Intel suspects Putin link to Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack

U.S. intel suspects Putin link to pipeline ransomware attack

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Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he meets with IIHF President Rene Fasel in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, May 10, 2021. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 13, 2021

American intelligence officials are concerned Moscow may have covertly carried out the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack disguised as a criminal group, according to a U.S. official familiar with intelligence reports who said suspicions of the Russian government link are based on comments Russian President Vladimir Putin made last month.

Mr. Putin vowed in his April 21 state-of-the-nation speech that the Kremlin would engage in unspecified retaliation for Western sanctions on Moscow. He also said that while Russia doesn’t want to “burn our bridges” with adversaries, anyone who “intends to burn or even blow up these bridges … must know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough.”

American intelligence and security agencies have so far traced the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack to a relatively new Russian or Eastern European criminal group known as DarkSide that planted software inside Colonial’s information technology.

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Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, told reporters this week that U.S. “intelligence agencies are looking for any ties to nation-state actors.”

President Biden said Thursday his administration does not believe the Russian government was behind the attack. “But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia,” Mr. Biden said.

He also said the administration has been in direct communications with Moscow “about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive actions against these ransomware networks.”

The FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) have described DarkSide as “a ransomware-as-a services variant” that was used in the Colonial Pipeline attack.

“Cybercriminal groups use DarkSide to gain access to a victim’s network to encrypt and exfiltrate data,” the two security agencies said in an advisory. “These groups then threaten to expose data if the victim does not pay the ransom.”

“Groups leveraging DarkSide have recently been targeting organizations across various [critical infrastructure] sectors including manufacturing, legal, insurance, healthcare, and energy,” they agencies said.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity with The Washington Times, said one theory is the Russian government conducted the attack using foreign intelligence hackers disguised as a criminal or nongovernmental organization to mask the origin.

Another theory is the Russians contracted the operation out to a criminal group to maintain deniability for any role in the attack.

Russia’s government was linked by the U.S. government to the recent SolarWinds cyberattack that involved hacker teams from Moscow’s SVR foreign intelligence service.

Days after Mr. Putin’s April 21 threat of retaliation, CISA and the FBI issued a detailed assessment of SVR cyber operations.

SVR cyber teams included those identified by security researchers as Advanced Persistent Threat 29, or APT 29, the Dukes, Cozy Bear, and Yttrium.

The SVR “will continue to seek intelligence from U.S. and foreign entities through cyber exploitation, using a range of initial exploitation techniques that vary in sophistication, coupled with stealthy intrusion tradecraft within compromised networks,” the assessment said, adding that the SVR mainly attacks government computer networks, think tank and policy analysis organizations, and information technology companies.

It also said the SVR shifted in 2018 from using malware on victim networks to targeting cloud computing, mainly email, to obtain information. “Targeting cloud resources probably reduces the likelihood of detection by using compromised accounts or system misconfigurations to blend in with normal or unmonitored traffic in an environment not well defended, monitored, or understood by victim organizations,” the assessment said.

The difference between the SolarWinds and DarkSide attacks was evidenced in the SVR’s use of maneuvering inside compromised computer networks.

In the DarkSide attack, the FBI and CISA concluded “at this time, there is no indication that the entity’s operational technology (OT) networks have been directly affected by the ransomware,” the two agencies stated in a May 11 advisory. It did not appear the hackers “moved laterally” within the company systems, they added.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment when asked if the Russian government is linked to the pipeline attack.

Number of injured in Russia school shooting rises to 23

Number of injured in Russia school shooting rises to 23

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People pray next to the grave of Elvira Ignatieva, an English language teacher who was killed at a school shooting on Tuesday in Kazan, Russia, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Russian officials say a gunman attacked a school in the city … more >

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By Daria Litvinova

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Twenty-three people remained hospitalized on Wednesday following a school shooting in the Russian city of Kazan which killed nine people, including seven youngsters.

All 23 were in stable condition Wednesday morning, the authorities said, though at least eight people — three adults and five children — were to be transferred to Moscow for treatment.

A gunman on Tuesday morning attacked a school in Kazan, a city 430 miles (700 kilometers) east of Moscow, sending students hiding under their desks or running out of the building. Nine people – seven students and two school employees – were killed.

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The attacker, identified only as a 19-year-old, was arrested. The authorities gave no immediate details on a motive but said he legally owned a firearm.

Wednesday was declared a day of mourning in Tatarstan, the Russian region of which Kazan is the capital, with funerals of the victims expected to take place.

Russian media said the gunman was a former student at the school who called himself “a god” on his account on the messaging app Telegram and promised to “kill a large amount of biomass” on the morning of the shooting.

Attacks on schools are rare in Russia, and President Vladimir Putin reacted by ordering the head of the country’s National Guard to revise regulations on the types of weapons allowed for civilian use.

The deadliest school attack in Russia took place in 2004 in the city of Beslan, when Islamic militants took more than 1,000 people hostage for several days. The siege ended in gunfire and explosions, leaving 334 dead, more than half of them children.

In 2018, a teenager killed 20 people at his vocational school before killing himself in Kerch, a city in the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea. In the wake of that attack, Putin also ordered authorities to tighten control over gun ownership. But most of the proposed measures were turned down by the parliament or the government.

Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said on Telegram that the suspect in the Kazan attack received a permit for a shotgun less than two weeks ago and that the school had no security aside from a panic button. Authorities did not specify what kind of gun the attacker used.

Officials in Kazan said the school had a doorperson for security during day time, and she was the one who hit the panic button, alerting law enforcement about the attack.

Russian officials promised to pay families of those killed 1 million rubles (roughly $13,500) each and said that the payments will be wired by the end of day Wednesday.

Kremlin-imposed cuts at U.S. Embassy leave thousands adrift

Kremlin-imposed cuts at U.S. Embassy leave thousands adrift

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The U.S. Embassy and the National flag are seen in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Under Kremlin orders, the U.S. Embassy has stopped employing Russians, leaving Russian businessmen, lovers and exchange students adrift because they can’t get visas and … more >

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By Daniel Kozin and Jim Heintz

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Under Kremlin orders, the U.S. Embassy has stopped employing Russians, forcing the embassy to cut its consular staff by 75% and limit many of its services.

The order went into effect on Wednesday, bringing the sharply deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship to an intensely personal level.

Because of the cuts, the embassy can offer only very limited services, such as considering “life-and-death” visa applications. That leaves Russian businessmen, exchange students and romantic partners adrift because they won’t be able to obtain visas. Even Americans will be unable to register their newborns or renew their passports.

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For Anastasia Kuznetsova, a 20-year-old engaged to marry a Californian, it’s a crushing blow. She had already spent about two years seeking a fiancee’s visa. The notoriously laborious process for Russians to get U.S. visas had already been slowed by COVID-19.

“I felt destroyed, much more depressed than I was before,” said Kuznetsova, who last saw her fiance in January on a trip to Mexico. “We have no idea when it’s going to continue working and if we will be able to see each other even during these years.”

Thomas H. V. Anthony, an American living in Russia, was already frustrated because of a delay in registering the birth of his daughter, a record of the child’s claim to U.S. citizenship.

“My expectation was as things get better with the situation with the pandemic, gradually the consulate would open more and more and more,” he said. “It was a big shock to suddenly get an email from them, about two weeks ago, saying effective on the 11th we will no longer be offering any consular services.”

For Anthony, this means his daughter, who was born before the pandemic, will not be able to travel to visit her grandparents in the United States in the foreseeable future.

The embassy has made no statements on whether it is taking measures to beef up the consular staff with new employees from the United States.

Embassy spokespeople could not be reached for clarification on how the mission will handle other jobs also filled by locals, such as security.

An order signed last month by President Vladimir Putin called for creating a list of “unfriendly” countries whose missions could be banned from hiring Russians or third-country nationals. The list includes the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Poland and several other European countries, but the United States is the first for which the ban is being enforced.

The move followed U.S. sanctions imposed over Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies. Each country expelled 10 of the other’s diplomats.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the ban on local employees is in line with convention.

“We rarely employ any local personnel in the country where our diplomatic mission is. And thus we have the full right to transfer this practice onto the regulations which manage the work of the U.S. Embassy and their general consulate in the Russian Federation,” he said last month.

Yulia Kukula, a university student who was accepted for a PhD program in sustainable energy at Arizona State University, may have found a laborious and costly way around the problem of getting her visa to attend university.

After searching online for advice from others in her situation, Kukula was able to sign up for an interview for a visa at the U.S. consulate in neighboring Kazakhstan. But that’s a 2,300-kilometer (1,400-mile) trip from Moscow, and the interview isn’t until October.

The United States once had three other consulates in Russia – in Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St. Petersburg – which somewhat eased the travel burden for people seeking visas. But those consulates have closed or stopped providing visas amid diplomatic spats in recent years, in what Alexis Rodzianko, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, called “a visa war.”

That had already placed a burden on the companies in his chamber whose executives needed to travel. “Now it looks like it’s impossible for the indefinite future,” he said.

The travel restrictions of the pandemic have shown that videoconferencing can’t entirely replace the in-person contact of business travel, he said.

“They’re especially good for people who already know each other and they’re much less effective for people getting to know each other,” he said.

He also sees a larger problem if the visa halt lasts for long.

He worries that because the U.S. and Russian governments are adversaries, a lack of contacts between people on both sides could lead to “dehumanization,” adding, “which is very dangerous because that’s what you need to fight a war.”

Kuznetsova, who had hoped to celebrate her wedding in the United States this year and had even quit her university in Russia in preparation for the move, feels trapped as a small piece in a large geopolitical dispute.

“I understand that there can be problems between countries, it’s normal, it’s happened throughout all of history, but it’s not normal to divide people and separate them, especially when it’s families and the lives of people,” she said.

Joe Biden seeks Russia penalty to stop cyberattacks

‘We’re trying to figure out what works’: U.S. seeks Russia penalty that will stop cyberattacks

Sanctions seen as not being effective

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon, left, attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 9, 2021, marking the 76th anniversary of … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Major cyberattacks with links to Russia have grown bolder even in the face of escalating U.S. economic sanctions, presenting a high-stakes dilemma for President Biden as he weighs how to respond to the devastating assault on the Colonial Pipeline and what tools America may have at its disposal to punch back.

