Christopher Steele Trump dossier relied on mystery man, hearsay

‘Rumor at best’: Dossier that rocked D.C. relied on mystery man, hearsay

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This Tuesday, March 7, 2017, file photo shows Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who set up Orbis Business Intelligence and compiled a dossier on Donald Trump, in London. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP) ** FILE ** more >

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By Rowan Scarborough

The Washington Times

Monday, July 20, 2020

A man of mystery in Moscow who fed a cache of anti-Trump hearsay to Christopher Steele in London for his notorious dossier relied on six sources: five friends and a 30-minute call from an anonymous person he never could identify, a newly declassified FBI document shows.

The dossier rocked Washington, empowered the liberal media, captivated the FBI and emboldened Democrats to try to oust President Trump. Yet Mr. Steele’s work was based on the words of a smattering of Moscow inhabitants with no firsthand knowledge of any supposed event, the FBI paper shows.

The alleged trip to Prague by Trump attorney Michael Cohen, for example, came from the Moscow source’s longtime childhood friend, who repeated gossip to him and later repudiated what she had said to the FBI.

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The FBI notes show the dossier’s go-to source told agents “his social network is vast and he has other, random associates.”

The U.S. government officially calls the mystery man Mr. Steele’s “primary sub source” — in other words, the main dossier architect. He is a Russian-speaking foreigner who circulates in Moscow’s academic and consulting worlds and does his research from home.

After feeding Mr. Steele stunning allegations — plot lines about The Ritz-Carlton hotel, Prague, Trump-is-a-Russian-spy — the primary source conceded to the FBI that he took what his friends told him with “a grain of salt.”

The source’s profile, but not his name, is contained in a highly censored FBI report summarizing three interviews agents conducted with him in the Washington field office in January 2017. It is the first look at any detail of the group of people, or subsources, who provided now-discredited allegations against the president and his aides. Mr. Trump recently said Mr. Steele belongs in jail.

Together with the December report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the two narratives show a dossier compiled from raw second- and thirdhand gossip that was texted or phoned in, once while the primary source lounged by a pool. At some point in his collecting, the source and Mr. Steele, whom he first met in 2009 and went on his payroll, celebrated with a glass of champagne.

The debunked dossier was funded by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Notable congressional Democrats freely quoted it in 2017 as a way to dislodge the president.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the debriefing shows that the FBI at that point should have stopped seeking dossier-based wiretap warrants on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.

Instead, the FBI sought two more warrants, vouching for the dossier’s accuracy, and used it to fuel the 22-month probe of special counsel Robert Mueller. The special counsel found no Trump-Russia election conspiracy.

Said Mr. Graham: “The document reveals that the primary ‘source’ of Steele’s election reporting was not some well-connected current or former Russian official, but a non-Russian-based contract employee of Christopher Steele’s firm. Moreover, it demonstrates that the information that Steele’s primary source provided him was second- and thirdhand information and rumor at best.”

Then there is the question of Kremlin disinformation. The profiles of the six sources show that some of them claimed to be conduits for Russian intelligence. The Horowitz report said intelligence agencies warned the FBI that Russian spies knew what Mr. Steele was up to and had infiltrated the primary source’s network.

Here is the cast of six dossier contributors as described in the FBI’s 60-page debrief. The FBI gave each a number:

Source 1: A Russian with contacts in the intelligence service and FSB, or Federal Security Service. The primary source met this person at a cafe in June 2016. The person was a source for the first dossier memo, No. 80.

This person apparently spoke with or heard secondhand information from “a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure and a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin.”

The memo claims that the Kremlin “had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents.” (This assertion, like so many others in the dossier, proved untrue.)

Source 2. This Russian supplied the rumor, also in memo No. 80, about Mr. Trump and prostitutes in The Ritz-Carlton Moscow hotel in 2013, when the Trump Organization staged the Miss Universe pageant.

The primary source had asked this person for any “compromising materials on Trump,” the FBI document says. Source 2 repeated a “well known story.” “Source 2 said the hotel is bugged and ‘heaven only knows’ who or what has been filmed by the FSB.”

The primary source interviewed hotel management and said he did not get a denial. He said he reported to Mr. Steele “Trump’s unorthodox sexual activity at the Ritz as ‘rumor and speculation’ and that he had not been able to confirm the story.”

Intelligence agencies warned the FBI that the Ritz story was Russian disinformation.

Source 3. This is perhaps the dossier’s most damaging contributor for Mr. Trump and aides. She is a female friend of the primary source. They have known each other for years. They have borrowed money from each other and gone shopping together.

She said Trump volunteer Carter Page, during a July 2016 trip to Moscow, met secretly with Igor Divyekin, a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Page has always denied this, and the Mueller report cleared him.

Source 3 also told the other big conspiracy story: that Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly traveled to Prague in August 2016 to meet Putin aides and engineer a cover-up of their shared Democratic Party computer hacking. The FBI later concluded that Cohen never went to Prague.

More information about Source 3 emerged in April, when Republican senators won declassification of footnote No. 347, which had been completely censored in the Horowitz report.

The footnote said Source 3, described as a “sub-source,” had “personal and business ties” with the primary subsource. She also had contacts with Mr. Putin’s staff in June and July 2016, when Mr. Steele was compiling the dossier.

The woman also was “voicing strong support for candidate Clinton in the 2016 U.S. elections,” the footnote said.

What’s more, other declassified footnotes show that intelligence agencies warned the FBI that the information about Cohen was Kremlin disinformation.

As for Source 3, the Horowitz report said the FBI questioned her in August 2017. She called the information attributed to her “exaggerated,” and she did not recognize anything as coming from her.

Source 4. This person has ties to the FSB. The primary source said they enjoyed each other’s company and “drank heavily together.”

“I just overheard such and such about an issue” is how he would feed information to the primary source.

Source 5: A Russian woman with ties to Kremlin intelligence. She provided the other half of the Carter Page story — that he also met in Moscow with Igor Sechin, a Putin adviser who runs the state oil company.

Mr. Page denies this meeting ever occurred, and Mr. Mueller cleared him.

Source 6: This U.S.-based person telephoned the primary source for 20 minutes. Never providing his name, Source 6 became the basis for Mr. Steele’s writing about an extensive conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Source 6’s phone call was used as evidence by the FBI to persuade judges to approve the Carter Page wiretaps.

Mr. Steele designated Source 6 as source E. The Horowitz report called him Person 1. This person has been described in media reports as having left the U.S. and not cooperating with Mr. Mueller.

After the three interviews in January 2017, the FBI talked to the primary source two more times. It was then when he made the “grain of salt” comment — essentially dismissing the entire dossier.

Those interview notes have not been declassified.

He said he never knew Mr. Steele planned to put what he told him into official reports. The Horowitz report said he told the FBI he made it clear to Mr. Steele that he was repeating “just talk” and “word of mouth and hearsay” and “conversations that [he] had with friends over beers.”

That February, agent Peter Strzok, who led the FBI’s Trump probe, made this comment in a declassified document after the primary source had been interviewed three times: “Recent interviews and investigation … reveal Steele may not be in a position to judge the reliability of his sub source network.”

U.S. meets deadline to cut number of troops in Afghanistan

U.S. meets deadline to cut number of troops in Afghanistan

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In this June 10, 2017, file photo provided by Operation Resolute Support, U.S. soldiers with Task Force Iron maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington are intertwined in a … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The U.S. has officially met its deadline to cut the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said late Tuesday, complying with a key requirement laid out in the Trump administration’s landmark peace deal with the Taliban.

Defense Department officials say that as of July 13, the U.S. now has about 8,600 troops in Afghanistan and has turned over control of five military bases to Afghan security forces. Those steps were mandated in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in late February.

The agreement said that within 135 days, the U.S. would cut its forces from roughly 13,000 to 8,600. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which complicated American troop movements around the world, the Pentagon says it has met the deadline.

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“July 13, 2020 marks 135 days since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement on Feb. 29, 2020. As stipulated in the agreement, the United States agreed to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and withdraw from five bases. We have met this obligation,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “U.S. forces in Afghanistan remain in the mid-8,000s and five bases formerly occupied by U.S. forces have been transferred to our Afghan partners.”

“U.S. military presence in Afghanistan remains focused on capabilities — not numbers,” he said. “We maintain the capabilities and authorities necessary to protect ourselves, our allies and partners, and U.S. national interests.”

Under the agreement, the Taliban agreed to not allow Afghanistan to become a base of operations for terrorist groups, and it also agreed to halt attacks on U.S. personnel.

While the Taliban has picked up the pace of attacks against Afghan security forces, U.S. officials say there have been few, if any, direct attacks on American personnel.

The deal also called on the Taliban to begin formal peace talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, though the two sides have struggled to get those negotiations under way.

The American troop drawdown also has come despite clear warnings by the Pentagon that Afghanistan remains a national security challenge. A sweeping Pentagon report on Afghanistan security released earlier this month found that remote areas of the country remain home to “terrorist sanctuaries” and some Taliban members routinely cooperate with extremist groups such as al Qaeda.

Russia’s foreign minister mocks intel on bounties to Taliban

Russia’s foreign minister mocks intel on bounties to Taliban

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FILE – In this Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 file photo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives to attend a meeting in Moscow, Russia. Russia’s top diplomat has on Friday, July 10 dismissed U.S. intelligence information alleging that Moscow has offered … more >

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By

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s top diplomat on Friday dismissed U.S. intelligence information alleging that Moscow offered bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers as a product of election year politics in Washington.

U.S. intelligence officials said information about Russia’s alleged bounties on the heads of troops in Afghanistan was included in an intelligence brief for President Donald Trump in late February. The White House has denied Trump received the information at that time, arguing that the intelligence wasn’t credible enough to bring to the president’s attention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the intelligence claims as a sham. The intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties were first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter.

