Russia says its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine is 92% effective

By Polina Ivanova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is 92% effective at protecting people from COVID-19 according to interim trial results, the country’s sovereign wealth fund said on Wednesday, as Moscow rushes to keep pace with Western drugmakers in the race for a shot.

Russia’s results are only the second from a late-stage human trial, following on swiftly from data released on Monday by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech, which said their shot was also more than 90% effective.

While experts said the Russian data was encouraging and reinforced the idea the pandemic could be halted by vaccines, they warned that the results were only based on a small number of trial volunteers who had contracted COVID-19.

The analysis was conducted after 20 participants developed the virus and examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo. That is significantly lower than the 94 infections in the trial of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

“I assume there was political pressure after the press release from Pfizer and BioNTech earlier in the week to now draw level with their own data,” said Bodo Plachter, deputy director of the Institute of Virology at the Mainz University. “What is missing for now is an analysis of statistical significance.”

To confirm the efficacy rate of its vaccine, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which has been backing Sputnik V’s development, said the Russian trial would continue for six months.

Alexander Gintsburg, director of the Gamaleya Institute which developed the vaccine, said the interim results demonstrated that Sputnik V was effective and mass vaccinations would be rolled out in Russia in the coming weeks.

European stocks and U.S. stock futures extended their gains slightly after Russia’s announcement though the reaction was far more muted than after Pfizer’s results.

China’s Sinopharm, which is running large-scale late-stage clinical trials for two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, said on Wednesday that its data was better than expected, though it did not give further details.

‘NOT A COMPETITION’

Successful vaccines are seen as crucial to restoring daily life around the world by helping end the pandemic that has killed more than 1.26 million people, shuttered businesses and put millions out of work.

However, experts said knowledge about the Russian trial’s design was sparse, making it hard to interpret the data.

Scientists have raised concerns about the speed at which Moscow has worked, giving the regulatory go-ahead for the shot and launching mass vaccinations before full trials to test its safety and efficacy had been completed.

“This is not a competition. We need all trials to be carried out to the highest possible standards and it is particularly important that the pre-set criteria for un-blinding the trial data are adhered to avoid cherry picking the data,” said Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh.

“Anything less than this risks a public loss of trust in all vaccines, which would be a disaster.”

The results are based on data from the first 16,000 trial participants to receive both shots of the two-dose vaccine.

“We are showing, based on the data, that we have a very effective vaccine,” said RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev, adding that it was the sort of news that the vaccine’s developers would talk about one day with their grandchildren.

The so-called Phase III trial of the shot is taking place in 29 clinics across Moscow and will involve 40,000 volunteers in total, with a quarter receiving a placebo shot.

The chances of contracting COVID-19 were 92% lower among people vaccinated with Sputnik V than those who received the placebo, the RDIF said.

That’s well above the 50% effectiveness threshold for COVID-19 vaccines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The RDIF said data from the study would be published in a leading medical journal following a peer review. The results of the early-stage Russian trials were peer reviewed and published in September in The Lancet medical journal.

Experts said that as with the Pfizer results, it was not yet clear how long immunity would last after taking the Russian vaccine, nor how efficient it would be for different age groups.

“We certainly need longer-term observations to draw valid conclusions about efficacy and side effects. The same goes for Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s numbers,” said Plachter in Mainz.

As Moscow seeks partners abroad to boost output, China’s Tibet Rhodiola Pharmaceutical Holding announced a deal soon after the results to released to make, sell and test the shot in China.

SPUTNIK V

The Russian drug is named Sputnik V after the Soviet-era satellite that triggered the space race, a nod to the project’s geopolitical importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia registered the vaccine for public use in August, the first country to do so, ahead of the start of the large-scale trial in September.

So far, it has inoculated 10,000 members of the public considered at high risk of contracting COVID-19 such as doctors and teachers, outside of the trial.