Washington over the past decade has leveled more than 140 targeted economic sanctions against Russian individuals and entities for hacking and other cybercrimes. But analysts say the tactic has done hardly anything to deter the Kremlin and Russian-linked gangs operating across Eastern Europe from hacking U.S. companies and government assets.

There is no proof that the Kremlin explicitly ordered the attack on the Colonial Pipeline, but Mr. Biden has made clear that the hackers and the digital weapons they used appear to be inside Russia. He said Moscow bears “responsibility” for the incident, which has driven up U.S. fuel prices, led to long lines at gas stations and sparked fears of energy shortages in key metropolitan areas along the East Coast.

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Responding with yet another round of sanctions won’t reduce the risk of further cyberattacks directly ordered or indirectly backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreign policy experts say. They note that past sanctions have not had the desired impact.

Russia’s interference in multiple U.S. elections, expansion of online propaganda campaigns in Eastern Europe and the recent Kremlin-backed SolarWinds hack of U.S. computers have all occurred within a decade after the Treasury Department began leveling cyber-related sanctions against Russia.

“We’re still trying to figure out, on the Putin scale, what gives him pain?” said Jim Townsend, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “No matter what it is, after the invasion of Georgia, the invasion of Ukraine, the sanctions Biden just put on him … we’re trying to figure out what works.”

The Biden administration most recently slapped sanctions on Moscow in response to the 2020 SolarWinds hack of the U.S. government and leading private American companies. The White House targeted more than three dozen Russian individuals and entities for retaliation.

But the impact of sanctions, which can freeze the assets that an individual or entity may have in banks tied to the U.S. financial system, remains questionable.

“The only sanctions that I know that really seemed to work were [those that targeted] apartheid in South Africa,” Mr. Townsend said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve sanctioned Iran, we’ve sanctioned Cuba. What are you trying to get at with sanctions? Give me an example of sanctions really working.”

Indeed, the Russian government and criminal outfits with apparent ties to Moscow have ramped up their online operations despite being the hardest hit by U.S. financial penalties. Since 2011, the Treasury has slapped 141 cyber-related economic sanctions on Russian individuals or entities, according to figures compiled by the Center for a New American Security.

That is far more than any other nation. Iran came in second at 112. North Korea has been hit with 18 cyber-related sanctions and China with five over the past decade.

Biden administration officials have been tight-lipped about their plans for responding to the Colonial Pipeline attack, which the FBI has pinned on the Eastern Europe-based gang of hackers known as DarkSide.

Top Russian officials on Tuesday denied having any involvement in the incident. “Russia didn’t have anything to do with hacking attacks that had taken place earlier,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “We categorically don’t accept any accusations against us in this regard.”

The attack relied on ransomware, an operation in which key data is locked or stolen and held for ransom. It’s unclear whether the Colonial Pipeline Co. has or is considering paying a ransom.

The company said Tuesday it is slowly bringing the pipeline, which provides roughly 45% of the fuel consumed on the East Coast, back online. But some gas stations in the mid-Atlantic and the South were reporting that they had run out of fuel, and gasoline prices were on the rise across areas of the country.

Top administration officials warned gasoline station operators not to try to profit from motorists’ panic.

“We will have no tolerance for price-gouging. Federal and state officials will be investigating those actions if we see price-gouging,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.

As the government deals with domestic energy concerns, Mr. Biden and his top foreign policy deputies are hashing out how best to respond on the international stage. The president has vowed to bring up cyberattacks when he meets in person with Mr. Putin sometime in the next several months.

Meanwhile, debate is widening among U.S. government analysts over the effectiveness of sanctions.

“Russian policymakers may be willing to incur the cost of sanctions, whether on the national economy or on their own personal wealth, in furtherance of Russia’s foreign policy goals,” said a recent Congressional Research Service report. “Sanctions also might have the unintended effect of boosting internal support for the Russian government, whether through appeals to nationalism or through Russian elites’ sense of self-preservation.”

Beyond strictly targeting Moscow, the United States also could seek to use economic sanctions to derail Russia’s prized Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany.

The energy project is deeply unpopular on Capitol Hill and is widely viewed as an effort by Moscow to use fuel supplies as leverage over Ukraine and other European nations.

German officials strongly support the project because of the economic boon for their country, and the Biden administration has been reluctant to throw its full weight behind undermining the pipeline.

Mr. Biden could order more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe or take other military steps to intimidate Russia, but past moves have had little effect at slowing Russia-linked cyberattacks.

Some specialists say the U.S. may consistently find itself at a disadvantage in cyberspace. Unlike Russia and criminal gangs, they say, Washington is unlikely to willingly target energy infrastructure or other entities that could lead to serious consequences across an entire society.

“It’s hard for us because we’re not ruthless,” Mr. Townsend said. “They don’t care.”

⦁ Haris Alic and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report

U.S. ‘far left’ susceptible to Chinese government’s COVID-19 disinformation: Report

U.S. ‘far left’ susceptible to Chinese government’s COVID disinformation: Report

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Visitors wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk by a statue featuring Winter Olympics figure skating on display at the Shougang Park in Beijing, Sunday, May 2, 2021. Chinese tourists are expected to make a … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Monday, May 3, 2021

Americans on the far left, including “Trump administration critics” and “capitalism skeptics,” are most likely to have soaked up Chinese government disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus, according to a new report by a prominent U.S. think tank.

The report by the RAND Corporation builds on claims by U.S. intelligence and State Department officials that China and Russia seized on the COVID-19 pandemic to engage in subversive, state-run media and other operations aimed at discrediting the U.S. and promoting their respective global agendas.

“Both countries attempted to tarnish the reputation of the United States by emphasizing challenges with its pandemic response and characterizing U.S. systems as inadequate,” according to the report circulated to journalists on Monday.

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“Both countries disseminated messages through a wide variety of channels and platforms, including social media” and both “falsely accused the United States of developing and intentionally spreading the virus,” the report said, adding that Moscow and Beijing “appeared to differ in their principal goals.”

“Russia aimed to destabilize the United States,” while “China aimed to protect and enhance its international reputation,” the report said.

Circulation of the roughly 70-page RAND document comes a year after U.S. officials first highlighted Chinese and Russian disinformation efforts around COVID-19 — operations officials have described as also being backed by Iranian government efforts to project bogus claims aimed at smearing America’s image on the world stage.

In an exclusive March 2020 interview with The Washington Times, the head of a key State Department counterdisinformation office outlined how Beijing, Moscow and Tehran were using a vast web of social media accounts, fake news outlets and state-controlled global satellite media to promote lies by academics and, at times, government officials to blame Washington for the pandemic.

Lea Gabrielle, who was then serving as special envoy heading the department’s Global Engagement Center, told The Times that U.S. officials were particularly concerned about Chinese government efforts to push disinformation about the pandemic in a bid to make China appear as a superior global power to the United States.

Beijing, Ms. Gabrielle said at the time, was “engaged in an all-out aggressive campaign to try to reshape the global narrative around the coronavirus, essentially to the degree of trying to provide an alternate reality.”

Other news outlets picked up on the developments, with The New York Time reporting weeks later that Beijing was being “more overtly aggressive” than Moscow in its disinformation campaign.

The RAND report circulated Monday homed in on efforts that were made by Chinese officials early in the pandemic to amplify Russian disinformation about COVID-19s origins.

“Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijian retweeted an article from a Kremlin-linked source, Global Research, stating that the virus originated in the United States and was brought to China by the U.S. military,” the report noted. “Chinese media also suggested that the United States was covering up the true start date of the virus spread in the United States to obfuscate the truth about the virus’s origins.”

Consensus among scientists is that the virus began in China and that the Chinese government has for more than year been blocking U.S. and other international efforts to investigate its origins. While Beijing disputes such claims, an investigation last year by The Associated Press found the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the virus’ origins.

The RAND report, meanwhile, analyzed nuanced differences in Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns, as well as audience susceptibility to both.

“China-linked messaging was more uniform across different outlets; this suggests that operators did not attempt to target specific polarized audiences or to purposefully appeal to a wide variety of audiences in the United States,” the report said. “However, during the time frame that we analyzed (January 2020 to July 2020), messages critical of the U.S. response to the pandemic might have resonated with critics of the Trump administration, those on the left of the U.S. political spectrum, and those concerned with the federal pandemic response.”

“It is also possible that some of the messages about the origins of the virus could be attractive to conspiracy theory enthusiasts with different political views and affiliations,” the report added. “Overall, China-linked messaging could be of interest to U.S. audiences on the farther left of the political spectrum — Trump administration critics, conspiracy enthusiasts, and capitalism skeptics among them.”

Message to Russia: U.S. Army kicks off major artillery drills across Europe

Message to Russia: U.S. Army kicks off major artillery drills across Europe

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U.S. Army vehicles disembark from a vessel at Albania’s main port of Durres, Saturday, May 1, 2021. Florida National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team were being discharged from the USNS Bob Hope ahead of a two-week training of up … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, May 3, 2021

The U.S. Army this week will kick off a series of major artillery drills across Europe and northern Africa, sending a clear message to Moscow amid a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border.

Pentagon leaders said the exercises, dubbed “Fires Shock,” will continue over the next six weeks with drills in Estonia, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and Morocco. Military officials said the initiative will demonstrate that the U.S. and its allies are capable of projecting power throughout Europe.

“From towed artillery to long-range rocket systems, U.S. Army Europe and Africa has the organic ability to rapidly deliver precision fires to support our joint force and NATO allies anywhere in Europe and Africa,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Norrie, commanding general of 7th Army Training Command. “These exercises demonstrate our ability to command and control long-range fires across continents, using a variety of networked and multi-domain communications platforms.”

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Long-range fires are a key component of the Army’s 21st-century battle plan. Victory in any potential conflicts with Russia or China will almost surely rely on America’s ability to strike enemy targets from great distances.

The Fires Shock exercises come amid renewed Russian aggression toward Ukraine. While Russian forces reportedly have begun to pull back from the Ukrainian border, there are still thousands of troops in the area — the most since 2014, when Moscow forcibly annexed Crimea.

Biden administration officials say the situation remains worrisome and that it’s unclear what Russian President Vladimir Putin may do in the coming weeks.