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“There has been a hype in the United States over speculation on alleged ties between Russia and the Taliban and our alleged push on them to fight against U.S. servicemen or even a reward for their heads,” Lavrov said during a videoconference on foreign policy issues. “I can only say that the entire thing has hinged on unscrupulous speculations, and no concrete facts have been presented whatsoever.”

He charged that the intelligence claims were floated to hurt the Trump administration before the U.S. presidential election in November.

“The entire story looks like it has been written and designed specifically for the purpose of the domestic political struggle in the run-up to the election,” he said. “Once again, they’re trying to attack the incumbent administration and discredit everything it’s doing, especially on the Russian track.”

Lavrov noted that Russia welcomed a February peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban aimed at ending the protracted war in Afghanistan.

“We have provided assistance via our channels to help this agreement work,” the Russian foreign minister said.

Top Pentagon leaders told U.S. Congress on Thursday that reports of Russia offering Taliban militants bounties for killing Americans weren’t corroborated by defense intelligence agencies, but said they are looking into it and the U.S. will respond if necessary. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the threats were taken seriously, but haven’t yet been found credible.

Russia skeptical about nuclear pact extension prospects

Russia skeptical about nuclear pact extension prospects

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FILE – In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 file photo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, attends a meeting with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde in Moscow, Russia. Lavrov said Friday, July 10 that contacts with the U.S. negotiators leave little … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s top diplomat said Friday he’s not very optimistic about prospects for an extension of the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control agreement because of Washington’s focus on making China sign up to the pact.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Russia only wants to keep the New START treaty as much as the U.S. does and will protect its security regardless of the pact’s fate.

“We only need the extension as much as the Americans do,” Lavrov said during a conference call with foreign policy experts. “If they categorically refuse, we will not try to persuade them.”

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The New START treaty was signed in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The pact 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.

After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, the New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries. It’s set to expire in February 2021 unless the parties agree to extend it for another five years.

Russia has offered its extension without any conditions, while the Trump administration has pushed for a new arms control agreement that would also include China. Moscow has described that idea as unfeasible, pointing at Beijing’s refusal to negotiate any deal that would reduce its much smaller nuclear arsenal.

Lavrov dismissed the U.S. suggestions that Russia help convince Beijing to join nuclear arms cuts, saying that Moscow respects the Chinese position and considers it “undiplomatic” to push it on the issue. He reaffirmed that Russia would welcome other nuclear powers, including Britain, France and China to join nuclear arms cuts, but emphasized that it should be their own decision.

The minister noted that American and Russian negotiators last month held a round of nuclear arms control talks in Vienna and are poised to continue the discussions, but added that the U.S. insistence on having China join the talks leaves little hope for their success.

“I’m not particularly optimistic about the New START in view of the course taken by U.S. negotiators,” he said.

Lavrov emphasized that Russia is ready for the treaty to expire in February, adding that “we are absolutely confident that we can guarantee our security for a long perspective, even in the absence of this treaty.”

He noted that Russia hasn’t decided yet whether to remain in the Open Skies Treaty allowing observation flights over military facilities after the U.S. pullout.

Trump declared an intention to pull out of the agreement in May, citing Russian violations. Russia denied breaching the pact, which came into force in 2002, and the European Union has urged the U.S. to reconsider.

“We will make a final decision on whether to stay in it after we weigh all the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal,” Lavrov said.

Asked whether global stability could benefit if Democrat Joe Biden wins the U.S. election, Lavrov refrained from comment.

“It’s the American people’s business, a U.S. domestic affair,” he said. “I wouldn’t engage in guesswork. The situation is unpredictable.”

He noted that while the Democrats traditionally have shown more interest in arms control deals, Russia-U.S. ties went into a quick tailspin under President Barack Obama’s administration.

Russia-U.S. relations have plunged to the lowest levels since Cold War times after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Commenting further on U.S.-China tensions, Lavrov voiced concern about their impact on global stability, noting that Russia isn’t going to benefit from them in any way.

Asked if Russia could be a broker in U.S.-China relations, he said it could do so if asked.

“If they ask us, if they show such interest, we won’t refuse to do so,” Lavrov said. “We’ve established contact with both parties. We are always ready to try to help, but, of course, we won’t push our services on anyone.”

Sergey Lavrov: Domestic U.S. politics causing ‘unscrupulous speculation’ of Moscow

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov: Domestic U.S. politics causing ‘unscrupulous speculation’ of Moscow

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listens as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a joint press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 18, 2020. Lavrov is on a two-day official visit to Serbia. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic) more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Friday, July 10, 2020

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that domestic politics within the U.S. is fueling reports that Moscow had offered bounties to Taliban soldiers to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

His comments come just one day after a top U.S. general told a congressional panel that Russia has been meddling in Afghanistan for years and has been sending weapons supplies to the Taliban.

Mr. Lavrov rejected the U.S. assertions that Moscow has placed bounties on American soldiers and instead pointed to internal politics within the Trump administration that has caused “unscrupulous speculation” of Moscow’s relationship with Taliban militants, Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

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Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the U.S. may not be doing enough to deter Russian aggression, but “there is a distinction between arming and directing.”

The four-star general said that while there is not enough direct evidence to prove that a Russian bounty program is causing U.S. casualties, “we are still looking. We’re not done. We’re going to run this thing to the ground.”

Most Americans believe Russian bounty reports, half support sanctions on Moscow in response: Poll

Most Americans believe Russian bounty reports, half support sanctions on Moscow in response: Poll

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In this June 10, 2017, file photo provided by Operation Resolute Support, U.S. soldiers with Task Force Iron maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington are intertwined in a … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Most Americans believe that Russia had placed bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan last year, while more than half support placing sanctions on Moscow in response, said a new Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

The poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday, comes in the wake of reports that U.S. intelligence concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence agents had offered the bounties to militants linked to the Taliban.

The New York Times reported President Trump was briefed on the matter and that the National Security Council held a meeting about it in late March. Mr. Trump has maintained that he was not previously briefed on the reports.

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The latest poll found that 60% of Americans said they believe the reports to be “very” or “somewhat” credible, while 21% said they were not and 20% were unsure.

Nearly 40% of respondents said they believe Mr. Trump “did know” about Russia’s placement of bounties on U.S. soldiers prior to the reports last month, while 26% said Mr. Trump was unaware of the targets.

More than 80% of Americans said they see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a threat to the U.S. Just 35% of respondents said they back Mr. Trump’s handling of Russia, while 52% do not.

A majority of Americans — 54% — said the U.S. should impose sanctions on Russia in response for the bounties. In the poll, 9% backed military strikes as a response, while another 9% preferred a more diplomatic route.

Lawmakers in the U.S. have said that if the reports prove to be credible, it would warrant a forceful response.

Despite repeated assertions by Mr. Trump that the reports are a “hoax,” White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said last week that national security officials took the intelligence reports seriously enough at the time to prepare options for the president, although they decided not to present Mr. Trump with unverified intelligence.

The poll collected responses from 1,114 adults across the U.S. and holds a margin of error at 3 percentage points.

Putin hails Nazi defeat in virus-delayed Red Square parade

Putin hails Nazi defeat in virus-delayed Red Square parade

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, leave Red Square after the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed … more >

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By Jim Heintz

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the defeat of Nazi Germany at the traditional massive Red Square military parade in Moscow, which was delayed by more than a month because of the invisible enemy of coronavirus.

The parade is usually held May 9 on Victory Day, Russia’s most important secular holiday, but was postponed until Wednesday due to the pandemic. But the timing allowed Russia to mark another significant war-era event – the 75th anniversary of the Red Square parade by troops returning home after the Nazis’ defeat.

“It is impossible to imagine what would have happened to the world if the Red Army did not stand up to its defense,” Putin said in an address to the parade.

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Some 14,000 soldiers took part in the parade, including units from several former Soviet republics and from Mongolia and Serbia.

More than 230 military vehicles drove across the vast square in the Russian capital, ranging from renowned WWII-era T-34 tanks to hulking Topol intercontinental ballistic missile-launchers. A flyover of helicopters, bombers and fighter planes completed the show of military might.

An estimated 27 million Soviets died in the war, either on the battlefield or as civilian casualties. Their valor and suffering has become key to Russia’s national identity.

“It was our people who were able to overcome a terrible, total evil,” Putin said. “This is the main, honest, in-no-way-unclear truth about the war. We must protect and defend it, pass it on to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Putin and other Russian officials have frequently expressed umbrage at what they see as attempts by other countries to “rewrite history” by downplaying the Soviets’ role in World War II.

The appeal to Russian patriotism comes at an important time for Putin, with early voting beginning Thursday in a referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for another two terms as president, possibly in office until 2036.

Putin made no mention of the coronavirus pandemic in his speech, tacitly reinforcing his claim the previous day that Russia has passed the most dangerous stage in the pandemic. However, Russia has reported more than 7,000 new infection cases daily this week and has the third-highest confirmed number of infections in the world after the United States and Brazil.

Many spectators in the viewing stands were wearing masks, but Russian soldiers in close formation on the square did not. Putin and other dignitaries on the main viewing stage also did not wear masks.

Those dignitaries included elderly war veterans with rows of medals cascading down their chests. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said all the veterans in attendance had undergone quarantines before the event.

Moscow sees no need to mediate India-China standoff

Moscow sees no need to mediate India-China standoff

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listens as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a joint press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 18, 2020. Lavrov is on a two-day official visit to Serbia. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic) more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia will not be stepping in to mediate between China and India following a deadly border clash in the Himalayas, the country’s foreign minister said Tuesday.