The vaccine is designed to trigger a response from two shots administered 21 days apart, each based on different viral vectors that normally cause the common cold: human adenoviruses Ad5 and Ad26.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology and is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

Russia is also testing a different vaccine, produced by the Vector Institute in Siberia, and is on the cusp of registering a third, Putin said on Tuesday, adding that all of the country’s vaccines were effective.

RDIF said as of Nov. 11 no serious side effects had been reported during the Sputnik V Phase III trial.

Some volunteers had short-term minor adverse events such as pain at the injection site, flu-like syndrome including fever, weakness, fatigue, and headache, it said.

In late October, the vaccination of new volunteers was temporarily paused due to high demand and a shortage of doses.

Russia’s deputy prime minister said on Wednesday that the Vector Institute vaccine was expected to start post-registration trials on Nov. 15.

She also said that Russia would produce 500,000 doses of Sputnik V in November, lower than a previous forecast of 800,000 doses given by Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov.

Russia reported 19,851 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours and a record high of 432 deaths. At 1,836,960, its overall case tally is the fifth largest in the world, behind the United States, India, Brazil and France.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Ludwig Burger, Josephine Mason and Thyagaraju Adinarayan; Editing by David Clarke)

China, Russia hold off on congratulating Biden; U.S. allies rally round

By Cate Cadell and Dmitry Antonov

BEIJING/MOSCOW (Reuters) – China and Russia held off congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Monday, with Beijing saying it would follow usual custom in its response and the Kremlin noting incumbent Donald Trump’s vow to pursue legal challenges.

Democrat Biden clinched enough states to win the presidency on Saturday and has begun making plans for when he takes office on Jan. 20. Trump has not conceded defeat and plans rallies to build support for legal challenges.

Some of the United States’ biggest and closest allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia quickly congratulated Biden over the weekend despite Trump’s refusal to concede, as did some Trump allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for the European Union and United States to work “side by side,” holding up Biden as an experienced leader who knows Germany and Europe well and stressing the NATO allies’ shared values and interests.

Beijing and Moscow were cautious.

“We noticed that Mr. Biden has declared election victory,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily media briefing. “We understand that the U.S. presidential election result will be determined following U.S. law and procedures.”

In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent congratulations to Trump on Nov. 9, a day after the election.

Relations between China and the United States are at their worst in decades over disputes ranging from technology and trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus, and the Trump administration has unleashed a barrage of sanctions against Beijing.

While Biden is expected to maintain a tough stance on China — he has called Xi a “thug” and vowed to lead a campaign to “pressure, isolate and punish China” — he is likely to take a more measured and multilateral approach.

Chinese state media struck an optimistic tone in editorials, saying relations could be restored to a state of greater predictability, starting with trade.

KREMLIN NOTES TRUMP’S LAW SUITS

The Kremlin said it would wait for the official results of the election before commenting, and that it had noted Trump’s announcement of legal challenges.

President Vladimir Putin has remained silent since Biden’s victory. In the run-up to the vote, Putin had appeared to hedge his bets, frowning on Biden’s anti-Russian rhetoric but welcoming his comments on nuclear arms control. Putin had also defended Biden’s son, Hunter, against criticism from Trump.

“We think it appropriate to wait for the official vote count,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

Biden cleared the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House on Saturday, four days after the Nov. 3 election. He beat Trump by more than 4 million votes nationwide, making Trump the first president since 1992 to lose re-election.

Asked why, in 2016, Putin had congratulated Trump soon after he had won the Electoral College and beaten Democrat Hillary Clinton, Peskov said there was an obvious difference.

“You can see that there are certain legal procedures that have been announced by the current president. That is why the situations are different and we therefore think it appropriate to wait for an official announcement,” he said.

Peskov noted that Putin had repeatedly said he was ready to work with any U.S. leader and that Russia hoped it could establish dialogue with a new U.S. administration and find a way to normalize troubled bilateral relations.

