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)

Trump tells Putin more steps needed to scrap North Korea nuclear program

President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, who complained last month that Moscow was “not helping us at all with North Korea,” told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that more needs to be done to scrap Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the White House said.

“President Trump reiterated the importance of taking further steps to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea,” the White House said in a statement about the call with Putin.

In an interview with Reuters last month, Trump accused Russia of helping North Korea evade international sanctions meant to punish Pyongyang for its pursuit of a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.

“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump told Reuters.

Moscow denies it has failed to uphold U.N. sanctions.

Trump and Putin spoke after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview with the Washington Post, raised the prospect of talks with North Korea.

But Pence, who traveled to South Korea for the Winter Olympics, also said Washington would intensify its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang until it takes a “meaningful step toward denuclearization.”

Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

Russia signed on to the latest rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea imposed last year, including a ban on coal exports, which are an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear program.

But North Korea shipped coal to Russia at least three times last year after the ban was put in place on Aug. 5, three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters.

The North Korean coal was shipped to the Russian ports of Nakhodka and Kholmsk, where it was unloaded at docks and reloaded onto ships that took it to South Korea or Japan, the sources said.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney)

Russia to amend law to classify U.S. media ‘foreign agents’

Journalists watch Russia's President Vladimir Putin on a big screen during his annual news conference in Moscow, December 20, 2012.

By Polina Nikolskaya and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliament warned on Friday some U.S. and other foreign media could be declared “foreign agents” and obliged to regularly declare full details of their funding, finances and staffing.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, said parliament could back legislation as early as next week in response to what lawmakers view as U.S. pressure on Russian media.

“Possible restrictions will be the same as those taken by the United States,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

He said some U.S. media in Russia were trying to turn U.S. public opinion against Moscow.

“We understand that it’s essential to protect the interests of our citizens and the country and we will do this in the same way as the country which lays claim to be the gold standard and mentor and which is constantly talking about freedom.”

Russian lawmakers said the move was retaliation for a demand by the U.S. Department of Justice that Kremlin-backed TV station RT register in the United States as a “foreign agent”, something Moscow has said it regards as an unfriendly act.

The U.S. action against RT came after U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of trying to interfere in last year’s U.S. presidential election to help President Donald Trump win the White House, something Moscow has denied.

 

RUSSIAN ELECTION

Russia faces a presidential election next March. Vladimir Putin is widely expected to stand again and to win. He remains broadly popular though critics accuse him of suppressing dissent not least by tight control of domestic media.

Lawmakers will conduct a first reading of the new restrictions on Nov. 15 and try to complete approval in two further readings by the end of next week.

U.S. and any other foreign media that fall under the new restrictions could have to regularly disclose to Russian authorities full details of their funding, finances and staffing and might be obliged to say on their social media profiles and internet sites visible in Russia that they are “foreign agents”.

The Duma earlier this year launched an investigation into whether CNN, Voice of America, Radio Liberty and “other American media” were complying with Russian law.

U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) said last month Moscow had threatened to brand their Russian language service projects “foreign agents” in retaliation for U.S. pressure on RT.

Russia said the same month it had dropped accusations against CNN International of violating Russian media law and that the U.S. channel could continue broadcasting in Russia.

 

San Francisco-based social network Twitter has also angered Russian authorities when it accused RT and the Sputnik news outlet of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and banned them from buying ads on its network.

 

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

 

The Art of the Deal: Why Putin needs one more than Trump

woman passes billboard of Trump and Putin together

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – In his book, ‘Art of the Deal,’ Donald Trump said the best deals were ones where both sides got something they wanted. His credo, applied to a potential U.S.-Russia deal, flags an awkward truth for Vladimir Putin: He wants more from Trump than vice versa.

As aides try to set up a first meeting between the two presidents, the mismatched nature of their respective wish lists gives Trump the edge, and means that a deal, if one is done, may be more limited and longer in the making than the Kremlin hopes.

“What the two countries can offer each another is strikingly different,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for TV Rain, a Moscow TV station sometimes critical of the Kremlin.

“The U.S. has a stronger hand. In biblical terms, the U.S. is the three kings bearing gold, while Russia is the shepherds with little apart from their good faith.”