Sergey Lavrov said after a video call with his Chinese and Indian counterparts that Beijing and New Delhi don’t need outside assistance to settle their differences.

“We never had a goal to help India and China develop their bilateral ties,” Lavrov said in a call with reporters. “India and China have every opportunity to tackle and solve any problems in relations between them.”

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Lavrov spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in the wake of last week’s clashes which saw 20 Indian soldiers die. China has not released any information on its casualties.

Soldiers brawled with clubs, rocks and their fists in the thin air at 4,270 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level. A previous agreement in the border dispute bans the use of firearms.

The confrontation in the Galwan Valley, part of the disputed Ladakh region along the Himalayan frontier, was the deadliest between the two countries in 45 years. India blames China for instigating the fight by developing infrastructure in the valley, which it said was a breach of the agreement of what area remained in dispute.

The valley falls within a remote stretch of the 3,380-kilometer (2,100-mile) Line of Actual Control – the border established following a war between India and China in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

Moscow has maintained close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi.

Lavrov also hailed India and China for sending contingents of soldiers to take part in Wednesday’s parade on Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in World War II.

He also emphasized their close cooperation within the BRICS group of countries, which also includes Brazil, Russia and South Africa. He also noted that India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has helped bolster regional security.

U.S., Russia hold new nuclear arms talks, but without China

U.S., Russia hold new nuclear arms talks, but without China

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In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. The Russian military said the Avangard hypersonic weapon entered combat duty. The Kremlin … more >

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By David Rising

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

BERLIN (AP) — American and Russian negotiators have concluded a round of nuclear arms control talks in Vienna, aimed at producing a new agreement to replace the New START treaty that expires in February — the last remaining pact constraining the arsenals of the world’s two major nuclear powers.

U.S. negotiator Marshall Billingslea told reporters Tuesday that a day of high-level “marathon discussions” ended late Monday night and had been productive enough to conclude with the establishment of several technical working groups to delve deeper into the issues with the idea of paving the way for a second round of talks by late July or early August.

“We both agreed at the termination of our talks that the strategic environment has changed significantly since the New START treaty was signed,” he told reporters. “We can all remember back 10 years ago, the world is, in fact, a radically different place.”

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New START, signed in 2010, imposes limits on the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and launchers.

It became the last nuclear arms pact between the two nations after the U.S. last year scrapped the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, a Cold War-era agreement that both sides had repeatedly accused the other of violating.

The INF treaty was also criticized because it did not cover China or missile technology that did not exist a generation ago.

New START can be extended by five years by mutual consent.

Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister who led his country’s delegation in Vienna, told reporters in Moscow that he had reiterated the position that it should be.

“We presented our view and will keep doing so,” Ryabkov told the Interfax agency. “We are running out of time.”

He added, however, that the establishment of working groups was “a significant step forward” and said the talks were conducted in a positive atmosphere and reflected a shared desire to move forward.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called New START “just another bad deal” made by the Obama administration, and it was not clear whether he would agree to an extension.

Billingslea told reporters at a press conference held by the American delegation that any new agreement must include all nuclear weapons and not just strategic nuclear weapons, and also subject China to restrictions.

All options, he said are “definitely on the table.”

“Our ultimate decision, which is in the hands of the president, whether he decides to extend the New START treaty or allow it to run its course, is going to be very much driven by the extent to which we have made progress, not just with our Russian colleagues but with our Chinese counterparts,” he said.

He said China had refused an American invitation to be part of the Vienna talks, but that he hoped the international community would pressure Beijing to take part in the future.

“The United States is not engaged in an arms race,” Billingslea said. “Of course we will not be left behind, but we seek to avoid this, and this is why a three-way nuclear arms control deal, in our view, has the best chance of avoiding an incredibly destabilizing three-way nuclear arms race.”

Ryabkov said Russia believes that other nuclear powers should join future nuclear arms deals, but added that a decision to join could only be voluntary.

“We are well aware of China’s position, we respect it and we don’t see any sign that the Chinese position could change in the direction the U.S. desires in a foreseeable perspective,” he said, according to Interfax.

Billingslea said he “wouldn’t rule anything in or out” but that the U.S. did not think Britain or France, with much smaller nuclear arsenals, should be included like he said Russia wanted.

“Both qualitatively and quantitatively the United Kingdom and France are in a very different situation than the arms racing Chinese,” he said.

The U.S. attempt to bring China on board got off to an awkward start when Billingslea on Monday tweeted a photo of the negotiating table set up with Chinese flags in front of vacant seats, saying “China is a no-show.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lashed out Tuesday, saying it was “neither serious nor professional for the United States to attract attention in this way.”

“We urge the U.S. to stop this boring trick, actively respond to Russia’s call for the extension of the New START, and carry out serious discussions with the Russian side on this,” he said.

Billingslea defended setting up the flags, saying “we configured the room for all three countries” in anticipation of China sending a delegation, then removed them to set up the room for bilateral talks.

_____

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.

Belarus’ authoritarian leader claims foreign plot thwarted

Belarus’ authoritarian leader claims foreign plot thwarted

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FILE – In this Saturday, May 9, 2020 file photo, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gives a speech during a military parade that marked the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany, in Minsk, Belarus. Lukashenko said Friday, June … more >

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By YURAS KARMANAU

Associated Press

Friday, June 19, 2020

MINSK, Belarus (AP) – The president of Belarus said Friday that his government thwarted a foreign-inspired plot to destabilize the ex-Soviet nation before the August presidential election in which he is seeking a sixth term.

The claim by President Alexander Lukashenko followed the detention Thursday of potentially his top election challenger, the former head of a Russia-owned bank, and reflects the growing strain in his relations with Russia.

The authoritarian Lukashenko, who has been in office for nearly 26 years, said, “The authorities have taken preemptive steps and derailed a comprehensive plan to destabilize Belarus.”

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“We unmasked not only puppets here, but also some puppet masters outside Belarus,” he said.

Lukashenko didn’t name any specific country, but the statement follows his past rants about Moscow’s alleged plans to subdue its ally and neighbor.

Belarusian authorities detained potential presidential candidate and former Belgazprombank chief Viktor Babariko on Thursday after arresting 15 bank executives on tax evasion and money laundering charges and putting the bank under temporary administration.

The Kremlin said it wasn’t backing Babariko in the election but warned it would act to protect Russian business interests in Belarus.

Babariko, who has yet to formally register as a candidate, has denounced the arrests as part of an intimidation campaign. His supporters have 435,000 signatures, while a minimum of 100,000 is needed to qualify for the race.

Babariko is widely seen as the strongest of 10 candidates who plan to challenge Lukashenko, who has ruled the nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since July 1994 and relentlessly cracks down on the political opposition and independent media.

Several thousand demonstrators formed a chain that spread for several kilometers (miles) across downtown Minsk on Thursday to protest Babariko’s detention.

Hundreds of protesters rallied again Friday, waving the historic white-red-white flags used by the opposition.

“The government opponents are behind bars and every protest is harshly suppressed,” said 20-year-old student Dmitry Romanov. “What kind of election is it?”

Police deployed in large numbers across the city center, blocking a central square where protesters gathered and closing subway entrances there. Police arrested several activists and journalists.

“Lukashenko has been scared by protests so much that he’s ready to accuse anyone, even Russia, of making plots and preparing revolutions,” said 45-year old dentist Igor Grishan.

Alla Rukhovich, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, said that “they have been telling us about plots for 26 years, but we mostly fear the president in office without end who led the country to economic ruin and isolation.”

The European Union called on the Belarusian authorities to free Babariko and “to ensure a meaningful and competitive political contest.”

“No potential candidate should be prevented from fulfilling the registration procedure due to politically motivated restrictive measures,” it said.

Belgazprombank is majority owned by Russia’s state-run Gazprom natural gas company and Gazprombank, which is affiliated with it. The Russian owners have criticized the Belarusian authorities’ decision on Monday to introduce temporary administration at the bank as a “flagrant violation” of Belarusian law and rules of a Russia-led economic alliance.

Ivan Tertel, the head of Belarus‘ State Control Committee, charged Thursday that “big bosses at Gazprom and probably higher up” could have been involved in alleged violations at Belgazprombank.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would protect Gazprom interests but denied allegations that the Kremlin was supporting Babariko’s presidential candidacy.

“The Kremlin doesn’t have any candidates in the Belarusian election,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

Moscow long provided cheap energy to help keep Belarus’ Soviet-style economy afloat. Last year, the Russian government moved to cut the subsidies, arguing that closer economic integration between the two countries was needed for Belarus to continue receiving Russian oil and gas at low prices.

Lukashenko has rejected the Kremlin’s push for closer political and economic integration, casting it as part of Moscow’s efforts to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence. But even as he has regularly ranted against Russia’s policies, he has carefully avoided personal criticism of Putin.

“If some hope to set us against each other and worsen our relationship, they will not succeed,” Lukashenko told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Minsk Friday.

The Kremlin said Putin and Lukashenko also had a call Friday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and the Belarusian president’s planned trip to Moscow next week to attend a Red Square parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II. Lukashenko’s office said the Belgazprombank situation wasn’t discussed during the call.

As the Aug. 9 presidential election approaches, Belarusian authorities have intensified efforts to disrupt the opposition, detaining about 100 opposition activists across the country. They included including popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovski, who was collecting signatures for his wife’s nomination as a presidential candidate. His wife said she was threatened along with their children.