“I can’t tell you that we know Mr. Putin’s intentions,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday evening. “There are any number of things that he could do or choose not to do.  What we have seen in the last few days is apparently a decision to pull back some of those forces, and we’ve some of them, in fact, start to pull back.”

“We’re watching that very, very closely,” Mr. Blinken said. 

EU summons Russia envoy over blacklisting of its officials

EU summons Russia envoy over blacklisting of its officials

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Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union has summoned Russia’s ambassador after Moscow blacklisted eight EU officials in retaliation for the bloc’s decision to impose sanctions over the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Russian list announced Friday includes European Parliament President David Sassoli and Vera Jourova, a vice president of the European Commission whose brief includes rule of law issues and disinformation.

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said that Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov would meet in Brussels later Monday with senior EU officials who “will convey to him our strong condemnation and rejection of this decision.”

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Stano said the Russian-imposed travel bans are “obviously very politically motivated and lack any legal justification. They are groundless.” He said that “this all shows that Russia is determined to continue the hostile track of confrontation.”

Russia’s foreign ministry has accused the EU of wanting to punish Moscow for its “independent foreign and domestic policies” and of trying to limit its development with “unlawful restrictions.”

EU foreign ministers will discuss tensions with Russia when they meet on May 10. The 27-nation bloc’s heads of state and government will also take up the issue at their summit on May 25.

The EU in March imposed sanctions on six Russian officials involved in the imprisonment of Navalny, who is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vociferous opponent.

Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – accusations that Russian officials reject. European labs have confirmed that Navalny was poisoned.

Russia blacklists 8 EU officials in retaliatory action

Russia blacklists 8 EU officials in retaliatory action

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In this photo takes from a video provided by the Babuskinsky District Court on Thursday, April 29, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on TV screens during a hearing on charges of defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia on Friday blacklisted eight officials from the European Union in retaliation for EU sanctions over the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Russian list includes European Parliament President David Sassoli and Vera Jourova, the vice president of the European Commission for values and transparency.

European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Sassoli condemned the Russian move, saying it’s “unacceptable, lacks any legal justification and is entirely groundless.”

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They said in a statement that Moscow’s action is “the latest, striking demonstration of how the Russian Federation has chosen confrontation with the EU instead of agreeing to redress the negative trajectory of our bilateral relations.”

“The EU reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response to the Russian authorities’ decision,” the statement said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the EU of trying to punish Moscow for its “independent foreign and domestic policies” and of trying contain its development with “unlawful restrictions.” It particularly referred to the EU sanctions slapped on six Russian officials in March.

“All our proposals for settling problems between Russia and the EU through a direct professional dialogue have been consistently ignored or rejected,” the ministry said.

The EU sanctions targeted the Russian officials involved in the imprisonment of Navalny, the most adamant opponent and critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – accusations that Russian officials reject. European labs have confirmed that Navalny was poisoned.

In February, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on charges of violating the terms of a suspended sentence while he was in Germany. The sentence stemmed from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as politically driven.

Russia has rejected the U.S. and the EU criticism of Navalny‘s imprisonment and of Russia‘s crackdown on protests demanding his release as meddling in its internal affairs.

The tensions over Navalny have further exacerbated Russia‘s relations with the West, which plunged to post-Cold War lows after Russia‘s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Those ties have become further strained over U.S. and the EU accusations of Moscow’s interference in elections and hacking attacks.

The Russian sanctions list also includes Ilmar Tomusk, the head of Estonia’s Language Inspectorate; Ivars Abolins, chairman of Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council; Maris Baltins, director of the Latvian State Language Center; Jacques Maire, a French lawmaker who is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; Berlin chief state prosecutor Jorg Raupach; and Asa Scott, head of chemical and biological defense and security division at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

___ Associated Press writer Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.

US Embassy in Moscow limits services after Russia hiring ban

US Embassy in Moscow limits services after Russia hiring ban

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Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said Friday it will sharply curtail its consular activities due to a Russian ban on hiring local residents to work there.

The embassy said in a statement that starting May 12, it will only provide emergency U.S. citizen services and a very limited number of immigrant visas for such life-or-death emergencies.

It noted that non-immigrant visa processing for non-diplomatic travel will cease and it will stop offering routine notarial services, consular reports of birth abroad or passport renewal services for the foreseeable future.

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Moscow has moved to ban the U.S. Embassy and consular offices from hiring Russian and third-country nationals as part of its retaliation to a set of new U.S. sanctions imposed over Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies – activities Moscow has denied.

The U.S. ordered 10 Russian diplomats out, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money. Russia quickly retaliated by ordering 10 U.S. diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former U.S. officials and tightening requirements for U.S. Embassy operations.

The U.S. Embassy warned that the provision of emergency services to U.S. citizens in Russia may also be “delayed or limited due to staff’s constrained ability to travel outside of Moscow.”

It said it was unable to answer specific questions about Russian residency or Russian visas and strongly urged any U.S. citizens present in Russia with expired visas to depart before a June 15 deadline set by the Russian government.

“We regret that the actions of the Russian government have forced us to reduce our consular workforce by 75%, and will endeavor to offer to U.S. citizens as many services as possible,” the embassy said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry commented on Facebook, charging that the decision to limit consular activities indicated that the U.S. diplomatic and consular activities are “archaic and inefficient.”

The ministry suggested that Washington expand its American staff to replace the local hires.

Russia rejects Ukraine’s push to revise 2015 peace deal

Russia rejects Ukraine’s push to revise 2015 peace deal

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a joint news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard following their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Lavrov said in an interview published Wednesday that relations with the United States … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia‘s foreign minister sternly warned Ukrainian officials Wednesday that Moscow would not accept their push to revise a peace deal for eastern Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments followed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling Tuesday for a modification of the 2015 agreement and inviting other nations to help mediate the stalled talks on a political settlement of the conflict in Ukraine‘s east.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists erupted in Ukraine‘s eastern industrial heartland, called Donbas, shortly after Moscow‘s 2014 annexation of Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have been killed during the seven-year conflict. 

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In recent weeks, increasing violations of a shaky cease-fire in eastern Ukraine a Russian troop buildup across the border drew Ukrainian and Western concerns about the potential for large-scale hostilities. Tensions eased last week after Moscow announced a pullback of its forces following massive drills.

The 2015 deal, which was brokered by France and Germany, marked a diplomatic coup for Russia, obliging Ukraine to offer broad autonomy to the separatist regions and amnesty for the rebels. It also stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after the election of local leaders and legislatures, the provisions resented by many Ukrainians as a betrayal of national interests.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist rebels in the east with troops and weapons, claims Moscow has denied. The Kremlin has insisted that Russia isn’t a party to what it described as an internal Ukrainian conflict.

Speaking in an interview with a Russian state TV host, Lavrov criticized the West for turning a blind eye to the failure of Ukrainian authorities to meet their obligations under the 2015 document that was signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, by then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

“The West either can’t or doesn’t want to encourage compliance with the Minsk agreement,” he said.

Lavrov categorically rejected the push by Ukrainian officials to reverse the sequence of steps stipulated by the Minsk deal and to make reclaiming control of the border with Russia in the rebel-controlled regions the first step.

“Control of the border is the very last move that comes only after those territories get a special status fixed in the Ukrainian Constitution and hold free elections acknowledged as such by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” the Russian minister said. “I believe that we mustn’t let Mr. Zelensky and his team get off the hook, even though they are trying hard to wriggle out.”

Zelensky has pushed for a meeting with Putin, but the Russian leader responded last week that Ukrainian authorities need to speak to the rebels to settle the conflict in Donbas. He added that if the Ukrainian president wants to discuss the normalization of ties with Russia, he’s welcome to come to Moscow.

Russian minister: US-Russia ties worse than during Cold War

Russian minister: US-Russia ties worse than during Cold War

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia‘s top diplomat said Wednesday that relations with the United States are now even worse than during Cold War times because of a lack of mutual respect.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow stands ready to normalize ties with Washington but that the U.S. should stop posturing like a “sovereign” while rallying its allies against Russia and China.

Lavrov said if the U.S. shuns a mutually respectful dialogue on the basis of a balance of interests, “we would live in conditions of a Cold War or worse.”

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“During the Cold War, the tensions were flying high, and risky crisis situations often emerged, but there was also a mutual respect,” Lavrov said in a Russian state television interview. “It seems to me there is a deficit of it now.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration slapped Russia with sanctions for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies – activities Moscow has denied.

The U.S. ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money. While ordering the sanctions, U.S. President Joe Biden also called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas.

Russia quickly retaliated by ordering 10 U.S. diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former U.S. officials and tightening requirements for U.S. Embassy operations.

As part of the restrictions, Russia moved to ban the U.S. Embassy and its consulates from hiring Russian citizens and third country nationals. Similar bans would also be applied to other nations designated as “unfriendly.”

Lavrov said Wednesday that a list of those countries will be published soon to formalize the decision.

Speaking in the interview with a Russian state TV host, Lavrov noted that Moscow has had a “positive” attitude to Biden’s proposal to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but added that Russia still needs to analyze all aspects of the initiative.

Lavrov said he would attend a meeting of top diplomats of the Arctic nations in Iceland set for next month and would be ready to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken if he also joins the meeting.

Russian defense chief scoffs at Western warnings on Ukraine

Russian defense chief scoffs at Western warnings on Ukraine

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This handout photo released on Thursday, April 22, 2021 by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watches drills form a board of military helicopter in Crimea. The Russian military is conducting massive drills in … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s defense chief said Tuesday that a troop pullback from areas near Ukraine had nothing to do with Western pressure, adding that Moscow will continue doing what is necessary to protect itself.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also voiced concern about NATO forces’ presence near Russia.

The recent Russian troop buildup near Ukraine worried the West, which strongly urged the Kremlin to withdraw its forces. Shoigu, who ordered the drawdown on Thursday after massive drills, scoffed at the Western calls as inappropriate.

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“Some even warned us that our activities on our own territory will have consequences,” Shoigu said. “I would like to emphasize that we don’t see such warnings as acceptable and will do everything that is necessary to ensure the security of our borders.”

He pointed to the deployment of NATO troops near Russia as a cause for Moscow’s concern.