Moscow’s ties with Washington sank to post-Cold War lows in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Biden was serving as vice president under President Barack Obama at the time.

Relations soured further over U.S. allegations that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor, something the Kremlin denied.

(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh, Tony Munroe and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Darya Korsunskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Catherine Evans)

U.S. House members ask Trump to probe Navalny poisoning, suggest sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee called on President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday to investigate the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, suggesting sanctions might be necessary.

“If the Russian government is once again determined to have used a chemical weapon against one of its own nationals, additional sanctions should be imposed,” Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic committee chairman, and Michael McCaul, the panel’s top Republican, said in a letter to Trump.

Germany, where Navalny is in a hospital, has said Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent and wants the perpetrators held to account. Russia has until now not opened a criminal investigation and said there is no evidence yet of a crime.

Navalny is the most popular and prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin, and the German announcement that he was poisoned by a nerve agent has raised the possibility of further Western sanctions against Moscow.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Trump said on Friday his administration had not yet seen proof that Navalny was poisoned.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

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)

Putin speeds up Russian political shake-up, details new power center

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin accelerated a shake-up of Russia’s political system on Monday, submitting a constitutional reform blueprint to parliament that will create a new center of power outside the presidency.

Putin also replaced Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who had held the role since 2006, a move suggesting his planned changes could reach beyond the political system and the government.

In a surprise move, Putin announced plans for reforms last week. Long-time ally Dmitry Medvedev then resigned as prime minister along with the government, saying he wanted to allow room for the president to make the changes.

Putin’s proposed changes are widely seen as giving him scope to retain influence once his term expires in 2024 though he said at the weekend he did not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.

In draft amendments submitted to the State Duma lower house, Putin offered a glimpse of how his reforms look on paper. Under his plan, some of the president’s broad powers would be clipped and parliament’s powers expanded.

In one of the biggest changes, the status of the State Council, now a low-profile body that advises the president, would for the first time be enshrined in the constitution.

Putin, 67, has not disclosed what he plans to do once he leaves the Kremlin. One option could be to head the beefed-up State Council once he leaves the presidency.

Under his proposals, the president would pick the make-up of the State Council which would be handed broader powers to “determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.”

His changes also envisage preventing any future president serving more than two terms. Putin first became president in 2000 and is now in his fourth term as head of state.

OPPOSITION PROTEST MARCH

Chaika, 68, has long been one of the most powerful figures in the Russian justice system and has faced allegations of corruption from the political opposition which he denies.

The Kremlin said Chaika was moving to another, unspecified, job and proposed Igor Krasnov, deputy head of the Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, to replace him.

Krasnov, 44, has led high-profile criminal investigations including the inquiry into the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.

Russia’s opposition said on Monday it planned to stage a protest march next month against the reforms.

“Society needs a big and genuinely mass protest,” wrote opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who said Putin’s changes amounted to a move to “rule forever”.

The Duma is due to discuss Putin’s amendments on Thursday.

Putin has said the public will be invited to vote on the proposed changes.

Andrei Klishas, a senior lawmaker involved in drafting the legislation, said the vote might be held once parliament approved the legislation, the RIA news agency reported.

(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Alexander Marrow and Anton Zverev, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Timeline: Vladimir Putin – 20 tumultuous years as Russian president or PM

Timeline: Vladimir Putin – 20 tumultuous years as Russian president or PM
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin was named acting president on Dec. 31, 1999, by then-president Boris Yeltsin. He has been in office as president or prime minister ever since, a period spanning two decades.

Here are some highlights of Putin’s 20 years in power:

Aug. 9, 1999 – During an economic crisis, President Yeltsin names little-known security chief Vladimir Putin as his fifth acting prime minister in less than a year, and says he wants Putin to succeed him as president. In the following weeks, bombings of apartment blocks across Russia kill more than 300 people, in attacks Putin blames on Chechen militants. His popularity is boosted by his tough response, which includes the aerial bombing of parts of Chechnya and an assault to recapture the breakaway southern province. Some Kremlin critics question if Chechen militants were really behind the apartment bombings.