___

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

With US summit planned, Russia prefers EU-Kosovo mediation

With US summit planned, Russia prefers EU-Kosovo mediation

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, shakes hands with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic after a joint press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 18, 2020. Lavrov is on a two-day official visit to Serbia. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic) more >

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By DUSAN STOJANOVIC

Associated Press

Thursday, June 18, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Russia’s foreign minister said Thursday that Moscow will need to approve any solution reached in peace talks between Kosovo and Serbia that have gained momentum after U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy called for a summit between the two former wartime foes in the White House next week.

Sergey Lavrov, on his first visit outside Russia after the coronavirus outbreak, said that the European Union has the mandate to negotiate in the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, suggesting that Moscow doesn’t back a meeting later this month called by Washington.

Russia assumes that the European Union, which has the mandate of the U.N. General Assembly as a mediator between Belgrade and Pristina, shouldn’t absolve itself of its duties, should carry them out impartially and efficiently and seek those solutions that were agreed before,” Lavrov said.

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He said that any agreement between Serbia and Kosovo must be approved by the U.N. Security Council, the body where Russia has veto power.

Trump envoy Richard Grenell invited Kosovo and Serbian officials to meet in the White House on June 27 after getting confirmation from Serbia it would temporarily pause its campaign for countries to withdraw recognition of Kosovo, which itself agreed to pause efforts to win more international memberships.

“This White House opportunity opens the door to new economic development and investment,” Grenell said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Thursday. “The U.S. hopes leaders in Kosovo and Serbia will seize this chance to return to dialogue and begin a new era of stability and prosperity. The people of this region deserve nothing less.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that the EU and the U.S. haven’t always been coordinating efforts toward urging Serbia and Kosovo to reach a deal.

The EU mediator in the talks, Miroslav Lajcak, said in Kosovo on Thursday that Washington hadn’t contacted Brussels on its latest summit initiative and that the EU role is necessary for any future deal.

“We communicate with our partner the U.S. on our initiatives and we expect them to do the same,” Lajcak said. “A good agreement would bring Kosovo and Serbia closer to the EU and I don’t believe that such an agreement can be reached without the EU presence there.”

“The United States is a very important partner and history has shown we are successful when we work together,” Lajcak said.

He said that the Brussels-facilitated dialogue would resume soon and the date would be set after his visit to Belgrade next week.

Kosovo was part of Serbia until an armed uprising by the ethnic Albanian majority population in 1998-1999 triggered a bloody Serb crackdown. This in turn prompted a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia to force its troops out of Kosovo. Belgrade and Moscow both refuse to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

At the news conference in Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Russia warned Serbia of certain “plans and ideas” regarding possible solutions for the Kosovo problem that fueled concerns about what might be on the table.

“Estimates presented by our Russian friends suggest we will have to be extremely cautious and careful in monitoring any ideas that might be presented to us,” Vucic said, apparently referring to the summit in Washington.

Despite formally seeking EU membership, Serbia has been establishing close political, economic and military ties with its Slavic ally Russia.

___

Jovana Gec in Belgrade, and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

Parents of US man held in Moscow demand fair trial for son

Parents of US man held in Moscow demand fair trial for son

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This image provided by Joey Reed, shows Trevor Reed and his mom Paula Reed in 2014 in Arlington, Texas. The parents of Reed, a former U.S. Marine who has been jailed for nearly a year in Moscow on charges that … more >

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By ERIC TUCKER

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – The parents of a former U.S. Marine who has been jailed for nearly a year in Moscow on charges that he endangered police officers are urging the court system and government to ensure a fair trial for their son. They spoke out as a Russian court sentenced another American to more than a decade in prison in an unrelated espionage case.

Trevor Reed was charged in August 2019 with assaulting police officers who were driving him to a police station after picking him up following a night of heavy drinking at a party. Russian authorities say the 28-year-old Reed was drunk inside a police car when he grabbed the arm of the driver, causing him to swerve into another lane, and elbowed another officer who tried to intervene.

Reed’s trial began this year and continues June 30. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. His family says that besides seeking a fair trial for their son, they also want to ensure that U.S. officials are closely tracking the case, including being mindful of potential irregularities in the Russian criminal justice system that could result in unfair punishment.

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“We want to make sure that people throughout our government, both elected and in the agencies, understand what’s going on in case he gets a disproportionate punishment,” Joey Reed, his father, said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. “Which at this point, based on the evidence and the facts of the case, any prison sentence in my opinion is disproportionate.”

His parents spoke to the AP on the same day another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges following a closed trial that the U.S. denounced as a “mockery of justice.”

Whelan, also a former Marine, insists he is innocent, saying he was set up when he was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 while visiting Russia to attend a friend’s wedding. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was “outraged” by the verdict and said the treatment of Whelan while in custody has been “appalling.”

Reed’s parents, of Granbury, Texas, say they are concerned about what they see as irregularities in both cases, including missing evidence and contradictory accounts by police officers in their son’s prosecution.

At the time of his arrest, Trevor Reed was in Moscow visiting his girlfriend and studying the Russian language. He had attended a party one week before he was scheduled to return home, where his family says he was encouraged to drink a large amount of vodka.

Reed was sharing a ride home when he became nauseated and got out of the car. After he began running around near a busy boulevard, the police were summoned to help. But instead of taking him for medical care, as the family says is standard protocol in Moscow, officers drove him to the police station.

Inside the car, police say, Reed grabbed the arm of the driver and struck an officer with his elbow. The police car swerved into another lane during the altercation, the authorities said. Reed has no memory beyond drinking vodka at the party and no recollection of what happened inside the car, his family says.

When his girlfriend came to pick him up several hours later, he was being questioned by Russian authorities without a lawyer or an adequate interpreter. She was told he was being charged with intentionally endangering the officers, the family says.

His parents have seized on what they say are discrepancies. They say traffic video does not show the police car swerving, and that Reed’s girlfriend – a lawyer who is close with the family and has been helpful to the defense – and others who were in a car following close behind did not report seeing the police vehicle swerve on the way to the station.

Investigators also did not give the defense video from inside the car or the police station – video that the family says has since been erased.

Reed is housed in a room with about a half-dozen other inmates at a detention facility in Moscow and is permitted outside for only a brief window each day. His father, who has lived periodically in Russia over the last year, has visited him on multiple occasions.

In addition, he has recently experienced abnormal blood pressure and heart rate, said his mother, Paula.

“I am extremely concerned about him catching COVID-19 more than ever now,” Paula Reed said in a text message. “And since social distancing is impossible in a jail situation it compounds my concerns for his health.”

The U.S. embassy in Russia, meanwhile, has sent representatives to different court appearances, and the family says it wants the embassy to continue sending a Russian-speaking consul to observe Reed’s court proceedings and for Ambassador John Sullivan to attend the trial at its conclusion.

The family also says it wants the U.S. government to publicly acknowledge that Reed is imprisoned, is on trial and that the case is being monitored.

“We would hope that Russian law is followed and due process is used in my son’s case,” Joey Reed said.

American convicted of spying in Russia, gets 16 years

American convicted of spying in Russia, gets 16 years

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In this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018, speaks while standing in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a courtroom … more >

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Monday, June 15, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – A Russian court convicted an American corporate security executive Monday of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison after a closed trial that the U.S. denounced as a “mockery of justice,” and it angrily said his treatment in jail was “appalling.”

Paul Whelan, a former Marine from Novi, Michigan, has insisted he was innocent, saying he was set up when he was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 while he was visiting Russia to attend a friend’s wedding.

”We have serious concerns that Mr. Whelan was deprived of the fair trial guarantees that Russia is required to provide him in accordance with its international human rights obligations,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

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The 50-year-old Whelan, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, has publicly complained of poor prison conditions and has said his life is in danger. Two weeks ago, Whelan underwent a hernia operation, which his twin brother, David, described as “emergency surgery … which is never a good sign.”

He said his brother had been allowed one phone call in 18 months and had voiced concern about coronavirus infections in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where he was being held.

Pompeo said the U.S. was “outraged” by the verdict and noted that Paul Whelan’s treatment “has been appalling,” adding that authorities ignored his medical condition and kept him isolated from family and friends.

He called the proceedings “a secret trial, with secret evidence and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.” The Moscow City Court, where the trial took place, said it was held behind closed doors because authorities saw it as necessary for considering sensitive information.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan called the trial “a mockery of justice.” Whelan’s lawyer has said his client was handed a flash drive that had classified information on it that he didn’t know about.

David Whelan described the case as political and voiced hope that the U.S. government will help gain his freedom.

“The Russian Federation wouldn’t talk about releasing Paul until he was convicted,” he told The Associated Press. “And so, now that that has happened, we hope that the U.S. government will speak to the Russian government. We will have to continue to treat it as a political case, which is what it is, and seek a political solution for his freedom.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected allegations that Whelan was a political hostage, telling reporters his guilt was proven at the trial. Peskov refused to comment on whether Russia could be eyeing his exchange for some of its citizens in the U.S. custody.

Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, pointed at Russian official statements signaling a possibility that Whelan could be exchanged for Russians Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.

“There have been proposals of exchange, the issue is being discussed,” he said.

Bout, a Russian arms trader, is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for a 2011 conviction on charges he conspired to sell millions of dollars of weapons to Colombian rebels. He insisted he was a legitimate businessman.

Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, is serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after he was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the U.S.

Russian officials and lawmakers have cast the convictions of Bout and Yaroshenko as politically motivated and pushed for their release.

Leonid Slutsky, the head of foreign affairs committee in the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament, rejected Pompeo’s statement as “meddling in Russia’s judicial system.” He said Moscow is open to discuss Whelan’s possible exchange for “Russian citizens who have remained in the U.S. prisons on unfounded charges and in inhumane conditions.”

“Political will is required for reaching such agreements,” he said.

Yaroshenko’s wife, Viktoria, also voiced hope that he could be exchanged for Whelan, the Interfax news agency reported.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Mike Householder in Canton Township, Michigan, contributed.

Vladimir Putin: Russia will soon be able to counter hypersonic weapons

Putin: Russia will soon be able to counter hypersonic weapons

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In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. The Russian military said the Avangard hypersonic weapon entered combat duty. Little on … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Russia will soon have the ability to counter hypersonic weapons deployed by adversaries, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday.

Hypersonic weapons fly at speeds at least five times the speed of sound — or Mach 5 — and are widely viewed as a game-changing military technology.

For years specialists and military insiders have warned the U.S. has fallen behind its chief competitors, China and Russia, in the development of the weapons. Catching up and ensuring the U.S. is on par with its foes, and has the capability to defend against hypersonics in the event enemies deploy them, has become a top priority inside the Pentagon.

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But Mr. Putin maintained that Moscow remains ahead of Washington in developing new, advanced weapons

“It’s very likely that we will have means to combat hypersonic weapons by the time the world’s leading countries have such weapons,” the president said, as quoted by RIA news agency.

Russia last year deployed its first nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. Mr. Putin unveiled Moscow’s Avangard system in late 2018, and boasted that it can fly at 20 times the speed of sound — or about one mile per second — rendering all current missile defense systems obsolete.

The Pentagon has since launched a new program to counter Russian hypersonic weapons as the military races to keep pace with U.S. foes.

While the Pentagon hasn’t explicitly said the program was launched with Russia in mind, Moscow’s program is a top priority for defense and industry leaders.

Vladimir Putin seeks to rally support to hold vote on extending reign amid coronavirus fears

Putin seeks to rally support to hold vote on extending reign amid coronavirus fears

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Sberbank Chairman German Gref via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Friday, June 12, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday sought to rally support to hold a nationwide election on July 1 on reforms that include extending his reign until 2036.

His efforts come just one day after a group of roughly 350 polling officials said it is too dangerous to hold the election as the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country and declared that they would not participate in efforts to hold the vote.

“We have a common historical code, moral foundations. … Respect for parents and family (and) love for our soil,” Mr. Putin said during a ceremony in Moscow to mark Russia Day, as quoted by Reuters.

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“As you’d expect, there have been frequent requests to include these fundamental, core principles into the Russian constitution,” he continued. “I’m sure that the absolute majority of our citizens share and support such a position.”

In about two weeks, Russians are set to vote on a string of amendments that are part of a package of changes to Russia’s constitution that Mr. Putin, who was expected to step down in 2024 after a quarter-century of de facto rule, sprang on the country two months ago.

Putin allies hustled the measure through the national legislature, and the president made clear that a global pandemic is no reason to delay a popular vote to ratify the changes.

Russia, which has a population of 144.5 million, has reported more than 510,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 6,705 deaths and 268,862 recoveries, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Russia welcomes prospect of U.S. troop pullback from Germany

Russia welcomes prospect of U.S. troop pullback from Germany

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In this Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 file photo, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova gestures as she attends Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s annual roundup news conference summing up his ministry’s work in 2019, in Moscow, Russia. On June 11, … more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, June 11, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday welcomed President Donald Trump’s reported plan to withdraw more than a quarter of U.S. troops from Germany, saying it would help bolster security in Europe.

Trump has reportedly signed off on a plan to cut the number of troops stationed in Germany from 34,500 to no more than 25,000.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that “we would welcome any steps by Washington to scale down its military presence in Europe.”

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“Such steps would undoubtedly help reduce confrontational potential and ease military and political tensions in the Euro-Atlantic region,” Zakharova said at a briefing, adding that the large U.S. military presence in Germany is a “vestige of the Cold War.”

Zakharova challenged the U.S. to also take its tactical nuclear weapons home from Germany.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters earlier this week that Berlin hadn’t yet been informed of any U.S. troops pullout. She warned that if the U.S. goes ahead the move would do more harm to NATO as a whole than to Germany’s own defense.

Relations between Russia and the West are at post-Cold War lows following the 2014 Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other issues.

Moscow has described the deployment of NATO forces near Russian borders as a top security threat.

Zakharova strongly warned Washington against redeploying some of the troops from Germany to Poland, saying it would further exacerbate tensions and undermine prospects of dialogue between Russia and NATO.

Russia says it won’t push China to join talks to save New START

Russia says it won’t push China to join talks to save New START

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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, arrives at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 17, 2017, to meet with Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

One of the Kremlin’s top diplomats confirmed Tuesday that U.S. and Russian diplomats will meet later this month on the future of the expiring New START arms control deal, but poured cold water on the Trump administration’s hopes of forcing China to join the bilateral pact.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told a Council on Foreign Relations virtual briefing Tuesday that it was “good news” that he and U.S. counterpart Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s special envoy to the arms talks, will meet in Vienna for talks on the 10-year New START pact, which expires if the two sides can’t reach a deal by February.

He later told Russia’s TASS news agency that the talks, aimed at salvaging one of the last remaining pillars of the U.S.-Russian arms control treaty structure, will help “make this process get off the ground and map out a certain way forward.”

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But he also made clear there are significant differences in the U.S. and Russian hopes for the talks, and said the two sides should agree on a five-year extension of the current deal — which Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin could do on their own — rather than risk have the accord fall apart altogether.

Mr. Ryabkov also made clear Moscow is in no mood to join a U.S. plan to force China to participate in an expanded New START deal. Mr. Billingslea told The Washington Times in an interview last month that Russia must “help bring China to the table” to discuss limits on Beijing’s smaller but rapidly growing nuclear arsenal.

China also invited” to the Vienna talks, Mr. Billingslea tweeted this week. “Will China show and negotiate in good faith?”

Chinese government officials have repeatedly said Beijing has no interest in joining three-way talks because their nuclear stockpile is far smaller than those of the U.S. and Russia.

And Mr. Ryabkov said his government is in no mood to pressure Beijing to change its mind.

“My answer to a direct question on whether or not we think it would be possible to bring China to the table would be a flat and straightforward no,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations by videoconference from Moscow.

The Russian minister argued Tuesday that “the easiest way forward to buy time would be to extend the existing treaty, as ratified in 2010, in both capitals and then use [the] five years of this treaty extension to … find probably a better way to address all sorts of issues, including those associated with new military technologies.”
He said the Kremlin had its own worries about recent U.S. moves; “We have many concerns about what is going on in the American build-up. This is American missile defenses becoming more and more global.”

New START, negotiated during the Obama administration, limits the number of deployable American and Russian nuclear weapons to 1,550. The accord also reduced by half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers each side may have and set up a new inspection and verification regime to prevent cheating.

The weapons include at least 10 types of missiles, from long-range to short-range ballistic and cruise missiles. China also is close to deploying ultra-high-speed hypersonic missiles capable of striking U.S. targets with maneuvering warheads in less than 30 minutes.

Critics of China have argued that Beijing has been engaged in an extensive expansion of strategic nuclear forces that remains cloaked in secrecy by the ruling Communist Party and the military.

But Mr. Ryabkov said Tuesday that Russia does not “see any Chinese readiness” to participate in trilateral arms negotiations, putting the onus on the Trump administration to decide how it wants to proceed.

China has said it might be open to even broader arms talks that also include nuclear-armed U.S. allies such as Britain and France, and Mr. Ryabkov appeared to endorse the notion.

Moving forward, he said, it will be “of extraordinary importance” for the U.S. to bring some of its European allies to the negotiating table, “irrespective of how much their national nuclear capabilities matter compared to those of U.S. and Russia.”

Secretary-General: NATO to push for arms control with Russia despite crumbling treaties

Secretary-General: NATO to push for arms control with Russia despite crumbling treaties

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 8, 2020. Russia says it will partially reopen the country’s borders as the country eases coronavirus restrictions. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Monday, June 8, 2020

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will continue dialogue with Russia and to strive for a better relationship with Moscow in an effort to prevent a future arms race between adversaries, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday.

His comments come nearly a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended Moscow’s participation in the1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The move added a fresh layer to mounting international concerns over the prospect of a new Cold War-style arms race between the U.S. and Russia.

“We believe in dialogue with Russia, we will strive for a better relationship with Russia,” Mr. Stoltenberg said during a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

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“We strongly believe in arms control,” he continued. “A new armed race will be dangerous and costly, and we’ve continued to work hard for arms control with Russia.”

Mr. Stoltenberg also pointed to Russian military action against neighboring countries Georgia and Ukraine, as well as moves to beef up nuclear capabilities.

“We have responded to this not by mirroring what Russia is doing, but making sure we have credible deterrence and defense,” the secretary-general said, “because that’s the best way to prevent conflict to remove any room for doubt, any room for miscalculation about NATO’s willingness to protect the allies.”

Russian general chafes at “provocative” NATO drills

Russian general chafes at “provocative” NATO drills

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In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. The Russian military said the Avangard hypersonic weapon entered combat duty. Little on … more >

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By BY VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Monday, June 1, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – The Russian military on Monday accused the U.S. and its NATO allies of conducting “provocative” military drills near the nation’s borders, a statement that reflected simmering RussiaNATO tensions.

Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian General Staff said Russia has sent a formal letter to NATO proposing to scale down each other’s military activities for the period of the coronavirus outbreak, but the alliance has stonewalled the offer.

Rudskoi particularly mentioned recent NATO maneuvers in the Barents Sea, charging that they emulated strikes on Russian territory and the intercept of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. Rudskoi said the drills were the first of the kind by NATO since the Cold War.

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Rudskoi also pointed at an increased number of flights by U.S. nuclear-capable strategic bombers near Russia’s frontiers last month. He said U.S. B-1B strategic bombers last week flew over Ukraine for the first time ever, prompting Russia to scramble fighter jets and put air defense forces on alert.

Russia-West relations have sunk to post-Cold War lows after the 2014 Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Moscow’s support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern over the deployment of NATO forces near Russian borders, describing it as a threat to its security. Russia and the alliance also have blamed each other for conducting destabilizing military exercises near the borders.

“The U.S,. and its allies are continuing to destroy Europe’s security system under the guise of a perceived ”Russian aggression,’” Rudskoi said.

He said that despite NATO’s refusal to agree on reduction of military activities, Russia has decided not to conduct any big drills near the borders with NATO members this year.

U.S. and its NATO allies have repeatedly said that Russian fighter jets have performed unsafe maneuvers while shadowing their planes – accusations that the Russian military has rejected.

In the latest such incident last week, the U.S. military complained that Russian Su-35 fighter jets flew dangerously close to a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon intelligence plane over the eastern Mediterranean, restricting its ability to maneuver safely.

Rudskoi charged that increasingly often U.S. intelligence flights near Russian bases in Syria violated previous agreements between Moscow and Washington on avoiding mid-air incidents.

He said Moscow is open for talks to negotiate minimal distances and rules of communications during encounters of naval ships and military aircraft belonging to Russia and the alliance.

Michael Flynn urged Russian ambassador not to escalate fight over sanctions, transcript reveals

Michael Flynn urged Russian ambassador not to escalate fight over sanctions, transcript reveals

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In this July 10, 2018, file photo, former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn leaves the federal courthouse in Washington, following a status hearing. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Friday, May 29, 2020

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in late 2016 urged Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States to avoid escalating its response to sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and asked for a more measured approach, transcripts released late Friday revealed.

The conversations between Flynn and then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the heart of the criminal case against President Trump’s former national security adviser. Federal prosecutors had accused Flynn of lying to FBI officials when he said the two did not discuss the Russia sanctions.

Federal prosecutors had accused Flynn of lying to FBI officials when he said the two did not discuss retaliating against the outgoing Obama administration for the sanctions.

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President Barack Obama expelled suspected intelligence agents and closed two Russian compounds in response to the country’s interference in the 2016 election.

The transcripts of three separate phone calls and a voice mail reveal that the pair did briefly discuss sanctions.

Flynn first tells Mr. Kislyak that if Russia is going to respond, they should take a “reciprocal” action, urging him not to inflame an already delicate situation.

“But I ask Russia to do is to not, if anything, I know you have to take some sort of action, to only make it reciprocal; don’t go any further than you have to because I don’t want us to get into something that have to escalate to tit-for-tat. Do you follow me?” Flynn said, according to the transcript.

Mr. Kislyak tells Flynn that sentiments in Moscow are “raging” over the sanctions, according to the transcripts.

“I know, I — believe me, I do appreciate it, I very much appreciate it,” Flynn responded, the transcript revealed. “But I really don’t want us to get into a situation where we’re going, you know, where we do this and then you do something bigger, and then you know, everybody’s got to go back and forth and everybody’s got to be the tough guy here, you know?”

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe sent the documents to Congress after they were declassified this week by his predecessor acting Director Richard Grenell.

The transcripts detail phone calls from Jan. 5, 2016, Dec. 22, 2016, and Dec. 23, 2016, along with a voice mail and subsequent phone call on Dec. 29, 2016.

Although the sanctions are discussed, Flynn and Mr. Kislyak largely discuss the incoming Trump administration’s views on the Middle East.

“[Y]ou know that the strategic goal is stability in the Middle East,” Flynn said. “That’s the strategic goal. And, and, you know, between you and I, and you know this, and we know this, you know between Moscow and Washington. We will not achieve stability in the Middle East without working with each other against this radical Islamist crowd. Period.”

The transcript release comes after the Justice Department earlier this month decided to drop its case against Flynn, concluding FBI agents, including Peter Strzok, did not have a basis to interview Flynn in early 2017.

The Justice Department also said any misstatements made by Flynn during the interview were immaterial to the broader probe into Russian election interference.

Flynn was fired as national security adviser and then prosecuted for allegedly lying about two calls with Mr. Kislyak.

Flynn pleaded guilty in late 2017 to lying to the FBI, but was never sentenced. He also agreed to cooperate with ex-special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference.

Mr. Mueller completed his investigation, concluding there was no evidence the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Flynn earlier this year sought to withdraw his guilty plea.

Recently released documents have raised questions about whether the FBI set up Flynn. The FBI was set to close the Flynn probe before agents interviewed him because they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

However, Mr. Strzok and his lover, ex-FBI attorney Lisa Page, intervened to keep the case open. They also discussed trying to get Flynn to cop to the Logan Act, an arcane law from 1799 that has never been used to prosecute anyone.

The law, known as the Logan Act, bars U.S. citizens from conducting diplomacy with foreign governments.

A second document, a handwritten note, by former FBI counterintelligence director Bill Preistap wondered if the goal of the Flynn interview was to get him to lie so “we can prosecute him or get him fired?”

Paul Whelan, U.S. citizen detained in Russia, undergoes emergency hernia surgery

Paul Whelan, U.S. citizen detained in Russia, undergoes emergency hernia surgery

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In this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018, speaks while standing in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a court … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Friday, May 29, 2020

Paul Whelan, an American citizen that has been detained in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges, was taken to a Russian hospital Thursday for emergency surgery.

Russia informed the U.S. embassy of Mr. Whelan’s condition and hernia surgery Thursday and said that U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan spoke with Mr. Whelan upon his return to prison the following day, embassy spokesperson Rebecca Ross tweeted.

“We will be monitoring Paul’s progress closely, and we hope he will recover quickly,” she tweeted

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Mr. Whelan, 50, has been jailed in Russia since being arrested at a Moscow hotel in late 2018 and accused of espionage. He has denied spying and said he was “set up.”

Russian officials have said that Mr. Whelan was arrested while carrying a USB drive containing classified information. Mr. Whelan has stated that it had been slipped into his pockets moments earlier by an acquaintance he identified as being employed by Russian security services.

Mr. Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said his health had taken a “turn for the worst” Thursday evening, but the surgery was successful.

“There are no additional details as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has refused to answer any questions from the US Embassy about Paul’s condition without a diplomatic note,” he said in a statement to The Washington Times.

“We continue to be concerned for Paul’s health, particularly now that, as he recuperates, he may be more susceptible to other illnesses or infections. The coronavirus is spreading through Lefortovo. Lawyers visiting the prison must now wear gowns and hoods, not just masks,” Mr. Whelan explained.

Ms. Ross said that the detained American’s health “has been our greatest concern throughout his 17 [months] of incarceration in [Russia], all without any evidence of a crime.”

“We’ve repeatedly requested Paul be allowed an outside, English-speaking doctor, yet he’s been denied necessary medical attention,” Ms. Ross tweeted.

She alleged that Russian authorities waited until Mr. Whelan’s hernia condition was “life-threatening” to provide the former U.S. Marine with appropriate medical attention. “

“That is unacceptable and dangerous,” Ms. Ross said.

Russian prosecutors have asked the court to sentence Mr. Whelan for 18 years. The court is expected to deliver a verdict on June 15.

• Andrew Blake contributed to this story.

Democratic lawmakers seek records on Russian ventilators

Democratic lawmakers seek records on Russian ventilators

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President Donald Trump answers questions from reporters during an event on protecting seniors with diabetes in the Rose Garden White House, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By KEVIN FREKING

Associated Press

Thursday, May 28, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – House Democrats are calling on the Trump administration to provide records related to the purchase of ventilators from Russia, asserting that the machines were not only unsafe for use but also were made by a subsidiary of a Russian company under U.S. sanctions.

The lawmakers, who lead five House committees and subcommittees, sent the request to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

They are protesting that the U.S. donated hundreds of ventilators to Russia after buying machines from Moscow in the early weeks of the pandemic that were not immediately usable. The same model, Aventa-M, reportedly caused fires in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has confirmed that no Aventa-M ventilators purchased from Russia have been used in the U.S., but lawmakers still have concerns.

“These misguided decisions waste millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, undermine our foreign policy and national security interests, and impair our nation’s ability to combat the coronavirus,” the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers said the State Department received a final invoice from Russia for $659,283. They are seeking all records and communications between the State Department and the White House related to the shipments and a summary of a March 30 call between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as other records.

The White House referred questions to the State Department, which did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

After earlier concerns about a shortage of ventilators, the Trump administation now says the U.S. has a surplus and has begun to sell or donate ventilators to other nations dealing with an influx of patients with COVID-19. The president has been describing the U.S. as the “king of ventilators.”

Germany confronts Russian ambassador over cyberattack

Germany confronts Russian ambassador over cyberattack

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Federal Minister of the Interior for Building and Homeland Affairs, Horst Seehofer, waits to be questioned as a witness in the Bundestag’s Toll Inquiry Committee. The committee of inquiry is looking into the circumstances surrounding the failure of the car … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Thursday, May 28, 2020

BERLIN (AP) – Germany said Thursday it is seeking EU sanctions against a Russian man over his alleged role in the hacking of the German parliament at a time when evidence shows he was working for Russian intelligence.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry said it called in Russian ambassador Sergei Nechayev to inform him in person of the move.

Senior German diplomat Miguel Berger “strongly condemned the attack on Germany’s parliament in the name of the German government” while meeting with Nechayev, the ministry said.

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Berger told Nechayev that Germany would be pursuing EU sanctions against Russian citizen Dmitriy Badin, and possibly others, under a new regime established last year to respond to cyberattacks, the ministry said.