“The U.S. and NATO activities to increase combat readiness and build up their presence have contributed to an increase in military threats,” Shoigu said, noting that Moscow was closely monitoring the deployment of U.S. troops and weapons in Europe as part of NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 drills.

The Russian troop buildup came amid a rise in cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine, stoking fears of large-scale hostilities. The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine‘s eastern industrial heartland, called Donbas, erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal that was signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The agreement helped end large-scale battles, but skirmishes have continued and a peace settlement has stalled.

The deal obliged Ukraine to grant broad autonomy to the rebel regions and declare an amnesty for the rebels, and stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after they elect local leaders and legislatures. Many in Ukraine saw the deal as a betrayal of national interests and opposed it.

The latest round of the so-called “Normandy Format” talks between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in December 2019 brought no progress.

Ukrainian officials have continuously pushed for revising the Minsk agreement and inviting the U.S. and other powers to join the peace talks, ideas Russia has rejected.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaffirmed a call for modifying the Minsk agreement and inviting other countries to help broker peace talks.

“I believe that the Minsk agreement should be flexible,” Zelenskyy said. “The ”Normandy format” could be extended to involve other serious, powerful players on a parallel track,” Zelenskyy added, without specifying what other nations could be invited to help broker peace talks.

Zelenskyy on Tuesday visited Ukrainian troops near Crimea.

He welcomed the Russian troop pullback, saying it helped de-escalate tensions. At the same time, he noted that “we don’t have a 100% guarantee that the Russian troops won’t return.”

Zelenskyy voiced hope that an agreement could be reached quickly to secure a cease-fire in the east during the celebration of Orthodox Easter this coming Sunday.

___

Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

Czechs expel more Russians in dispute over 2014 depot blast

Czechs expel more Russians in dispute over 2014 depot blast

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By KAREL JANICEK

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

PRAGUE (AP) – The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered more Russian diplomats to leave the country, further escalating a dispute between the two nations over the alleged involvement of Russian spies in a massive ammunition depot explosion in 2014.

Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said Russia won’t be allowed to have more diplomats in Prague than the Czechs currently have at their embassy in Moscow. All others have to leave by the end of May, he said.

He estimated about 60 Russians will have to go.

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The Czech secret services have repeatedly warned that Moscow had a disproportionately high number of diplomats at the embassy in the European Union nation, using it as a base for undercover spies.

“I don’t want to escalate anything,” Kulhanek said. “It’s not a role for the foreign minister. But the Czech Republic is a self-confident country and will act accordingly.”

He said the Czechs had to respond to the activities of Russian agents on Czech territory.

“It’s the Russian side that have paralyzed the situation, not the Czech side,” he said, adding Prague was ready to discuss with Moscow how to set the number of employees at their diplomatic missions “to enable their effective functioning.”

Moscow responded immediately.

“Prague has come on a path of destroying relations. We will respond quickly,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “They have gotten stuck in unbridled Russophobia.”

Last weekend, the Czech government expelled 18 Russian diplomats it identified as spies from the GRU and the SVR, Russia’s military and foreign intelligence services. In response, Russia expelled 20 Czech diplomats.

The Czech government protested what it called Russia’s “inappropriate reaction,” saying the move had paralyzed the Czech Embassy in Moscow.

Kulhanek had given the Russian government a Thursday noon deadline to allow the return of the 20 Czech diplomats or see their staff at the Russian Embassy in Prague cut to the number remaining at the Czech Embassy in Moscow.

The minister said Russia didn’t give an official response.

“The Czech Republic is interested in having correct relations with the Russian Federation based on the principle of two sovereign states,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “We hoped that Russia acknowledges that its reaction was inappropriate, but our proposal to cool down the situation was not answered.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Czech ambassador to the ministry on Thursday.

“This kind of tone is unacceptable while talking to Russia,” Zakharova said.

Czech leaders said Saturday they have evidence provided by the intelligence and security services that points to the participation of two agents from Russia‘s elite GRU Unit 29155 in the 2014 depot blast that killed two people. Russia denied that.

The same two Russians were charged by British authorities in absentia in 2018 with trying to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury.

Kulhanek and Michal Koudelka, the head of the Czech counterintelligence service known as BIS, briefed NATO allies on the situation Thursday and the allies threw their weight behind the Czechs.

“Allies express deep concern over the destabilizing actions that Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” they said in a statement.

Neighboring Slovakia became the first NATO ally to expel Russian diplomats as a sign of solidarity with the Czechs on Thursday. Prime Minister Eduard Heger said three diplomats were given seven days to leave. Their expulsion was based on information from the country’s intelligence services.

___

Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

Russia orders troop pullback, but keeps weapons near Ukraine

Russia orders troop pullback, but keeps weapons near Ukraine

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia‘s defense minister on Thursday ordered troops back to their permanent bases following massive drills amid tensions with Ukraine, but said that they should leave their weapons behind in western Russia for another exercise later this year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the Russian pullback.

After watching the drills, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu declared the maneuvers in Crimea and wide swathes of western Russia over and ordered the military to pull the troops that took part in them back to their permanent bases.

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“I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled,” Shoigu said. “The troops have shown their capability to defend the country and I decided to complete the drills in the South and Western military districts.”

Shoigu said the troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he ordered to keep the heavy weapons deployed to western Russia as part of the drills for another massive military exercise later this year.

Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern Voronezh region. The sprawling range is located 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) east of the border with Ukraine.

The Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that came amid increasing violations of a cease-fire in Ukraine’s east has raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to pull its forces back.

The U.S. and NATO have said that the Russian buildup near Ukraine was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland called Donbas.

Ukraine’s president said the Russian troops’ pullback will help ease tensions and thanked international partners for their support.

“The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,” Zelensky said on Twitter. He noted that Ukraine remains vigilant, but “welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and deescalate the situation in Donbas.”

The Russian military hasn’t reported the number of additional troops that have been moved to Crimea and parts of southwestern Russia near Ukraine, and it wasn’t immediately clear from Shoigu‘s statement if all of them will now be pulled back.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the maneuvers in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft and about 1,200 military vehicles.

The exercise featured the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles on Thursday. Fighter jets covered the airborne operation.

Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea to oversee the exercise. He later declared the drills over, but ordered the military to stand ready to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise. The NATO drills began in March and are to last until June.

“NATO has significantly intensified its military activities in the region,” Shoigu said. “Intelligence gathering has increased and the intensity and scope of operational training has been growing. One of the alliance’s main coalition groups is being deployed in the Black Sea region.”

Russia long has bristled at the deployment of NATO’s forces near its borders and stepped up its drills as relations with the West have sunk to post-Cold War lows over the annexation of Crimea, Russian meddling in elections, hacking attacks and other issues.

Last week, Russia has announced that it would close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November, a move that drew Ukrainian protests and raised Western concerns. Russia also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea this week, arguing that they fully conform with the international law.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned Tuesday that the Russian buildup across the border is continuing and is “expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops” in about a week and urged the West to beef up sanctions against Moscow.

Moscow has rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the buildup, arguing that it’s free to deploy its forces anywhere on the Russian territory and charging that they don’t threaten anyone. But at the same time, the Kremlin sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel east, where seven years of fighting have killed more than 14,000, saying that Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine‘s president on Wednesday signed a law allowing the call-up of reservists for military service without announcing a mobilization. The new law will allow to quickly equip the military with reservists, “significantly increasing their combat effectiveness during military aggression,” Zelensky’s office said in a statement.

Bulgaria to expel 2 Russian diplomats accused of espionage

Bulgaria to expel 2 Russian diplomats accused of espionage

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By VESELIN TOSHKOV

Associated Press

Monday, March 22, 2021

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) – Two Russian diplomats accused by Bulgarian prosecutors of espionage will be expelled from the country, Bulgaria’s foreign ministry announced Monday.

The ministry said that the Russian Embassy in the capital, Sofia, has been notified that the diplomats have to leave Bulgaria within 72 hours.

Earlier on Monday, prosecutors said in a statement that a pre-trial investigation established that “two Russian citizens with diplomatic immunity have carried out illegal intelligence activities.”

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The expulsions are linked to a raid last week that saw authorities detain six people and charge them with delivering classified NATO-linked information to the Russian embassy in Sofia. Later, one of them offered to cooperate with the authorities and was released on bail.

The Sofia Military Court on Monday extended the pretrial detention of the five suspects still in custody. All are current and former Bulgarian military officials.

Prosecution spokeswoman Siika Mileva said the alleged ringleader had graduated from the intelligence school in Moscow run by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.

The operation sparked immediate reactions at home and abroad.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov called on Russia to stop spying on his country.

Last year, Bulgaria expelled five Russian diplomats whom prosecutors had accused of spying. Among them was Russia’s military attaché, who had allegedly been coordinating the military intelligence spy network in Bulgaria.

“Once again it could be necessary to declare Russian diplomats as unwanted,” Borisov said over the weekend.

“Friendship is friendship, but our Euro-Atlantic partnership is an unavoidable factor,” he added.

The Balkan country has close historical links with Russia and continues to be dependent on Moscow’s energy supplies.

Russia’s embassy was quick to brush off the spying allegations, calling them part of “incessant attempts to drive a wedge in the Russian-Bulgarian dialogue and again demonize our country.”

The United States and Britain defended on Saturday their NATO partner Bulgaria against what they called “malign activities” and “hostile actions” by Russia.

Recalled Russian envoy arrives in Moscow for consultations

Recalled Russian envoy arrives in Moscow for consultations

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Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the U.S. speaks during a round-table discussion on the Trump-Putin summit held in Helsinki, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 20, 2018. Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. says Moscow is ready to discuss a possible visit … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Russia’s ambassador to Washington arrived Sunday in Moscow for consultations after the Kremlin expressed fury at President Biden’s characterization of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer” who lacks a soul.

Reacting to a new U.S. intelligence report that concluded Moscow had meddled in the 2020 presidential election for the second straight cycle, Mr. Biden told ABC News in an interview last week that Russia would “pay a price” for its interference.

Mr. Putin and top Russian officials denied the charges and took especially strong exception to Mr. Biden’s language. Mr. Putin mocked the president’s words, recalling a childhood taunt suggesting that Mr. Biden was the one guilty of what he had accused Mr. Putin of doing.

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Russia’s Foreign Ministry took the unusual step of recalling Ambassador Anatoly Antonov from Washington to Moscow to discuss a response in person, the first time it had done so in nearly a quarter-century. Russian press outlets said the envoy landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport early Sunday.

Before leaving New York on Saturday, he told the Russian TASS news agency there was no set time for his return to Washington.

“Several meetings are planned in Moscow in various departments,” Mr. Antonov said. “How long it will take is difficult to say now. But I proceed from the fact that as long as necessary, I will stay as long.”

But he also suggested that Moscow for now is not interested in a complete breakdown in bilateral relations.

“The Russian side has always emphasized that we are interested in the development of Russian-American relations to the same extent as our American colleagues,” Mr. Antonov said. “We need to sort it out.”

Russia scores points with vaccine diplomacy, but snags arise

Russia scores points with vaccine diplomacy, but snags arise

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FILE – In this Aug. 6, 2020, file photo provided by Russian Direct Investment Fund, an employee works with a coronavirus vaccine at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia. Russia’s boast in August that … more >

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By DARIA LITVINOVA

Associated Press

Sunday, March 7, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia‘s boast in August that it was the first country to authorize a coronavirus vaccine led to skepticism at the time because of its insufficient testing. Six months later, as demand for the Sputnik V vaccine grows, experts are raising questions again – this time, over whether Moscow can keep up with all the orders from the countries that want it.

Slovakia got 200,000 doses on March 1, even though the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began reviewing its use on Thursday in an expedited process. The president of the hard-hit Czech Republic said he wrote directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to get a supply. Millions of doses are expected by countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East in a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.

“Sputnik V continues to confidently conquer Europe,” anchor Olga Skabeyeva declared on the Russia-1 state TV channel.

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Dmitry Kiselev, the network’s top pro-Kremlin anchor, heaped on the hyperbole last month, blustering: “The Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, is the best in the world.”

State TV channels have covered vaccine exports extensively, citing praise from abroad for Russia and running segments about the difficulties countries are having with Western vaccines.

The early criticism of Sputnik V has been blunted by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that said large-scale testing showed it to be safe, with an efficacy rate of 91% against the virus.

That could help revamp Russia‘s image to one of a scientific, technological and benevolent power, especially as other countries encounter shortages of COVID-19 vaccines because richer nations are scooping up the Western-made versions or manufacturers struggle with limited production capacity.

“The fact that Russia is among five countries that were able to quickly develop a vaccine … allows Moscow to present itself as a high-tech power of knowledge rather than a petrol pump in decline,” said foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov.

Some experts say boosting the use of vaccines from China and Russia – which have not been as popular as those from the West – could offer a quicker way to increase the global supply. Others note that Russia wants to score geopolitical points.

“Putin is using (the vaccine) to bolster a very tarnished image of Russia’s scientific and technological prowess,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. “He’s using it for geostrategic purposes in areas where Russia would like to have spheres of influence.”

Whether Russia can deliver is another question. China has supplied millions of doses to other countries, but the output of Sputnik V appears for now to be far lower than the demand.

“They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in terms of this vaccine actually being a viable, marketable product,” said Judy Twigg, a political science professor specializing in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They’ve made all of these explicit and implicit promises to people inside and outside Russia about access to this product that now is unexpectedly great. And now they’re stuck trying, scrambling, trying to figure out how to deliver on all those promises.”

Russia also must take care of its own. Authorities have announced plans to vaccinate 60% of adults, or roughly 68 million people, by the end of June.

The domestic rollout in Russia has been slow, compared with other nations, with about 4 million people, or less than 3% of the population, vaccinated as of late February. Some of that could also be due to widespread reluctance among Russians to trust vaccines.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled and markets the vaccine abroad, has not responded to a request for comment on how many doses are going to other countries. It said earlier that it has received requests for 2.4 billion doses from over 50 nations.

Airfinity, a London-based science analytics company, estimates that Russia agreed to supply about 392 million doses abroad, and there are talks with countries for at least another 356 million.

Judging by production and exports so far, “Russia is very far from being able to deliver this,” said Airfinity CEO and founder Rasmus Hansen.

Russia manufactured just over 2 million doses last year amid reports of local producers having problems with buying equipment and making the second component of the two-shot vaccine.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Feb. 20 that over 10 million doses of Sputnik V have been produced.

Sputnik V is a viral vector vaccine, which uses a harmless virus that carries genetic material to stimulate the immune system. Producing it is a complicated process, said Elena Subbotina, a consultant with the pharma consultancy CBPartners’ Central and Eastern Europe Team. Producers can’t guarantee stable output because working with biological ingredients involves a lot of variability in terms of the quality of the finished product.

Some countries that have been offered large batches of Sputnik V have yet to approve it for use.

In India, which has been pledged 125 million doses, the vaccine is undergoing studies to determine if it produces a comparable immune response. Brazil’s health ministry said it is negotiating to purchase 10 million doses, but the nation’s regulatory agency has yet to authorize its use. Nepal, which has been offered 25 million doses, also hasn’t given its approval.

Other countries have had delays in receiving Sputnik V shipments.

Argentina got nearly 2.5 million doses by March 1, even though at one point the government was expecting 5 million in January and over 14 million more in February. Officials in Hungary, who agreed to buy 2 million doses over three months, said Jan. 22 they were expecting 600,000 doses in the first 30 days, but got only 325,600 by early March. Mexico signed a deal for 24 million doses and was hoping to receive 400,000 in February but got only 200,000.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund has agreements with manufacturers in countries including Brazil, South Korea and India to boost production, but there are few indications that manufacturers abroad have made any large amounts of the vaccine so far.

The Brazilian company Uniao Quimica is in the pilot testing phase, the results of which will be shared with Russia before the company can produce it for sale. Indian drugmaker Hetero Biopharma, with a deal to make 100 million doses, was to begin production at the start of 2021, but it isn’t clear if it has actually started.

South Korean company GL Rapha, which expects to make 150 million doses this year, will be manufacturing finished products by sometime in March, said company official Kim Gi-young.

Russia so far hasn’t faced any criticism for delaying supplies of Sputnik V to other countries, with foreign officials optimistic about the deals.

Hungary is still awaiting large shipments, but expressed optimism about receiving them.

“The Russian side, with minimal delay, will meet the 600,000 doses agreed to in the first phase, and then the additional 1.4 million doses,” Hungary’s State Secretary Tamas Menczer said last month. Prime Minister Viktor Orban added Friday: “The Russians are pretty much keeping their promises.”

Promising more than can be delivered appears to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and it is a real risk for Russia as well, said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies.

“They have won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” she said. “But the problem is, how are they going to implement it?”

—-

Associated Press writers Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, India; David Biller in Rio de Janeiro; Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Justin Spike and Bela Szandelszky in Budapest, Hungary; and Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed.

Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at:

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Instagram network aimed to mislead Russians during pro-Navalny protests: Facebook

Instagram network aimed to mislead Russians during pro-Navalny protests: Facebook

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People clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Facebook announced Wednesday that it removed hundreds of Instagram accounts it had connected to a coordinated effort to mislead Russian users during recent protests held in support of Alexey Navalny.

The network of 530 accounts is one of five that Facebook said it purged from its platforms in February for violating the social media company’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Mr. Navalny, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in Moscow in January after returning from Germany, where he was recovering from being poisoned several months earlier.

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Russians protested across the country after Mr. Navalny was arrested, and Facebook said the Instagram accounts sought to bury information about those demonstrations being shared on social media.

“In an attempt to drown out relevant information, this network used hundreds of accounts and mass-posted content with the same hashtags and location tags used by people posting about the protests against the arrest of Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and politician,” Facebook said in a new report. “These accounts were automatically detected by our systems and then disabled as fake.”

Some of the posts made on Instagram were critical of the pro-Navalny protests, including memes that suggested participants would catch the novel coronavirus and then pass it on to their grandparents.

Other posts included Navalny-related hashtags and location tags but were mere advertisements for women’s clothing and handbags, Facebook explained in a report summarizing its findings.

The network of Instagram accounts used images of celebrities for their profile photos in some instances, Facebook reported, while other profile images were computer-generated, the company added.

Facebook said the Instagram accounts primarily originated in Russia but did not attribute them to any specific actor. The accounts were likely created in bulk and then purchased, Facebook added.

Around 55,000 Instagram accounts followed one or more of the network accounts, Facebook said.

Mr. Navalny, 44, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison following his arrest. The U.S. government has blamed Russia for his poisoning and consequently imposed sanctions on Moscow earlier this week.

The four other networks removed by Facebook recently and mentioned in the company’s latest monthly report on coordinated inauthentic behavior include one each from Thailand and Morocco and two from Iran.

Estonia report: Russia bets on COVID-19 weakening the West

Estonia report: Russia bets on COVID-19 weakening the West

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with leaders of the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament factions via video conference residence at the Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool … more >

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By JARI TANNER

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

HELSINKI (AP) – Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency said Wednesday that Russia is counting on the COVID-19 pandemic to weaken unity in the West which would help Moscow gain a more prominent role in international affairs and lead to “declining Western influence on the global stage.”

The Kremlin thinks the pandemic will force Western nations to focus on domestic policy and economic problems and facilitate the emergence of populist and extremist movements, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said in its annual report.

“For its part, Russia is prepared to add fuel to the flames to encourage these trends,” the report states. “Therefore, 2021 will again see Russian influence operations designed to create and deepen divides within and between Western societies, including at the EU (European Union) level.”

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The authors of the 79-page document said Russia’s strategy would likely include attempts to discredit COVID-19 vaccines developed in Western countries, especially the one made by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca. Russian propaganda has labeled the vaccine AstraZeneca developed with Oxford University in England as a “monkey vaccine.”

“With these smear campaigns, Russia hopes, on the one hand, to create a more favorable position for its own vaccines on the world market and on the other hand, to promote its strategic ambition to show itself as being the first among the major powers to provide a solution to the COVID-19 crisis,” the report said.

The Russian government did not offer an immediate reaction to the intelligence report from Estonia, a former Soviet republic. Moscow has repeatedly denied similar Western claims of malign intentions in the past. It also has accused the West of trying to discredit the Russia-produced COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V.

Russia is actively promoting Sputnik V in several European nations, including Serbia. Hungary was the first and so far only European Union nation to have purchase quantities of Sputnik V.

“The coronavirus epidemic hasn’t diminished the actions and ambitions of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s regime. On the contrary, we can see how there is an attempt to utilize the pandemic to reap gains for (Russia’s) domestic and foreign policy,” the Estonian agency’s Director General Mikk Marran told reporters during a news conference in Tallinn, the nation’s capital.

Addressing the new U.S. leadership and President Joe Biden, the report said that Russia’s agenda toward Washington isn’t likely to significantly change and will remain “largely confrontational.”

Estonia‘s relations with neighboring Russia have remained chilly ever since 1991, when the Baltic nation of 1.3 million and its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence amid the fall of the Soviet Union. The three countries have since joined NATO and the European Union.

Though focusing largely on events in Russia or in neighboring nations such as Belarus and Ukraine, the report also discussed developments in China. It said Beijing’s ambitious plan to become the global leader in technology “poses major security threats” to the rest of the world.

New generation 5G mobile networks, advanced satellite navigation technology, cloud services and artificial intelligence were listed in the report as examples of where China either has or hopes to play a key global role.

China’s “leadership has a clear objective of making the world dependent on Chinese technology,” the document states.

The report’s authors also warned Estonia‘s leadership that integrating the country “into China’s autonomous technology ecosystem makes Estonia vulnerable and dependent on China.”

Estonia previously banned China’s Huawei, the world’s leading 5G technology provider, from supplying technology and equipment to the government, citing security concerns.

Russia says it’s ready for split if EU imposes new sanctions

Russia says it’s ready for split if EU imposes new sanctions

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In this photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Russia is prepared to cut ties with the European Union if the EU … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, February 12, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia is prepared for a split with the European Union if the EU imposes new crippling sanctions amid a dispute over the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the nation’s top diplomat warned Friday.

In response to a question about Moscow‘s willingness to rupture links with the EU, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks that Russia doesn’t want to be isolated but must increase its self-sufficiency to face potential EU sanctions.

“We don’t want to be isolated from international life, but we must be ready for that,” Lavrov said. “If you want peace, you must prepare for war.”

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Asked if Russia is heading toward a split with the European Union, Lavrov replied, “We proceed from the assumption that we are ready for that.”

He emphasized the importance of economic ties with the 27 EU nations, adding that Russia would continue engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation. At the same time, Lavrov said, Russia must prepare for the worst and increasingly rely on its own resources.

“We must achieve that in the economic sphere, if we see again, as we have felt more than once, that sanctions imposed in some areas create risks to our economy, including in the most sensitive spheres, such as supplies of parts and components,” the Russian foreign minister added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasized that Russia wants to maintain normal ties with the EU but needs to prepare for the worst, if the bloc takes hostile actions.

“If we face a destructive course that will hurt our infrastructure, our interests, Russia must be ready in advance for such unfriendly steps,” Peskov said during a call with reporters when asked about Lavrov‘s comment. “We must be self-reliant. We must ensure our security in the most sensitive strategic areas and be prepared to replace everything we could be deprived of with national infrastructure in case madness prevails and such unfriendly actions take place.”

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Friday the EU welcomes “mutually beneficial cooperation whenever the other side is ready for such a cooperation and for such a dialogue,” adding that Russia has “indicated that they are not really willing to go in this direction.”

German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse described Lavrov‘s comments as “really disconcerting and completely incomprehensible to us.” She told reporters in Berlin that Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had made Germany’s grievances with Russia clear but also emphasized that ”we are interested in cooperation with Russia.”

Russia-EU relations have sunk to new lows over Navalny‘s arrest and imprisonment. The most prominent political foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin was arrested Jan. 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recuperating from the nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have denied the allegations.

Last week, a court in Moscow sent Navalny to prison for two years and eight months for violating terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. The probation stemmed from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.

Navalny was back in court Friday on a charge of defaming a World War II veteran who was featured in a video last year advertising constitutional amendments that allowed an extension of Putin’s rule. Navalny called the people in the video “corrupt stooges,” “people without conscience” and “traitors.” He rejected the libel charges as part of Kremlin efforts to disparage him and could face a fine or community service, if convicted.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after visiting Russia last week that the 27-nation bloc must take a firm stance in its relations with Russia and ponder new sanctions in the wake of Navalny’s prison sentence. While Borrell was meeting with Lavrov, Moscow announced the expulsion of diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for attending protests in support of Navalny.

The three EU countries responded in kind Monday, each expelling a Russian diplomat.

Borrell has said he plans to submit proposals for possible actions against Russia when he chairs the next meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers on Feb. 22.

Navalny‘s arrest triggered a wave of protests across Russia that drew tens of thousands of people to the streets in the largest show of discontent in years. Authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, detaining about 11,000 people across Russia. Many protesters were fined or given jail sentences ranging from seven to 15 days.

The United States and the European Union have urged Russia to release Navalny and to end the crackdown on protests. The Kremlin has accused them of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs and said it would not listen to Western criticism of Navalny’s sentencing and police actions against his supporters.

Lavrov accused the West of pursuing the “aggressive containment of Russia” to punish the country for its independent foreign policy.

“The sanctions wouldn’t bring any result. They wouldn’t change our course for defending our national interests,” Lavrov said.

___

Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

Russia expels EU diplomats over Navalny as tensions rise

Russia expels EU diplomats over Navalny as tensions rise

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Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova arrives to the Babuskinsky district court for the continuation of his trial, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. A Moscow court resumes the trial against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny on … more >

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By DARIA LITVINOVA

Associated Press

Friday, February 5, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia said Friday it was expelling diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany, accusing them of attending a rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as international tensions grew over the jailing of the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.

The announcement came as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the treatment of Navalny represents “a low point” in relations between Brussels and Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Swedish and Polish diplomats in St. Petersburg and a German diplomat in Moscow of taking part in what it called “unlawful” rallies on Jan. 23. Tens of thousands of people across Russia took to the streets that day to protest Navalny‘s arrest.

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The diplomats were declared “persona non grata” and were required to leave Russia “shortly,” a ministry statement said.

European officials strongly denounced the move.

Germany said its diplomat was fulfilling his duty by following the developments, and it warned Moscow that its action won’t go unanswered, summoning the Russian ambassador.

“We consider this expulsion unjustified and think it is another facet of the things that can be seen in Russia at the moment that are pretty far from the rule of law,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin after a videoconference with French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron expressed solidarity with Germany, Poland and Sweden and condemned “in the stronger terms” the expulsions and what happened to Navalny “from the beginning to the end.”

Sweden said it “considers this entirely unjustified, which we have also conveyed to the Russian side,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mats Samuelsson said in a statement to The Associated Press. Stockholm “strongly rejects Russian claims that the diplomat took part in a demonstration in Russia” and “reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response,” he said.

Poland also warned Moscow the move will worsen relations.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the action was further evidence Moscow was “turning its back on international law,” tweeting that expelling diplomats “for simply doing their jobs is a crude attempt to distract from Russia’s targeting of opposition leaders, protesters and journalists.”

Speaking at the start of his talks with Lavrov, Borrell said “our relations are under a severe strain, and the Navalny case is a low point in our relations.”

Afterward, Borell said he had relayed his concerns over Navalny’s jailing and the arrests of thousands of who had rallied on his behalf. The EU official said he also communicated the bloc’s support for Navalny‘s release and for an investigation of the August poisoning but added that there were no proposals of additional sanctions against Russia from the EU at this point.

Merkel said that “we reserve the right to continue the sanctions” but noted the Navalny situation shouldn’t affect the Nord Stream 2 pipeline under construction to deliver more Russian natural gas to Germany.

Lavrov again accused European officials of refusing to share evidence of the poisoning. The Kremlin has said it won’t listen to Western criticism of Navalny’s sentencing and police action against his supporters.

Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.

On Tuesday, a Moscow court ruled that while in Germany, Navalny violated probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison. The ruling prompted international outrage.

In the mass protests across Russia‘s 11 time zones for two weekends in a row, many people chanted slogans against Putin in the largest show of discontent in years. Thousands were detained. Several of Navalny‘s close allies face criminal charges and are under house arrest, and many of his associates were handed short jail terms.

Top Navalny strategist Leonid Volkov argued Thursday that trying to maintain rallies every weekend would only lead to many more arrests and wear out the participants and said that protests should pause until spring after reaching a peak.

Instead, he urged supporters to focus on challenging Kremlin-backed candidates in September’s parliamentary elections and securing new Western sanctions against Russia to press for Navalny’s release. He said Navalny’s team would try to ensure that “every world leader would discuss nothing but Navalny’s release with Putin.”

On Friday, however, another Navalny ally, Vladimir Milov, expressed disappointment with Borrell‘s visit to Moscow. He called it a “disastrously weak visit” and said Lavrov “used him as a decoration to lecture Europe on ‘international law.’”

“Maybe he’ll bring back some Sputink V vaccines as a reward,” Milov tweeted, referencing Borrell‘s praise of Russia‘s domestically developed coronavirus vaccine.

Navalny, meanwhile, was back in court Friday for yet another trial – this time on a charge of defaming a World War II veteran featured in a pro-Kremlin video that Navalny denounced on social media last year.

A criminal probe was opened after Navalny slammed people featured in a video promoting constitutional amendments last year that allowed an extension to Putin’s rule. Navalny called the people in the video “corrupt stooges,” “people without conscience” and “traitors.”

Russian authorities maintained that Navalny’s comments “denigrate (the) honor and dignity” of Ignat Artemenko, the veteran featured in the video.

If convicted, Navalny faces a fine or community service. He has denied the charge and refused to enter a plea on Friday, calling the trial a “PR process” aimed at disparaging him.

“The Kremlin needs headlines (saying that) Navalny slandered a veteran,” he said.

Artemenko, 94, took part in the hearing via teleconference, saying he was distressed by Navalny‘s comments and demanding a public apology.

Navalny accused Artemenko’s family of exploiting the frail man for their own gain, alleging the case was fabricated and the evidence falsified.

“The judge should burn in hell, and you’re selling your grandfather out,” Navalny said, as Artemenko’s grandson testified.

The hearing was eventually adjourned until Feb. 12.

___

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Jill Lawless in London contributed.

Kremlin: Thousands of arrests at Navalny protests a necessary response

Kremlin: Thousands of arrests at Navalny protests a necessary response

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In this Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, file photo, detained protesters walk escorted by police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia. A prison sentence for Navalny and a sweeping crackdown on protesters … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Thursday, February 4, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin said Thursday that thousands of arrests at protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were a necessary response to the unsanctioned rallies and strongly rebuffed Western criticism.

Asked about the harsh treatment of thousands of detainees, who spent many hours on police buses and were put in overcrowded cells, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that they have to bear responsibility for joining the unsanctioned protests.

“The situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement, it was provoked by participants in unlawful actions,” Peskov said in a call with reporters.

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Massive protests erupted after Navalny, a 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner who is Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning, which he has blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement and claim they have no proof that he was poisoned despite tests by several European labs.

A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered Navalny to prison for two years and eight months, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany, a ruling that caused international outrage and triggered new protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Following Navalny‘s arrest, authorities also have moved swiftly to silence and isolate his allies. Last week, a Moscow court put his brother, Oleg, top associate Lyubov Sobol, and several other key allies under house arrest – without access to the internet – for two months as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions during protests.

On Thursday, Sobol was formally charged with the incitement of violation of sanitary regulations by organizing protests.

Protests have spread across Russia‘s 11 time zones over the past two weekends, drawing tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent with Putin’s rule in years.

In a no-holds-barred response to the protest, police arrested over 10,000 protest participants across Russia and beat scores, according to the OVD-Info group monitoring arrests. Many detainees had to spend hours on police buses after detention facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg quickly ran out of space, or were cramped into cells intended to accommodate far fewer inmates.

Peskov said that Russia won’t listen to Western criticism of Navalny‘s sentencing and police action against protesters.

Russia hints it may return to overflight treaty if US does

Russia hints it may return to overflight treaty if US does

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Russian President Vladimir Putin leads a meeting via video conference in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia may consider returning to an international pact allowing surveillance flights over military facilities if the United States reverses its exit, the top Russian diplomat said Tuesday.

Moscow announced last month that it would leave the Open Skies Treaty following the U.S. departure from the pact last year, adding that Russian proposals to keep the treaty alive after the U.S. withdrawal have been given the cold shoulder by Washington’s allies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after Tuesday’s talks in Moscow with Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that Moscow could still mull the return.

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“If the United States fully returns to observing the treaty, the Russian Federation would be ready to constructively consider that new situation,” Lavrov said.

He noted that while Russia has declared its intention to quit, it hasn’t yet formally submitted the relevant notice to other parties.

Lavrov’s statement comes days after Moscow and Washington reached a last-minute agreement to extend their last remaining nuclear arms control pact, the New START treaty, that was due to expire on Feb. 5.

When U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a call last week, the Kremlin said they discussed the Open Skies pact along with other issues. It didn’t elaborate.

The Open Skies Treaty was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by allowing the accord’s more than three dozen signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories to collect information about military forces and activities. More than 1,500 flights have been conducted under the treaty since it took effect in 2002, aimed at fostering transparency about military activity and helping monitor arms control and other agreements.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact, arguing that Russian violations made it untenable for Washington to remain a party. The U.S. completed its withdrawal from the pact in November.

Russia has insisted that the restrictions on observation flights it imposed in the past were permissible by the treaty and noted that the U.S. imposed more sweeping restrictions on observation flights over Alaska.

Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny faces court that may jail him for years

Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny faces court that may jail him for years

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In this Thursday, April 23, 2015 file photo, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia talk in a courtroom before the hearing in Moscow, Russia. Moscow is bracing for more protests seeking the release of jailed opposition leader … more >

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By Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny faced a court hearing Tuesday that could end with him being sent to prison for years.

The 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny the charge and claim, despite tests by several European labs, that they have no proof he was poisoned.

Russia’s penitentiary service alleges that Navalny violated the probation conditions of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that he has rejected as politically motivated. It has asked the Simonovsky District Court in Moscow to turn his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into one that he must serve in prison.

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Navalny and his lawyers have argued that while he recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he could not register with Russian authorities in person as required by the terms of his probation. Navalny also insisted that his due process rights were crudely violated during his arrest and described his jailing as a travesty of justice.

Navalny‘s jailing has triggered massive protests across Russia over the past two weekends, in which tens of thousands took to the streets to demand his release, chanting slogans against Putin. Police detained over 5,750 people during Sunday’s rallies, including more than 1,900 in Moscow, the biggest number the nation has seen since Soviet times. Some were beaten.

Most were released after being handed court summons and face fines or jail terms of 7-15 days. Several people faced criminal charges over alleged violence against police.

Navalny‘s team has called for another demonstration Tuesday outside the Moscow court building. Police were deployed in force near the court building and cordoned off nearby streets, making random detentions.

After his arrest, Navalny’s team released a two-hour YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times, fueling discontent as ordinary Russians struggle with an economic downturn and the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin insisted last week that neither he nor his relatives own any of the properties mentioned in the video, and his long time confidant, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, claimed that he owns it.

As part of efforts to squelch the protests, the authorities have targeted Navalny’s associates and activists across the country. His brother Oleg, top ally Lyubov Sobol and several others were put under house arrest for two months and face criminal charges of violating coronavirus restrictions.

The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage, with Western officials calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators. Russia has dismissed the comments of U.S. officials as interfering in its domestic affairs.

Taliban visit Moscow, voice hope US will honor peace deal

Taliban visit Moscow, voice hope US will honor peace deal

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, January 29, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – After a round of talks in Moscow, the Taliban said Friday they expect the United States to fulfill its pledge to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by May.

Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, who led the Taliban delegation that met with senior Russian diplomats during two days of talks, insisted that the movement has honored its end of the deal signed last year on Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.

White House and U.S. State Department officials have said that Biden’s administration plans to take a new look at the peace agreement signed last February with Donald Trump’s White House.

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The Pentagon said on Thursday that the Taliban’s refusal to meet commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan is raising questions about whether all U.S. troops will be able to leave by May as required under the peace deal.

In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, Stanikzai insisted that the Taliban have been abiding by the deal – despite relentless attacks and continued high levels of Taliban violence against Afghan forces.

“Ever since we signed the agreement with the American side, we haven’t been involved in any aggressive actions,” Stanikzai said. “We hope that the U.S. will continue to honor the agreement reached in Doha, it’s in its interests.”

The peace agreement called for the U.S. to reduce troop levels to 2,500, and then to remove all forces by May. Trump ordered U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan cut to 2,500 just days before he left office, presenting Biden with difficult decisions about how to retain leverage against the Taliban in support of peace talks.

Stanikzai warned that if the U.S. reneges on the deal, the Taliban will continue their fight against the government in Kabul. The insurgents are now at their strongest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban control or hold sway over nearly half of Afghanistan

“We hope that the U.S. will leave,” Stanikzai said. “But if it doesn’t, we would have no other choice but to defend ourselves and continue our struggle.”

He strongly rejected allegations that Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers as “an absolute lie.”

U.S. officials have said they were analyzing intelligence about the bounties offered by Russia. Moscow has rejected the claim.

Stanikzai said that the Taliban and Russia “share a common understanding of various issues related to the peace process in Afghanistan,” voicing hope that Moscow will help the settlement. In particular, he added the Taliban expect Russia to support the lifting of the U.N. sanctions on the Taliban leaders.

Stanikzai also voiced hope that ongoing, stop-and-start peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government that began last year will produce results soon.

The peace talks, which are taking place in Qatar, resumed earlier this month but have been marred by the latest spike in violence, with both sides blaming each other.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with Soviet troops’ withdrawal in 1989, has made a diplomatic comeback as a power broker in Afghanistan, mediating between feuding factions as it jockeys with Washington for influence in the country. In 2019, it hosted talks between various Afghan factions.

Russian parliament OKs New START nuclear treaty extension

Russian parliament OKs New START nuclear treaty extension

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In this file photo taken on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow, Russia. Russia and the United … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — The lower house of Russian parliament on Wednesday quickly approved the extension of the last remaining nuclear arms control pact days before it’s due to expire.

The State Duma voted unanimously to extend the New START treaty for five years. The vote came a day after a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which they voiced satisfaction with the exchange of diplomatic notes about extending the New START treaty. They agreed to complete the necessary procedures in the next few days, according to the Kremlin.

The pact’s extension doesn’t require congressional approval in the U.S., but Russian lawmakers must ratify the move. Top members of the upper house, the Federation Council, said it was set to quickly follow suit and endorse the extension later Wednesday.

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Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told lawmakers that the extension will be validated by exchanging diplomatic notes once all the procedures are completed.

New START expires on Feb. 5. After taking office last week, Biden proposed extending the treaty for five years, and the Kremlin quickly welcomed the offer.

The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance. 

Biden indicated during the campaign that he favored the preservation of the New START treaty, which was negotiated during his tenure as U.S. vice president.

Russia has long proposed prolonging the pact without any conditions or changes, but the Trump administration waited until last year to start talks and made the extension contingent on a set of demands. The talks stalled, and months of bargaining have failed to narrow differences.

The negotiations were also marred by tensions between Russia and the United States, which have been fueled by the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow‘s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other irritants.

After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.

Earlier this month, Russia announced that it would follow the U.S. in pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed surveillance flights over military facilities, to help build trust and transparency between Russia and the West.

Before the Biden administration took office, Russia always had offered to extend New START for five years — a possibility that was envisaged by the pact at the time it was signed. But President Donald Trump charged that it put the U.S. at a disadvantage. Trump initially insisted that China be added to the treaty, an idea that Beijing bluntly dismissed. 

The Trump administration then proposed to extend New START for just one year and also sought to expand it to include limits on battlefield nuclear weapons.

EU urges Navalny’s release but no talk of Russia sanctions

EU urges Navalny’s release but no talk of Russia sanctions

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A demonstrator clashes with a police officer during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Pushkin square in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. Russian police arrested more than 3,400 people Saturday in nationwide protests demanding … more >

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Associated Press

Monday, January 25, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union’s foreign ministers on Monday condemned the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the detention of thousands during protests backing the most well-known critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin but stopped short of weighing new sanctions against Russia.

“The Council considered it completely unacceptable, condemned the mass detentions, and the police brutality over the weekend,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing the meeting in Brussels. “We call on Russia for the release of Mr. Navalny and those detained.”

Navalny was arrested earlier this month when he returned to Moscow after spending months in Germany recovering from a poisoning in Russia with what experts say was the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.

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More than 3,700 people were detained across Russia during Saturday’s nationwide protests in support of Navalny, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests. The group said the number was a record in its nine years of work. More than 1,400 of the detentions occurred in Moscow alone – also a record, according to Russian media.

Asked whether the EU ministers had discussed new sanctions against Russia, Borrell said “there has not been any concrete proposal on the table,” but added that the ministers are “ready to act, depending on the circumstances.”

The EU already imposed sanctions in October on six Russian officials and a state research institute over Navalny’s poisoning.

Borrell said he would visit Moscow next week for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The EU’s top diplomat said the long-standing invitation from Lavrov would be a good opportunity to discuss “all relevant issues,” and help prepare for a debate on Russia ties between EU leaders in March.

When it was suggested that he could make his visit conditional on meeting Navalny, Borrell said: “You don’t do things this way.”

On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed concern about what he called Russia’s “authoritarian drift.” He told France-Inter radio that “all light must be shed” on Navalny’s poisoning.

“This was an assassination attempt,” Le Drian said.

Saturday’s protests attracted thousands of people in major Russian cities, including an estimated 15,000 in Moscow. As they unfolded, the U.S. embassy spokeswoman in the city, Rebecca Ross, said on Twitter that the United States “supports the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression. Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights.”

The embassy also tweeted a State Department statement calling for Navalny’s release.

Putin’s spokesman said the statements interfered in the country’s domestic affairs and encouraged Russians to break the law.

Alexei Navalny, jailed Kremlin critic, preemptively addresses potential death in Russian prison

Alexei Navalny, jailed Kremlin critic, preemptively addresses potential death in Russian prison

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In this Aug. 22, 2019, file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks to the media prior to a court session in Moscow, Russia. The return of Navalny from Germany on Jan. 17, 2021, after he spent five months in … more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Friday, January 22, 2021

Alexei Navalny stressed that he is not suicidal in a statement he shared on social media Friday on the eve of supporters of the jailed Russian opposition leader planning to protest his imprisonment.

“Just in case: I don’t plan to either hang myself on the window or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon,” Mr. Navalny said in an Instagram post, as translated by The Moscow Times.

“I take the stairs very carefully. My blood pressure is measured every day — it’s like an astronaut’s and a sudden heart attack is out of the question,” Mr. Navalny continued, as translated by the Meduza news site. “My psycho-emotional state is completely stable. I know that there are lots of good people outside my prison and help will come.”

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Mr. Navalny, 44, one of the Kremlin’s most prominent critics, offered the grim assurances while detained at Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison following his most recent arrest days earlier.

Police detained Mr. Navalny shortly after he arrived Sunday in Moscow following a flight from Berlin, where he had been recuperating since August after a near-fatal poisoning.

German authorities determined Mr. Nalanvy was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet nerve agent, and the U.S. subsequently accused the Russian government of responsibility. The Kremlin has denied involvement.

Supporters of Mr. Navalny seeking his release from prison have announced plans to protest Saturday. Russia prohibits such rallies, however, so they also risk imprisonment.

Indeed, Russian state media reported Friday that Mr. Navalny‘s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, among others, was arrested on the eve of the protests for encouraging participation and ordered jailed for nine days.

Russia welcomes US proposal to extend nuclear treaty

Russia welcomes U.S. proposal to extend nuclear treaty

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In this file photo taken from a video distributed by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, a rocket launches from missile system as part of the drills, a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin on Friday welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposal to extend the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the two countries, which is set to expire in less than two weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia stands for extending the pact and is waiting to see the details of the U.S. proposal.

The White House said Thursday that Biden has proposed to Russia a five-year extension of the New START treaty.

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“We can only welcome political will to extend the document,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “But all will depend on the details of the proposal.”

The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance. It expires on Feb. 5.

Russia has long proposed to prolong the pact without any conditions or changes, but President Donald Trump’s administration waited until last year to start talks and made the extension contingent on a set of demands. The talks stalled, and months of bargaining have failed to narrow differences.

“Certain conditions for the extension have been put forward, and some of them have been absolutely unacceptable for us, so let’s see first what the U.S. is offering,” Peskov said.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador at the international organizations in Vienna, also hailed Biden’s proposal as an “encouraging step.”

“The extension will give the two sides more time to consider possible additional measures aimed at strengthening strategic stability and global security,” he tweeted.

Biden indicated during the campaign that he favored the preservation of the New START treaty, which was negotiated during his tenure as U.S. vice president.

The talks on the treaty’s extension also were clouded by tensions between Russia and the United States, which have been fueled by the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other irritants.

Despite the extension proposal, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden remains committed to holding Russia “to account for its reckless and adversarial actions,” such as its alleged involvement in the Solar Winds hacking event, 2020 election interference, the chemical poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the widely reported allegations that Russia may have offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Asked to comment on Psaki’s statement, Peskov has reaffirmed Russia’s denial of involvement in any such activities.

After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.

Arms control advocates have strongly called for New START’s preservation, warning that its lapse would remove any checks on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

Last week, Russia also declared that it would follow the U.S. to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty allowing surveillance flights over military facilities to help build trust and transparency between Russia and the West.

While Russia always offered to extend New START for five years – a possibility envisaged by the pact – Trump asserted that it put the U.S. at a disadvantage and initially insisted that China be added to the treaty, an idea that Beijing flatly rejected. Trump’s administration then proposed to extend New START for just one year and also sought to expand it to include limits on battlefield nuclear weapons.

Moscow has said it remains open for new nuclear arms talks with the U.S. to negotiate future limits on prospective weapons, but emphasized that preserving New START is essential for global stability.

Russian diplomats have said that Russia’s prospective Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle could be counted along with other Russian nuclear weapons under the treaty.

The Sarmat is still under development, while the first missile unit armed with the Avangard became operational in December 2019.

The Russian military has said the Avangard is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound and could make sharp maneuvers on its way to a target to bypass missile defense systems. It has been fitted to the existing Soviet-built intercontinental ballistic missiles instead of older type warheads, and in the future could be fitted to the more powerful Sarmat.

Judge orders Alexei Navalny remanded for 30 days, spokeswoman says

Judge orders Alexei Navalny remanded for 30 days, spokeswoman says

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In this image taken from video released by Navalny Life YouTube channel, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks as he waits for a court hearing in a police station in Khimki, outside in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. A … more >

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By Daria Litvinova

Associated Press

Monday, January 18, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — A judge on Monday ordered Alexei Navalny to be remanded in custody for 30 days, the Russian opposition leader’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter. 

The ruling concluded an hours-long court hearing set up at a police precinct where the politician was held since his arrest at a Moscow airport Sunday. 

Navalny flew to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. He was detained at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport after flying in Sunday evening from Berlin, where he was treated following the poisoning in August. 

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Navalny‘s arrest prompted a wave of criticism from U.S. and European officials, adding to existing tension between Russia and West.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Navalny had returned of his own volition and said “it is completely incomprehensible that he was detained by Russian authorities immediately after his arrival.”

Russia is bound by its own constitution and by international commitments to the principle of the rule of law and the protection of civil rights,” Maas added. “These principles must of course also be applied to Alexei Navalny. He should be released immediately.”

The politician’s allies said Monday he was being held at a police precinct outside Moscow and has been refused access to his lawyer. The court hearing into whether Navalny should remain in custody was hastily set up at the precinct itself, and the politician’s lawyers said they were notified minutes before.

“It is impossible what is happening over here,” Navalny said in video from the improvised court room, posted on his page in the messaging app Telegram. “It is lawlessness of the highest degree.”

Calls for Navalny‘s immediate release have come from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and top officials of other EU nations. 

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser called on Russian authorities to free Navalny. “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Jake Sullivan tweeted.

The outgoing U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the decision to arrest Navalny.

Nevertheless, the judge ordered that Navalny be remanded in custody until Feb. 15, Yarmysh said on Twitter. Navalny‘s lawyer Vadim Kobzev told the Interfax news agency that the defense plans to appeal the ruling.

Navalny‘s detention was widely expected because Russia‘s prisons service said he had violated probation terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 money-laundering conviction. 

The service said it would seek to have Navalny serve his 3½-year sentence behind bars.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday the stream of Western reactions to Navalny‘s arrest reflects an attempt “to divert attention from the crisis of the Western model of development.”

“Navalny’s case has received a foreign policy dimension artificially and without any foundation,” Lavrov said, arguing that his detention was a prerogative of Russian law enforcement agencies that explained their action. “It’s a matter of observing the law,” he added. 

Navalny, 44, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent and determined foe, brushed off concerns about arrest as he boarded his flight in Berlin on Sunday. 

“It’s impossible. I’m an innocent man,” he said.

Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later. 

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned, and officials have challenged Germany to provide proof of the poisoning 

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he alleged was a member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.

Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repression. Russian authorities have launched multiple criminal investigations against him, and he has been tried and convicted in two separate criminal cases widely seen as politically motivated. 

In December 2014, Navalny was convicted on charges of fraud and money-laundering and received a 3½-year suspended sentence, which he denounced as politically motivated and the European Court of Human Rights found “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” three years later. 

The sentence carried a probation period that was due to expire in December 2020. Authorities said the politician was subject to regular in-person checks with law enforcement officers as one of the conditions of his probation. 

Russia‘s prison service first accused Navalny of not appearing for these checks on Dec. 28 — two days before the probation period was supposed to end. 

Navalny and his team rejected the accusations and said the move was an attempt by the Kremlin to keep the politician from coming back to Russia.

Three days before his return to Moscow, the prison service alleged in a statement that Navalny repeatedly failed to appear for the checks, including when he was convalescing in Germany, and said it was “obligated to undertake actions to detain” the politician. 

Navalny had repeatedly said he would come back to Russia despite threats of arrest, saying he didn’t leave the country by choice, but rather “ended up in Germany in an intensive care box,” and said he was still dedicated to his cause. 

“I will go back to Russia, I will continue my work. No other possibility has ever been considered or is being considered,” Navalny said in October. 

___

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.