Dec. 31, 1999 – An ailing Yeltsin resigns and names Putin acting president.

March 26, 2000 – Putin wins his first presidential election.

Aug. 12, 2000 – The Kursk nuclear-powered submarine sinks to the bottom of the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crew after an explosion onboard. Putin’s image suffers a jolt after he comments on the crisis only after four days.

2002 – Chechen militants take more than 800 people hostage at a Moscow theater. Special forces end the siege, but use a poison gas in the process which kills many of the hostages.

2003 – Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is arrested and charged with fraud. He is later found guilty and jailed in a case his supporters say was punishment for his meddling in politics. He is only released in 2013 after Putin pardons him.

March 2004 – Putin wins second term as president with more than 70 percent of the vote after oil prices fuel a consumer boom and raise living standards, a trend that continues for another four years.

September 2004 – Islamist fighters seize more than 1,000 people in a school in Beslan, southern Russia, triggering a three-day siege that ends in gunfire. A total of 334 hostages are killed, more than half of them children. Some parents say the authorities botched the handling of the siege and blame Putin.

December 2004 – Putin scraps direct elections for regional governors, effectively making them Kremlin appointees. Putin says the move is needed to keep Russia united.

2005 – Putin describes the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

2006 – Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of rights abuses in Chechnya, is murdered in Moscow on Putin’s birthday. Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko dies in London that same year after being poisoned with a radioactive substance. A British inquiry years later concludes he was killed by Russian agents.

2007 – Putin gives a speech in Munich in which he lashes out at the United States, accusing Washington of the “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations”.

May 2008 – Constitutional limits on him serving more than two consecutive presidential terms see Putin become prime minister after his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, becomes president.

August 2008 – Russia fights and wins a short war with Georgia. Tbilisi loses control over two breakaway regions that are garrisoned with Russian troops.

2012 – Putin returns to the presidency, winning re-election with over 60% of the vote after a decision to extend presidential terms to six from four years. Large anti-Putin protests take place before and after the vote, with critics alleging voter fraud.

Feb. 7-23, 2014 – Russia hosts the winter Olympic games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Feb. 27, 2014 – Russian forces start annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region after Ukrainian protesters oust their country’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovich. Russia incorporates Crimea the following month after a referendum condemned by the West. The United States and EU go on to impose sanctions on Moscow.

April 2014 – A pro-Russian separatist revolt breaks out in eastern Ukraine which results in a conflict, still ongoing, which hands the rebels control of a vast swath of territory and leaves more than 13,000 people dead. Western nations accuse Russia of backing the revolt; Moscow denies direct involvement.

Sept. 30, 2015 – Russia launches air strikes in Syria in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

November 2016 – Donald Trump is elected president of the United States after promising to improve battered ties with Moscow. However, U.S. authorities determine Russia tried to interfere in the election in Trump’s favor, casting a pall over U.S-Russia ties despite Moscow’s denials.

March 4, 2018 – A former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter are poisoned in England with a nerve agent. They survive but a woman who lives nearby dies after her partner brings home the poison found in a discarded perfume bottle. Britain accuses Russia, which denies involvement.

March 19, 2018 – Putin wins a landslide re-election victory and a mandate to stay in office until 2024.

June/July 2018 – Russia hosts the men’s soccer FIFA World Cup.

July 2019 – Protests break out in Moscow over a municipal election which the anti-Kremlin opposition says is unfair. Those protests grow into Moscow’s biggest sustained protest movement in years before fizzling out.

December 2019 – Putin boasts of his country’s lead in hypersonic weapons and says other countries are trying to catch up.

(Writing and reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

For Putin, Helsinki talks with Trump a win before he even sits down

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – For U.S. President Donald Trump, a summit with Vladimir Putin risks a political backlash at home and abroad. For the Russian president, however, the fact the summit is even happening is already a big geopolitical win.

Despite Russia’s semi-pariah status among some Americans and U.S. allies, the Kremlin has long been trying to arrange a summit, betting that Putin and Trump will get on well and stop a sharp downwards spiral in bilateral ties.

While nobody on either side expects big breakthroughs, including on U.S. sanctions, the summit is seen by Moscow as U.S. recognition of Russia’s status as a great power and an overdue U.S. realization that its interests must be taken into account.

“The fact that a Putin-Trump meeting will happen says only one thing: that for all its hysteria, the United States is not able to isolate or ignore Russia,” said Alexei Pushkov, a prominent Russian senator from the ruling United Russia party.

“It took a long time for Washington to get that idea, but it got there in the end.”

Western grievances over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its backing of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad haven’t gone away.

Other accusations, denied by Moscow, include that it meddled in U.S. and European politics, supplied the weapon that shot down a passenger plane in 2014 over Ukraine and tried to kill a former Russian spy in Britain with a nerve agent.

Kremlin critics at home and abroad see Trump’s decision to grant Putin a summit against that backdrop as conferring international legitimacy and status on Putin, something they say he doesn’t deserve given the lack of meaningful change in Russia’s policies internationally.

But in Russia, where the political system is obsessed with hierarchy, status and displays of raw power, Putin has “already got his victory,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a foreign policy think-tank close to the Foreign Ministry.

“It allows him to make his point that Russia is not isolated, that Russia is a great power, and to some extent can even claim an equal status with the United States, at least in the security field,” said Kortunov.

Expectations are high in Russia that Putin, with more than 18 years of global experience, will have the edge on Trump, who had not held elected office before he was inaugurated last year. The two men have met twice before at other events and spoken by phone at least eight times.

Vitaly Tretyakov, a political author, described Trump on state TV on the day the summit was agreed as “a neophyte in world politics” to whom Putin could explain Russian thinking and why Russia was right to annex Crimea.

Sergei Mironov, a senior lawmaker from the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party, said in another political talk show that Putin would definitely have the upper hand in Helsinki.

“… Vladimir Putin will give a real master class to the inexperienced politician Donald Trump,” he said.

START OF A THAW?

For older Russians, the summit venue – Helsinki – reinforces Putin’s narrative by evoking memories of Cold War show-downs between the Soviet Union and the United States at a time when Moscow was the capital of a real superpower.

While ties with China, India and the European Union may be even more important in economic terms, Russian politicians still measure their own country’s soft and hard power globally against that of the United States.

Nobody in Russia expects the summit to resolve the differences that have led to painful U.S. sanctions. A survey by state pollster VTsIOM published on Monday showed that more than half of 1,600 Russian adults polled predicted the summit would yield no tangible results.

But for Russian politicians who erupted in applause on learning that Trump won the U.S. election in hopes of rapprochement only to see ties worsen, Helsinki offers a precious opportunity for a possible thaw in relations.

Hard-liners saw a rare visit to Moscow this month of a delegation of Republican lawmakers as proof the tide is turning.

“Six months ago we suggested to them (the lawmakers) that we communicate by Skype. For them, it was political suicide, but now it’s not,” pro-Putin lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, told state TV this month.

Nikonov said Trump was now strong enough to pursue his own agenda.

“It’s one of the signs that the wind is blowing in our sails, thanks in large part to Trump,” he said. “I don’t remember any pro-Russian (U.S.) presidents, but I want to remind you that he (Trump) is one of the most pro-Russian politicians at the moment in the United States.”

Kremlin-backed media have stressed the importance of the summit taking place on neutral territory to ensure Trump is not seen as having the upper hand.

Dmitry Kiselyov, presenter of Russia’s main weekly TV news show “Vesti Nedeli,” said Moscow had seen how Trump had received other leaders on home soil, showing footage of Trump holding Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand in a vice-like grip, brushing dandruff off French President Emmanuel Macron’s shoulder and glowering next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“On neutral territory everyone will be calmer,” Kiselyov, who is close to the Kremlin, said in a report on the subject.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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)

Putin savors record win, securing six more years at Russia’s helm

Russian President and Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at his election headquarters in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. Sergei Chirkov/POOL via Reuters

By Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin basked in his biggest ever election victory on Monday, extending his rule over the world’s largest country for another six years at a time when his ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory.

Putin’s victory will take his political dominance of Russia to nearly a quarter of a century, until 2024, making him the longest ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Putin, who will be 71 at the end of his term, has promised to beef up Russia’s defenses against the West and raise living standards.

In an outcome that was never in doubt, the Central Election Commission, with nearly 100 percent of the votes counted, announced that Putin, who has run Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, had won 76.68 percent of the vote.

With more than 56 million votes, it was Putin’s biggest ever win and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader.

In a late-night victory speech near Red Square, Putin told a cheering crowd the win was a vote of confidence in what he had achieved in tough conditions.

“It’s very important to maintain this unity,” said Putin, before leading the crowd in repeated chants of “Russia! Russia!”

Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating around 80 percent, he faced no credible threat from a field of seven challengers.

His nearest rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won 11.8 percent while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.6 percent. His most vocal opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.

Critics alleged that officials had compelled people to come to the polls to ensure that boredom with the one-sided contest did not lead to low participation.

“NO SERIOUS COMPLAINTS”

Near-final figures put turnout at 67.47 percent, just shy of the 70 percent the Kremlin was reported to have been aiming for before the vote.

The Central Election Commission said on Monday morning that it had not registered any serious complaints of violations. Putin loyalists said the result was a vindication of his tough stance toward the West.

“I think that in the United States and Britain they’ve understood they cannot influence our elections,” Igor Morozov, a member of the upper house of parliament, said on state television.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down suggestions on Monday that tensions with the West had boosted turnout, saying the result showed that people were united behind Putin’s plans to develop Russia.

He said Putin would spend the day fielding calls of congratulation, meeting supporters, and holding talks with the losing candidates.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to offer his congratulations to Putin, but Heiko Maas, Germany’s new foreign minister, questioned whether there had been fair political competition.

Opposition leader Navalny is expected to call for protests demanding a re-run of an election that he says was neither free nor fair. International observers were due to give their verdict later on Monday.

The longer-term question is whether Putin will now soften his anti-Western rhetoric.

His bellicose language reached a crescendo in a state-of-the-nation speech before the election when he unveiled new nuclear weapons, saying they could strike almost any point in the world..

AT ODDS WITH THE WEST

Russia is currently at odds with the West over Syria, Ukraine; allegations of cyber attacks and meddling in foreign elections; and the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter. As a result, relations with the West have hit a post-Cold-War low.

Britain and Russia are locked in a diplomatic dispute over the poisoning, and Washington is eyeing new sanctions on Moscow over allegations that it interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which Russia denies.

Putin said late on Sunday it was nonsense to think that Russia would have poisoned the former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Britain, and said Moscow was ready to cooperate with London.

How long Putin wants to stay in power is uncertain.

The constitution limits the president to two successive terms, obliging him to step down at the end of his new mandate.

Asked after his re-election if he would run for yet another term in the future, Putin laughed off the idea.

“Let’s count. What, do you think I will sit (in power) until I’m 100 years old?” he said, calling the question “funny”.

Although Putin has six years to consider a possible successor, uncertainty about his future is a potential source of instability in a fractious ruling elite that only he can keep in check.

“The longer he stays in power, the harder it will be to exit,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “How can he abandon such a complicated system, which is essentially his personal project?”

(Restores dropped ‘it’ in paragraph 11, cuts extraneous word ‘calls’ in paragraph 14.)

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk and Maria Kiselyova, Reuters reporters in Russia, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff and Kevin Liffey)