He referred to a warrant issued May 5 by federal German prosecutors for Badin, an alleged officer with Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. Badin was already being sought by U.S. authorities and is believed to be part of the hacker group known as APT28, or Fancy Bear.

German prosecutors allege that Badin, “acting jointly with other persons not yet identified,” had “undertaken an intelligence operation against Germany for the intelligence service of a foreign power,” the ministry said.

“The accused is suspected of being responsible for the hacker attack on the German parliament in April/May 2015 as a member of the APT28 group,” the ministry said. “There is reliable evidence that he was a member of the GRU military intelligence agency at the time of the attack.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this month there was “hard evidence” that correspondence from her parliamentary office was among the documents targeted in the attack.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s lower house, called the German accusations “baseless.”

He warned that any further sanctions Berlin might impose would be “destructive,” creating an “artificial irritant” in bilateral relations.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied any involvement by Moscow in the hacking attack. They have similarly dismissed charges of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and alleged cyberattacks on other Western nations and institutions.

Diplomatic ties between Germany and Russia are already tense, following the brazen killing of a Georgian man on the streets of Berlin last year. Prosecutors have suggested the hit was ordered either by Moscow or authorities in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Russian national Vadim Sokolov was arrested near the scene and is accused of carrying out the killing with official help. The case has already led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats from Berlin and Moscow.

Noting the ongoing investigation of the slaying, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday it “reserves the right to take further measures” beyond the sanctions against Badin.

____

This story has been corrected to show the suspect’s surname is Badin, not Baden.

_____

Frank Jordans in Berlin and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this story

‘End this mockery of justice’: Bipartisan lawmakers demand Putin release American Paul Whelan

‘End this mockery of justice’: Bipartisan lawmakers demand Putin release American Paul Whelan

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Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow at the end of 2018, stands in a cage while waiting for a hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The bipartisan leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin release Paul Whelan, an American citizen that has been detained in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges.

Mr. Whelan, 50, has been jailed in Russia since being arrested at a Moscow hotel in late 2018 and accused of espionage. He has denied spying and has said he was “set up.”

Russian officials have said that Mr. Whelan was arrested while carrying a USB drive containing classified information. Mr. Whelan, a former marine, has stated that it had been slipped into his pockets moments earlier by an acquaintance he identified as being employed by Russian security services.

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The U.S. lawmakers are now demanding that Mr. Putin “end this mockery of justice” and release Mr. Whelan back to the U.S.

In a statement Tuesday, committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, and Ranking Member Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, said Mr. Whelan “has already had to endure more than we could even imagine – all at the hands of the Putin regime, which has shown complete disdain for the rule of law and human rights.”

The lawmakers said the Russian government has not provided substantial evidence against Mr. Whelan, and has refused to grant him the necessary rights to defend himself in court.

They also claim Mr. Whelan has been “cruelly denied necessary medical care and the ability to speak to his family.”

Mr. Whelan’s trial began behind closed doors last month. He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he has been turned away from the trial twice and accused Moscow of making a “mockery of justice.”

Serbia bans Montenegro flights amid escalating tensions

Serbia bans Montenegro flights amid escalating tensions

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In this photo taken on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, a Montenegrin army helicopter flies near Montenegro Airlines Embraer E195LR sits on the tarmac at the Golubovci airport, near Podgorica, Montenegro. Serbia’s authorities Wednesday May 27, 2020, have banned Montenegro’s national … more >

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By DUSAN STOJANOVIC

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Serbian authorities have banned Montenegro’s national carrier from operating flights out of Belgrade after the small nation’s government excluded Serbia from a list of countries with which Montenegro will reopen its borders after declaring an end to its coronavirus outbreak.

The Serbian Civil Aviation Directorate said Montenegro Airlines planes cannot land at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport as of Wednesday. The aviation agency said unrestricted travel between the two countries has been “seriously violated” by Montenegro’s decision to ban Serbs from entering Montenegro.

The flight and border entry bans come amid deepening tensions between the former Balkan allies, which existed as one state before Montenegro split off through a 2006 referendum.

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Montenegro Airlines planned to resume flights to the Serbian capital on June 1. Air Serbia, still has plans to fly to two destinations in Montenegro starting June 7.

Montenegro declared itself “coronavirus-free” as the first country in Europe with no more active COVID-19 cases. Before then, the country recorded a total of 324 confirmed virus cases and nine deaths. Serbia has recorded over 11,000 confirmed cases, including nearly 240 deaths.

The Montenegrin government announced Monday that as of June 1 it would permit entry to the nationals from nine European countries. It said the selection criteria was having no more than 25 active coronavirus-infected patients per 100.000 inhabitants.

The list includes Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Albania and Greece, but does not include neighboring Serbia or Bosnia.

Without saying that Serbia meets Montenegro’s entry criteria, Belgrade denounced the decision as political and hostile. Montenegrin officials tried to dampen the Serb anger by saying the list of nationals who will be allowed to enter has not yet been finalized.

Populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Wednesday the flight ban is the “most legal and polite” response to the Montenegrin travel action, adding that Serbia won’t close its borders to Montenegro’s citizens as it would hurt Serbs who live there.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic responded by saying his government’s decision was not political, but based on health risks.

“We were not angry when Serbia closed the border with us, at the beginning of this outbreak. It was the first border they closed,” Markovic said.

Tensions between Serbia and Montenegro have escalated since late last year, when the Montenegrin parliament adopted a religious law which the Serbian Orthodox Church said would strip it of its property in Montenegro. Montenegrin officials have denied the allegation.

The Serbian government has openly supported a series of protests by Serbs in Montenegro who want the law revoked.

Montenegrin officials have accused Belgrade and Moscow of trying to destabilize the nation’s pro-Western government by launching a major propaganda campaign that fueled the protests. Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 despite strong opposition from another historic Slavic ally, Russia.

Both Belgrade and Moscow have repeatedly denied meddling in Montenegro’s internal affairs.

Mike Pompeo: Russia using Open Skies Treaty for data on cruise missile targets

Pompeo: Russia using Open Skies Treaty for data on cruise missile targets

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Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a navy exercise from the Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser in the Black Sea in , Crimea, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. The drills involved warships and aircraft that launched missiles at practice targets. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, … more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Russia is using intelligence obtained from U.S. and European overflights under the Open Skies Treaty to plan future cruise missile strikes on infrastructure targets, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed yesterday.

Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement supporting President Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the 2002 treaty.

“Rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency, Russia has, therefore, weaponized the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat,” he noted.

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The Trump administration announced Thursday it will formally begin the process of withdrawing from the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty on Friday. The notification means the United States will end participation in the treaty in six months.

Mr. Pompeo said the United States would reconsider staying in the treaty if Moscow returns to full compliance.

“But without such a change of course from the Kremlin, our path will lead to withdrawal in six months’ time,” he said.

The treaty permits signatories to conduct surveillance flights over U.S. and other foreign nations’ territory to promote openness and transparency regarding military forces.

Mr. Pompeo’s disclosure of Russian targeting from treaty overflights followed a warning last year that Russia was deploying long-range land-attack cruise missiles on submarines and warships in the Atlantic.

Defense officials disclosed that the Russian navy’s long-range, precision-guided Kalibr cruise missiles will be deployed in the western Atlantic. The missiles allow Moscow to target the U.S. East Coast for conventional or nuclear attacks.

The new sea-based Kalibr deployments were expected to take place throughout 2019, according to officials familiar with intelligence reports of the Russian maritime operations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Kalibr, known as SS-N-30A by NATO, is a relatively new weapon showcased for the first time by Russian airstrikes in Syria that began in 2015. It has a range of between 930 miles and 1,550 miles.

That range would allow a Russian ship or submarine to target all U.S. cities while located 1,000 miles off the U.S. coast.

The Kalibr is one of two weapons systems Russia plans to use in any future strikes on the United States. The second is the advanced Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile that can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads.

In 2014, Russian strategic bombers practiced simulated cruise missile strikes on the United States from launch areas off the coast of Canada.

A year later, then-commander of the Northern Command, Adm. William Gortney, warned Congress that Russian long-range cruise missiles posed new threats to the United States.

Russia is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally-armed cruise missiles with ever increasing stand-off launch distances on its heavy bombers, submarines, and surface combatants,” Adm. Gortney said.

The missile in question is Moscow’s KH-101, which U.s. military officials say is designed specifically to attack critical infrastructure targets such as electric power grids.

Mr. Pompeo said the threat to leave Open Skies is based on Mr. Trump’s strategy of assessing whether such treaties benefit U.S. national security interests. Moscow “flagrantly and continuously violated” the treaty for years, the secretary of state noted.

Russia denied access to treaty-allowed observation flights near a border with Russian-occupied occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The denials were part of an effort by Moscow to assert that the occupied territories are states independent of Georgia.

Moscow also designated a refueling air base in Russian-occupied Crimea in the Ukraine in a similar bid to solidify its control.

The Russian government also restricted Open Skies surveillance flights over the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad where Moscow is building up military forces that threaten NATO allies.

Mr. Pompeo noted that Russian officials have suggested that Kaliningrad is a base for short-range nuclear-tipped missiles targeting NATO.

The Russians also denied a 2019 overflight of a large Russian military exercise.

Another Russian violation up until 2017 was the denial of overflights related to movements by senior Russian officials and important persons.

“These periodic and shifting violations highlight Russia’s willingness for many years now, to restrict or deny overflights whenever it desires,” Mr. Pompeo said. “This strikes at the heart of the treaty’s confidence-building purpose.”

The pullout of the treaty follows Mr. Trump’s earlier jettisoning of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty over Russia’s deployment of a new ground-based cruise missile that U.S. officials said was banned by the treaty. The administration also appears on track to allow the 2010 New START treaty to expire in February over Moscow’s development of new strategic weapons that are not included in the treaty.

