Russia and dragged east-West relations to their lowest level since the Cold War.

Chaliy, a 55-year-old businessman, played a major role in events on the ground leading up to the annexation.

While Russian soldiers appeared on the streets, and many officials loyal to Kiev fled, Chaliy took de facto control of the local administration in the city of Sevastopol. Crimea voted to join Russia in a referendum that is regarded as illegitimate by Ukraine and Western states.

Soon after the vote, Chaliy, dressed in his trademark tight black sweater, attended a March 18 Kremlin ceremony with Russian President Vladimir Putin to co-sign a document on Crimea’s status within Russia.

Afterwards, he served briefly as the Moscow-backed governor of Sevastopol before stepping aside for new leaders. He is now a member of the Sevastopol legislative assembly.

In an interview in his office in the city – three years after the annexation – Chaliy said that Sergei Menyailo, who took over from him as Moscow-backed governor of Sevastopol, had failed to follow up on a strategy for economic development.

“Why didn’t it work out? Because the executive arm which came in … turned out to be incompetent and unwilling,” Chaliy said. “Therefore if we’re talking about expectations, then a lot of expectations were not fulfilled.”

He also said that funds injected from Moscow were misspent by the local administration.

Menyailo was moved from the post last year and is now the presidential plenipotentiary for Siberia. He did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. Chaliy said he supported the new governor.

Most Crimean residents interviewed by Reuters reporters over several visits in the past few months said they had no wish to go back to rule from Kiev.

HARSH REALITY

Chaliy said many people in Crimea had hankered for the certainties of life in the Soviet Union, the last time the peninsula was ruled from Moscow.

“There are lots of people who are disappointed because … it wasn’t Russia they were joining but, for many of them, it was the Soviet Union. Back to 1988 or 1989, when factories were operating and there were loads of specialists and jobs.”

“They don’t understand that this won’t happen, and cannot happen.”

Soon after Russian’s annexation, pensions and public sector wages rose dramatically because they were brought into line with Russian levels, higher than in Ukraine.

This though was offset by a rise in prices in stores, partly the result of difficulties of getting goods to the peninsula – which is not connected by land to Russia.

“For us, 2015 and 2016 were very difficult from the point of view of inflation. Now the process has stabilized. As a whole, prices are at a high level. In Sevastopol they’re higher than anywhere else,” said Chaliy.

“Of course, if you compare this with people’s expectations, then in this sense a lot of people are disappointed.”

The private sector, heavily dependent on tourism, has suffered. Ukrainian tourists stopped visiting, and major companies, including some Russian ones, suspended investments because of the risk of being hit by sanctions.

“Businessmen are accustomed to going skiing in Europe and nobody wants to leave themselves open” to being included on a list of people barred from entering the European Union, Chaliy said.

He saw no prospect of the sanctions being lifted any time soon, and offered advice to his fellow Crimeans: “Breathe slowly, relax, and live under a state of sanctions.”

(Editing by Christian Lowe and Pravin Char)

China launches longest manned space mission

Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft carrying astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong blasts off from the launchpad in Jiuquan, China,

 

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China launched its longest manned space mission on Monday, sending two astronauts into orbit to spend a month aboard a space laboratory that is part of a broader plan to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.

The Shenzhou 11 blasted off on a Long March rocket at 7:30 am (2330 GMT) from the remote launch site in Jiuquan, in the Gobi desert, in images carried live on state television.

The astronauts will dock with the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, or “Heavenly Palace 2”, which was sent into space last month. It will be the longest stay in space by Chinese astronauts, state media reported.

Early on Monday, Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, met astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong and wished them well, state news agency Xinhua reported.

“You are going to travel in space to pursue the space dream of the Chinese nation,” Fan said.

“With all the scientific and rigorous training, discreet preparation, and rich experience accumulated from previous missions, you will accomplish the glorious and tough task… We wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.”

 

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (L), Chen Dong salute before the launch of Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China,

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (L), Chen Dong salute before the launch of Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China, October 17, 2016. China Daily/via REUTERS

Shenzhou 11 is the third space voyage for Jing, who will command the mission and celebrate his 50th birthday in orbit.

In a manned space mission in 2013, three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with a space laboratory, the Tiangong 1.

Advancing China’s space program is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

China insists its space program is for peaceful purposes.

Shenzhou 11, whose name translates as “Divine Vessel”, will also carry three experiments designed by Hong Kong middle school students and selected in a science competition, including one that will take silk worms into space.

China's Long March rocket carrying the manned spacecraft Shenzhou-11 is seen at the launch centre in Jiuquan, China,

China’s Long March rocket carrying the manned spacecraft Shenzhou-11 is seen at the launch centre in Jiuquan, China, October 10, 2016. Picture taken October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

The U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations using space-based assets in a crisis.

China has been working to develop its space program for military, commercial and scientific purposes, but is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia.

China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover landed on the moon in late 2013 to great national fanfare, but soon suffered severe technical difficulties.

The rover and the Chang’e 3 probe that carried it there were the first “soft landing” on the moon since 1976. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had accomplished the feat earlier.

China will launch a “core module” for its first space station some time around 2018, a senior official said in April, part of a plan for a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.

(Reporting by John Ruwitch and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry)