Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

Ukrainian FM says Iranians to discuss crash compensation in Ukraine

WARSAW (Reuters) – An Iranian delegation will visit Ukraine on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss compensation for a Ukrainian jet shot down by Iran on Jan. 8, the Ukrainian foreign minister said on Monday.

Iranian forces say they downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet on Jan. 8 after mistaking it for a missile amid heightened tensions with the United States. All 176 people on board – including 57 Canadians – were killed.

“Given the circumstance of what happened, there are all reasons to ask from Iran to pay the highest price for what it did,” Dmytro Kuleba, speaking in English, told a news conference during a visit to the Polish capital Warsaw.

Kuleba said Ukraine would represent all countries and groups affected during the talks.

“I cannot disclose final numbers of the compensation … numbers will be the result of the consultations,” he said.

The aircraft was shot down hours after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of a senior Iranian commander.

The data extraction from the recovered black boxes is being carried out with an Iranian investigator and observed by Canadian, U.S., Swedish and British experts and representatives from UIA, Boeing and engine maker Safran.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Alison Williams and Philippa Fletcher)

Ukraine: Black box transcript confirms illegal interference with jet downed in Iran in January

KYIV (Reuters) – The transcript from the black boxes from a Ukrainian jet accidentally shot down by Iran on Jan. 8 confirm the fact of illegal interference with the plane, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Yevhenii Yenin said Kyiv was expecting an Iranian delegation to visit Ukraine next week for talks.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board said on Thursday an international team examining the black boxes from the jet had completed a preliminary analysis of the data in France.

“Grateful to all partners who helped bring this moment closer. Black boxes from #PS752 were read out and deciphered successfully. The transcript confirmed the fact of illegal interference with the plane,” Yenin wrote on Twitter.

Iranian forces say they downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet after mistaking it for a missile at a time of high tensions with the United States. All 176 people on board were killed.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this month that it was too soon to blame human error for the shooting down of the airliner and that many questions remained unanswered.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February that Kyiv was not satisfied with the amount of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Voice data recovered from Ukraine jet downed by Iran

PARIS (Reuters) – Investigators examining the black boxes from the Ukrainian jet accidentally shot down by Iran have recovered its cockpit voice data, France’s BEA accident investigation bureau said.

Iranian forces say they brought down the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) jet, a Boeing 737, on Jan. 8 after mistaking it for a missile amid heightened tensions with the United States. All 176 people aboard Flight PS752 were killed.

“CVR data – including the event itself – has been successfully downloaded,” the BEA said in a tweet on Monday, referring to the cockpit voice recorder from the downed jet.

The BEA did not elaborate on the content of the audio, which records the pilots’ verbal communications and other cockpit sounds. The release of any further information is a matter for Iranian authorities leading the investigation, a BEA spokesman said.

The data extraction, expected to take most of this week, is being carried out with an Iranian investigator and observed by Canadian, U.S., Swedish and British experts and representatives from UIA, Boeing and engine maker Safran.

Iran agreed in June to send the black boxes to the BEA for analysis, ending a long standoff with Canada, Ukraine and France over access to the data. Work began early on Monday at BEA headquarters outside Paris.

Many of the crash victims were Canadian citizens or permanent residents, or had Canada as their final destination.

An interim report by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation last week blamed a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders for the tragedy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday he welcomed Iran’s decision to hand over the black boxes, saying those responsible would be held accountable.

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ukraine: it’s too early to blame human error for downing of passenger plane in Iran

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Tuesday it was soon to blame human error for the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner near Tehran in January, challenging the findings of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO).

The CAO said in an interim report that the plane was accidentally downed, killing 176 people on board, because of a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told an online briefing that many questions remained unanswered.

“I want to clearly emphasize: it is early to say that the plane was shot down as a result of human error, as the Iranian side claims,” he said. “We have many questions, and we need a large number of authoritative, unbiased, objective answers about what happened.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with a ground-to-air missile on Jan. 8 shortly after the plane took off from Tehran. Iran later called it a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

Tehran last month said it would send the black box flight recorders from the downed airliner to France for analysis and that experts from the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Ukraine would take part in the decoding.

Kuleba said an Iranian delegation was due to arrive in Kiev later this month to discuss compensation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February Kiev was not satisfied with the size of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Robbers grab 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint as Ukraine enters shutdown

By Matthias Williams and Pavel Polityuk

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian shops, restaurants and transport shut down on Tuesday as the country tightened restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, while police arrested five people suspected of trying to rob 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint in Kiev.

The country has seven confirmed cases of the coronavirus so far, including one death. The government has encouraged people to stay at home wherever possible except to buy food and medicine, but has stopped short of introducing curfews.

Following a series of emergency steps introduced by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, parliament in a special session on Tuesday approved measures including fines and prison sentences for people who broke mandatory quarantine.

The economic fallout from the epidemic also continued to bite as the hryvnia currency slipped to 27 to the dollar for the first time since June 2019.

The central bank said it would not impose foreign currency restrictions and added it had $25 billion in reserves to continue market interventions.

Nevertheless it warned of an economic hit on Ukraine, which is still fighting a simmering conflict against Russian-backed forces in the eastern Donbass region that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

In Lviv, a picturesque city of cobblestone streets in western Ukraine that is popular with tourists, restaurants and cafes closed and supermarket attendants wore masks and gloves while working at the tills.

“Of course, no one is happy about the restaurant shutdown,” said Mark Zarhin, the owner of a restaurant chain.

“It is like a perfect storm in Lviv. We face both ‘plague’ and war today. It is the worst. But it’s not the fact that we close the restaurants that is bad, but the fact that we don’t know for how long. We cannot predict anything.”

The nationwide shutdown will include the closure of the Chernobyl area, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in April 1986 that has since become a visitor attraction.

Kiev’s main airport was mostly empty after the government banned passenger flights to and from the country, and announced a shutdown of domestic air travel from Wednesday.

The authorities also announced the arrest of a group of people who, initially posing as members of the state security service, stole a stash of 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint from a private seller who had stored them in his car.

“Instead of negotiating the purchase and sale conditions, the criminals attacked (the seller), took the masks and beat the man,” Kiev police chief Andriy Kryshchenko said. “Wearing police uniforms and threatening to use firearms, the criminals took possession of the whole batch of goods.”

(Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

After clashes, Ukraine blames disinformation campaign for spreading coronavirus panic

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk on Friday blamed an “information war” being waged on the country for spreading panic and mistrust over the coronavirus, a day after the arrival of evacuees from China sparked clashes outside a sanatorium.

Speaking to parliament, Honcharuk said misinformation was being spread from within and outside Ukraine but did not elaborate.

The authorities are trying to find the source of bogus emails sent this week on behalf of the health ministry erroneously declaring there had been confirmed coronavirus cases in Ukraine, when so far there have been none.

In another example, Honcharuk cited an incident of Russian officials asking a wagon-load of passengers traveling on a train from Kiev to Moscow to disembark after a Chinese woman with fever was found to be traveling on board.

The Ukrainian railway service said it has asked Russia for more information on the case.

Police detained 24 people in clashes with residents of a town in central Ukraine on Thursday, who feared they would be infected by Ukrainians who had been evacuated from China’s Hubei province to a sanatorium for a mandatory two week quarantine.

“The events that took place yesterday, in my opinion, are a consequence of, in particular, the information war that continues against our country, both from inside and out,” Honcharuk said.

Protesters in the town of Novi Sanzhary had clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying the evacuees to the medical facility.

The authorities had appealed for calm, saying the evacuees were screened to make sure they were not infected before being allowed to fly. Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska announced she would join those in quarantine.

“Our health minister has agreed to stay with the citizens in this medical institution,” Honcharuk said. “This way her example will prove that there is no danger to Ukrainian citizens.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the protests had been stoked by “political support” but did not say from where. He appealed to Ukrainians not to vilify those returning from China.

“We constantly say that Ukraine is (a part of) Europe,” he said. “Yesterday, frankly, in some episodes it seemed that we are the Europe of the Middle Ages, unfortunately. Let’s not forget that we are all people.”

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Ros Russell)

Clashes, jeers and burning tires greet coronavirus evacuees in Ukraine

By Matthias Williams

NOVI SANZHARY, Ukraine (Reuters) – Residents of a central Ukrainian town clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from China’s Hubei province, quarantined in case of the coronavirus, to a sanatorium on Thursday.

Some protesters and police were lying wounded on the ground after the clashes. At least two buses had their windows smashed while the evacuees sat behind curtains inside.

Locals in Novi Sanzhary feared they could become infected despite the authorities repeatedly insisting there was no danger and a special appeal from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for calm.

Ukraine has no confirmed cases of the virus.

Tempers flared after a tense day-long standoff in which protesters blocked a bridge leading to the sanatorium where the evacuees will be held in quarantine for at least two weeks to make sure they are not carrying the virus.

Hundreds of helmeted police, police vans and an armored personnel carrier had been dispatched to keep order. Police were periodically shouted at with cries of “shame on you” as the town waited for the evacuees to arrive.

In addition to 45 Ukrainians, there were 27 citizens of Argentina on the plane that landed in Ukraine on Thursday, as well as citizens from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica and other countries.

One Ukrainian woman refused to be evacuated at the last minute because she was not allowed by the Chinese authorities to take her dog, a Ukrainian embassy statement said.

The Ukrainian authorities say all passengers on board had been screened twice for the virus before being allowed to fly, but that was not enough to quell the protesters.

“Isn’t there any other place in Ukraine that can host 50 people, that is located in more or less remote villages or in far off areas where there is no threat to population?” said resident Yuriy Dzyubenko.

One protester was heard suggesting they should be kept at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Another suggested taking them to parliament, while another said Zelenskiy should house them himself if he really believed there was no danger.

“This is what I am telling him, telling the president: “Take 10 people, then I will take two,” a man called Yuriy, who did not give his last name, said.

A weak healthcare system, corruption and mistrust of authority are widespread in Ukraine, which has recently also grappled with a measles epidemic amid a reluctance by some to vaccinate themselves and their children.

The protest had prompted Zelenskiy to issue a statement reassuring Ukrainians that there was no danger, that the authorities had done everything possible to make sure the virus would not spread to Ukraine.

“But there is another danger that I would like to mention. The danger of forgetting that we are all human and we are all Ukrainian,” he said.

In western Ukraine there were smaller protests by residents fearing the evacuees could be housed there instead.

China reported a drop in new cases in the province at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, though the death toll so far at over 2,000 has made it one of the biggest global health emergencies in recent decades.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams, Sergiy Karazy and Valentyn Ogirenko in Novi Sanzhary, Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; editing by Nick Macfie)

Barr: U.S. scrutinizing information ahead of 2020 election, including from Giuliani

By Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday confirmed that the Justice Department has received information from President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani ahead of the November election, but that anything originating from Ukraine should not be taken “at face value.”

Barr spoke at a news conference a day after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation” that the department had created a process so that Giuliani could provide information and the department would see if it could be verified.

“We have to be very careful with respect to any information coming from the Ukraine,” Barr said. “There are a lot of agendas in the Ukraine. There are a lot of cross-currents, and we can’t take anything we receive from the Ukraine at face value.”

Last week, the Senate acquitted Republican Trump largely along party lines on impeachment charges that he had abused his power by asking Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Trump had based his demands on unfounded allegations of corruption. The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives said Giuliani, a former prosecutor, sought information about the Bidens in Ukraine.

On Monday, Barr said that the Justice Department has created an “intake process in the field” that will be used to assess the “provenance and credibility” of any information.

“That is true for all information that comes to the department relating to the Ukraine, including anything Mr. Giuliani might provide,” he added.

Although the department acknowledged on Monday it is receiving and scrutinizing such materials, the FBI’s No. 2 official still stopped short of saying whether it had led to a more formal investigation into the Bidens.