Appetite for a deal in Moscow, where parliament applauded Trump’s election win, is palpable. The Kremlin blames Barack Obama for wrecking U.S.-Russia ties, which slid to a post-Cold War low on his watch, and with the economy struggling to emerge from two years of recession, craves a new start.

Trump’s intentions toward Moscow are harder to discern, but seem to be more about what he does not want — having Russia as a time-consuming geopolitical foe — than his so far vague desire to team up with the Kremlin to fight Islamic State.

Trump has hinted he may also push for a nuclear arms deal.

Putin’s wish list, by contrast, is detailed, long and the items on it, such as getting U.S. sanctions imposed over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine eased, are potentially significant for his own political future.

He is looking to be given a free hand in the post-Soviet space, which he regards as Russia’s back yard.

Specifically, he would like Trump to formally or tacitly recognize Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as Russian territory, and pressure Kiev into implementing a deal over eastern Ukraine which many Ukrainians view as unpalatable.

The icing on the cake for him would be for Trump to back a Moscow-brokered Syrian peace deal allowing President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Moscow ally, to stay in power for now, while crushing Islamic State and delivering regional autonomy.

For Putin, described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as an “alpha-dog,” the wider prize would be respect. In his eyes, a deal would confer legitimacy and show Russia was a great power.

But, like a couple where one side is more interested than the other, the expectational imbalance is starting to show.

Trump spoke by phone to five world leaders before talking to Putin on Jan. 28 as part of a bundle of calls. The White House readout of the Putin call was vague and four sentences long; the Kremlin’s was effusive and fifteen sentences long.

Nor does Trump seem to be in a rush to meet. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the two might only meet before a G20 summit due to take place in July.

Trump has good reason not to rush.

‘A HUGE BONUS’

With U.S. intelligence agencies accusing Moscow of having sponsored computer hacking to help Trump win office, a deal would hand fresh political ammunition to Trump’s opponents, who say he has long been too complimentary to the Russian leader.

A delay would have the added advantage of postponing a chorus of disapproval from foreign allies and Congress, where there is bipartisan determination to block sanctions relief.

For Putin though, in his 17th year of dominating the Russian political landscape, a deal, or even an early symbolic concession such as easing minor sanctions, matters.

Expected to contest a presidential election next year that could extend his time in the Kremlin to 2024, he needs sanctions relief to help lift the economy out of recession.

U.S. and EU financial sector sanctions have cut Russia’s access to Western capital markets and know-how, scared off foreign investors, and — coupled with low global oil prices — have exacerbated an economic crisis that has cut real incomes and fueled inflation, making life harder for millions.

Since Putin’s 2012 election, consumer prices have risen by 50 percent, while a fall in the value of the rouble against the dollar after the annexation of Crimea means average salaries fell by 36 percent from 2012-2016 in dollar terms.

Official data puts inflation at 5.4 percent, but consumers say the real figure is much higher, and fear of inflation regularly ranks among Russians’ greatest worries in surveys.

An easing of U.S. sanctions could spur more foreign investment, helping create a feel-good factor.

“It would be a huge bonus if it happened,” said Chris Weafer, senior partner at economic and political consultancy Macro-Advisory Ltd, who said he thought Putin wanted to put rebuilding the economy at the heart of his next term.

The economy matters to Putin because, in the absence of any more land grabs like Crimea, greater prosperity is one of the few levers he has to get voters to come out and support him.

With state TV affording him blanket and favorable coverage and with the liberal opposition still weak, few doubt Putin would genuinely win another presidential term if, as expected, he decided to run.

But for the win to be politically durable and for Putin to be able to confidently contemplate serving out another full six-year term, he would need to win big on a respectable turnout.

That, an election showed last year, is not a given.

Around 4 million fewer Russians voted for the pro-Putin United Russia party in a September parliamentary vote compared to 2011, the last time a similar election was held.

Although the economic benefits of a Trump deal might take a while to trickle down to voters, its symbolism could boost turnout, helping Putin prolong a system based on himself.

“It would be presented to the Russian people as a huge victory by Putin,” said von Eggert. “It would be described as a validation of his strategy to go to war in Ukraine regardless of the consequences and to turn the country into Fortress Russia.”