“I am not going to talk about any investigations as I never would. We do not talk about open investigations,” FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said.

Graham said he would refrain from his own probe of the Bidens and concentrate instead on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s decision to issue warrants that led to a federal investigation into allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in that election.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey; Editing by Grant McCool)

Explainer: Why will Republicans vote to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial?

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate is expected to acquit President Donald Trump on Wednesday at the end of his impeachment trial on charges that he abused his power in dealings with Ukraine and obstructed efforts to uncover the alleged misconduct.

Here is a summary of the reasons that Trump’s Republicans, who control 53 seats in the 100-seat chamber, say he should not be removed from office:

– Trump did nothing wrong

The impeachment charges against Trump contend that he sought to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender, to benefit his own re-election campaign.

They say Trump withheld nearly $400 million in U.S. security aid and a coveted White House meeting with the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Some Republicans say he did nothing wrong. They say Trump was simply trying to crack down on corruption in a country where that has long been a problem and wanted U.S. allies to share the burden of supporting Ukraine.

“Both of those objectives are consistent with law, are permissible and legal,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on the Senate floor.

Senators making this argument tend to represent reliably conservative states or, like Cruz, do not face re-election this year.

– Trump’s actions were wrong, but not impeachable

Nearly half-a-dozen Senate Republicans, including some from electoral swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, say Trump’s actions were wrong but do not qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which the U.S. Constitution specifies as grounds for impeachment.

“The president did it, shouldn’t have done it. But it’s a far cry from what the Constitution sets out as the standard for removing a president from office,” said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Others making that argument include Susan Collins, a moderate Republican facing a tough re-election campaign in Maine. She told the Senate that Trump’s request for an investigation of Biden was “improper and demonstrated very poor judgment.”

– Removal of Trump would upset voters

Regardless of the merits of the impeachment case, a large number of Republicans say ousting the president from office could worsen partisan divisions.

“Can anyone doubt that at least half of the country would view his removal as illegitimate — as nothing short of a coup d’etat?” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in statement.

No Republicans voted for Trump’s impeachment in the Democratic-led House of Representatives in December. During the Senate impeachment trial, Trump’s lawyers accused Democrats of seeking to remove Trump from office even before he became president in January 2017.

Trump’s approval rating has shown little change since news broke of his efforts to pressure Zelenskiy in September, and he remains popular among Republican voters. Reuters/Ipsos polling shows that Trump’s approval rating stood at 39 percent at the end of last week, down from 43 percent in late September, which is not a statistically significant change.

Trump’s popularity among Republican voters is surely a factor for the 21 Republican senators seeking re-election this year, as they could face a backlash if they were to vote to convict.

– Not enough evidence

Republicans accuse House Democrats of bringing a “half-baked” impeachment case to the Senate, saying they failed to fight in federal court for vital witnesses and documents that Trump has withheld.

They say House investigators have since inappropriately tried to persuade the Senate to complete the task for them by subpoenaing additional witnesses and documents. All but two Republicans voted last week against a Democratic motion to call more witnesses and present more evidence that could help make the case.

“They claimed dozens of times, that their existing case was, quote, ‘overwhelming and incontrovertible,'” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “At the same time, they were arguing for more witnesses.”

Other Republicans say the impeachment case relies too heavily on unprovable assertions that Trump’s motives were corrupt. They say it could set a precedent that would allow a future Congress to punish a president for pursuing genuine anti-corruption policies.

“The House of Representatives’ abuse-of-power theory rests entirely on the president’s subjective motive. This very vague standard cannot be sustained,” said Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.

– Let the voters decide

Republicans frequently said impeachment would subvert the will of voters who elected Trump in 2016. They say the Senate should not interfere with the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which Trump will seek another four years in office.

“Under the Constitution, impeachment wasn’t designed to be a litmus test on every action of the president. Elections were designed to be that check,” Republican Senator Joni Ernst said.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Peter Cooney)