(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Peter Graff)

Russia says facing increased cyber attacks from abroad

graphic representing hacking or cyber attacks

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is facing increased cyber attacks from abroad, a senior security official was quoted on Sunday as saying, responding to Western accusations that Moscow is aggressively targeting information networks in the United States and Europe.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cyber campaign aimed at boosting Donald Trump’s electoral chances by discrediting his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Russia has dismissed the accusations as a “witch-hunt”.

“Recently we have noted a significant increase in attempts to inflict harm on Russia’s informational systems from external forces,” Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily, according to excerpts of an interview to be published in full on Monday.

“The global (Internet) operators and providers are widely used, while the methods they use constantly evolve,” said Patrushev, a former head of the FSB secret service and a close ally of Putin.

Patrushev accused the outgoing U.S. administration of President Barack Obama of “deliberately ignoring the fact that the main Internet servers are based on the territory of the United States and are used by Washington for intelligence and other purposes aimed at retaining its global domination”.

But he added that Moscow hoped to establish “constructive contacts” with the Trump administration. Trump, who praised Putin during the election campaign and has called for better ties with Moscow, will be inaugurated as president on Jan. 20.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.S. says free expression was restricted in Russian election

People walk past a sign reading "United Russia" on a building in central Stavropol, Russia,

WARSAW, Sept 19 (Reuters) – Opposition politicians were at a sharp disadvantage in Russia’s parliamentary election because of limits on freedom of expression and barriers that made it hard for them to register, a U.S. human rights envoy said on Monday.

“The elections were well administered, but there were also significant restrictions to the rights of free expression and assembly,” Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, told reporters.

The ruling United Russia party took three-quarters of the seats, providing a likely springboard for President Vladimir Putin to seek re-election to another term in the Kremlin in 2018. Liberal opposition parties failed to win a single seat in the weekend election.

“There were obstacles to the registration of political parties and candidates,” Malinowski said in Warsaw, where he was attending a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on human rights and democracy.

“For all these reasons, it remains very, very hard for non-systemic political parties and candidates in Russia to
compete with the ruling party.”

Earlier on Monday, the OSCE criticized the elections, saying they had been marred by curbs on basic rights and a lack of distinct political alternatives.

(Reporting by Wojciech Strupczewski and Maria Wejcman; Writing
by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Russia Creating National Guard

Russian President Putin chairs meeting on preparations for Victory Day in Moscow

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is creating a national guard to fight terrorism and organized crime, President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday.

“The decisions have been taken, we are creating a new federal body of executive power,” Putin told a meeting with his key security officials in the Kremlin.

The national guard will be created on the basis of the Interior Ministry’s troops, Putin said. He said that Russia’s drug enforcement agency and federal migration service would be now subordinate to the Interior Ministry.

(Reporting by Denis Dyomkin; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Polina Devitt)

Russia to aid Iran’s nuclear program

Russia will be able to export nuclear equipment and technology to Iran now that president Vladimir Putin has eased an export ban, multiple news agencies reported on Monday.

The announcement came as Putin was visiting Tehran, the Iranian capital, for an energy summit. He was to hold talks with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei later in the day, the state-owned Russian television network RT reported.

Under the decree, Russia will be able to help Iran modify and modernize two of its nuclear facilities. That will help the Middle Eastern nation produce and export enriched uranium, and the RT report indicated that Russia will be importing some low-enriched material from Iran.

Iran agreed in July to a landmark deal with Russia and five other world powers — China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. The comprehensive agreement was designed to restrict Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which the nation insists is used solely for civilian purposes but some Western nations feared was developing an atomic bomb.

Under the July deal, the United Nations agreed to lift sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy — costing it more than $160 billion in oil revenue in the past three years, the BBC reported at the time. But the sanctions won’t be lifted until it’s clear Iran complies with its end of the bargain, and they can be reinstated and extended if the nation doesn’t hold up to the terms.

The July agreement also requires Iran to dispose of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, and the country cannot possess more than 300 kilograms of the material for 15 years.

The BBC reported that low-enriched uranium has a 3 to 4 percent of the radioactive isotope U-235, which can be used in the process of fueling nuclear power plants. It can, however, be further enriched to the 90-percent level needed to make nuclear weapons, the BBC also reported.