Mr. Pompeo also said the U.S. treaty withdrawal is the result of Russian actions toward arms control in general.

The pending withdrawal from Open Skies was criticized by arms control advocates who say the treaty was an important confidence-building measure between the United States, Europe and Russia.

“The Open Skies Treaty was meant to contribute to international security, but it has been twisted and perverted in its implementation and now serves Russian purposes inimical to that security,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Despite interest by European governments in keeping the treaty, Mr. Pompeo noted: “We are not willing, however, to perpetuate the treaty’s current problems of Russian-engendered threat and distrust simply in order to maintain an empty facade of cooperation with Moscow.”

Donald Trump to pull U.S. out of Open Skies Treaty

Trump to pull U.S. out of Open Skies Treaty

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In this June 28, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk to participate in a group photo at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. The Trump administration is notifying international partners that it is pulling … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Trump administration Thursday said it was preparing to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, a nearly 20-year-old international agreement that allows dozens of nations to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territory but one that President Trump and other critics say isn’t being enforced and is no longer in the U.S. national interest.

Russia and many European capitals swiftly condemned the move, as did senior Democrats in Congress, but the move showed Mr. Trump’s determination to reject or re-write multilateral accords — some dating back to the Cold War — if the U.S. is not being treated fairly.

U.S. officials have complained about restrictions Moscow has put on overflights of certain areas, including Chechnya and Russia’s strategic Kaliningrad enclave in Europe. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies also have warned Moscow is using Open Skies flights over the U.S. and Europe to map out targets and infrastructure that could be hit by a conventional or cyberattack.

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President Trump said he will notify the primary signatories of the agreement on Friday, but left the door open for further negotiations.

“I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty, and so until they adhere to the treaty, we will pull out,” Mr. Trump said Thursday afternoon. “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

The American pullout would take effect six months from now, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration reserves the right to “reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance” with the accord. But Mr. Pompeo also was harshly critical of Moscow’s record in honoring its treaty obligations to date.

“Rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency,” Mr. Pompeo said, Russia has “weaponized the treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”

The move came on the same day a top U.S. officials suggested the administration would make a concerted push to demand China be included in any extension of the U.S.-Russia New START arms control deal, negotiated by the Obama administration and set to expire in February.

Russia has pressed for an extension of the last major arms pact between the two capitals and State Department arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea said Thursday he has had preliminary talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on a possible deal, amid reports a short-term extension may be under consideration.

Russian officials said Thursday the proposed Open Skies withdrawal was regrettable but not surprising, given Mr. Trump’s hostility to other international pacts the U.S. once championed.

“It is easier to break than to build,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, told the Russian media outlet Sputnik News.

“The treaty worked for two decades and ensured transparency, a higher level of trust on military issues in the transatlantic region. But the decision to leave, apparently, explains the U.S. idea of a ‘new era’ of arms control. The ‘new era’ seems to mean no control. This is sad,” Mr. Ulyanov was quoted as saying.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged flaws in the agreement but said he “deeply regretted” the U.S. threat to leave. NATO ambassadors were reportedly meeting Friday to discuss the impact of the move.

Divisions on the Hill

Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who has led the push on Capitol Hill against the Open Skies agreement, welcomed Mr. Trump’s decision, saying the pact was as “outdated and irrelevant as the VHS recorder or cassette deck.”

“The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence,” the Arkansas Republican said in a statement. The Kremlin, he charged, viewed the treaty as “just another scheme to snatch a military and surveillance advantage over the U.S. and NATO.”

Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added, “The Open Skies Treaty was designed to be a tool of peace – yet [Russian President Vladimir Putin] has used it as a tool of war. Russia has been in clear violation of the treaty for years, denying the United States and our allies overflights of Kaliningrad and the Georgia-Russia border.”

But top Democrats — and many in the traditional arms control community — were quick to condemn Mr. Trump.

“This decision weakens our national security interests, isolates the United States since the treaty will continue without us, and abandons a useful tool to hold Russia accountable,” House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, and Rep. Jim Cooper, Tennessee Democrat, said in a statement.

Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at the liberal Defense Priorities advocacy group, said the bigger issue with Mr. Trump’s move was the signal it sent.

“Along with the U.S. exit from other major arms control treaties, this move reveals a disconcerting pattern of pointless hostility to treaties which will make future accords more difficult to negotiate,” he said in a statement.

And writing on Twitter, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former CIA director under Presidents Bush and Obama, simply called Mr. Trump’s move “insane.”

Terminating treaties

Withdrawing from the agreement would be the third major arms deal jettisoned under Mr. Trump. The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty last August, also citing Russian violations. In 2018, Mr. Trump pulled out of the multilateral Iran nuclear accord and reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.

President Eisenhower first proposed the concept behind the Open Skies Treaty for the U.S. and the Soviet Union in July 1955. At first, the Kremlin rejected the idea, but the idea was revived under President George H.W. Bush in 1989, and the treaty entered into force in January 2002.

Mr. Trump last November privately signed off on the decision to pull the U.S. out of the 34-country Open Skies pact. It was originally conceived as a way to lower international tensions by allowing treaty members to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights over each others’ territory to collect data on military forces and activities.

U.S. unhappiness with the nearly three-decades-old treaty grew last year after Russia restricted U.S. surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, the strategic Russian military enclave that sits between Lithuania and Poland. The U.S. responded by prohibiting Russian flights over Hawaii and several Air Force bases.

Experts have cautioned that a formal U.S. withdrawal is likely to push Moscow out of the treaty, as well as other European allies, leaving all parties with less clarity on what the others are doing.

Supporters of the treaty have argued that such European partners could be aggravated by another U.S. repudiation of a major multilateral security pact. All but two of the European Union’s 29 member countries have joined the agreement and when the U.S. conducts intelligence flights, European allies are often brought along.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman on Thursday suggested the U.S. would support an agreement like Open Skies — but only if it were being effectively enforced.

“The United States does remain fully committed to agreements that advance U.S. allied and partner security, are verifiable and enforceable, and include partners that comply responsibly with their obligations,” he told reporters.

Russia flagrantly and continuously violates its obligations under Open Skies,” he continued, “and implements the treaty in ways that contribute to military threats against the United States and our allies and partners.”

Mr. Hoffman offered several examples of Russia violating the deal, including instances in which Russia has prohibited foreign unarmed surveillance flights within six miles of the tense Russia-Georgia border.

On New START, Mr. Trump also hinted Thursday he would be open to a future deal that included China, but it remains unclear whether the administration will seek a brief extension of the treaty for several months. The current language only allows for a 5-year extension by mutual agreement.

“We’re probably going to make a deal with Russia on arms treaties, and China will be maybe included in that,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We’ll see what happens.”

Saying its nuclear arsenal is dwarfed by those of the U.S. and Russia, Beijing has repeatedly said it has no interest in joining three-way talks.

• Bill Gertz and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

Russian censor targets New York Times after Moscow complains of paper’s coronavirus ‘disinformation’

Russian censor targets New York Times after Moscow complains of paper’s coronavirus ‘disinformation’

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A woman wearing face mask to protect against coronavirus, walks near Red Square with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Russia confirmed Thursday it is investigating The New York Times and the Financial Times newspapers amid a dispute over the number of people killed in the country by the coronavirus.

State-run media outlets reported that Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s media regulator, is studying articles published by the newspapers in accordance with a law that prohibits reporting “inaccurate, socially significant information distributed under the guise of reliable messages.”

Each newspaper recently reported that the number of people to die in Russia from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is 70-80% higher than what Moscow has said.

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Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova subsequently accused the outlets Wednesday of spreading “disinformation” and said Russian would ask for a retraction from each.

State media has since reported that Roskomnadzor, Russia’s chief media censor, is reviewing whether the papers ran afoul of the law against spreading dangerous misinformation.

Messages requesting comment from The New York Times and the Financial Times were not immediately answered Thursday.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor: ‘Hard evidence’ implicates Russia in hack of German parliament

Merkel says ‘hard evidence’ implicates Russia in hack of German parliament

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes questions as part of a meeting of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, at the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that “hard evidence” exists indicating Russians hackers waged an attack in 2015 against the lower house of her nation’s parliament.

Mrs. Merkel implicated Moscow while speaking about a recent German news report that said Russian military hackers had breached the Bundestag and stolen emails including her own.

“I can honestly say that it pains me,” Mrs. Merkel said in the Bundestag, British outlet The Telegraph reported. “Every day I try to build a better relationship with Russia, and on the other hand there is hard evidence that Russian forces are doing this.”

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Mrs. Merkel also called the attack “unpleasant” and “outrageous” and said that it damages “any sort of collaboration” between Germany and Russia, The Guardian newspaper reported.

Der Spiegel reported last week that Russian state-sponsored hackers had stolen numerous emails belonging to Mrs. Merkel and other German parliament members by compromising the Bundestag’s computer systems roughly five years earlier.

The magazine also reported that German authorities had relatedly issued an arrest warrant for Dmitry Badin, a 29-year-old Russian who is similarly wanted in the U.S. for allegedly participating in cyberattacks the Department of Justice has accused the Russian government of waging to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Mrs. Merkel confirmed Wednesday that German investigators have identified a suspect accused of being behind the Bundestag accused, multiple news outlets reported.

“I am very glad that the investigations have now led to the Federal Public Prosecutor putting a specific person on the wanted list,” she said, Politico reported. “I take these things very seriously, because I believe that a very proper investigation has been carried out.”

Mrs. Merkel was unclear about what action if any Germany may ultimately take against Russia, however, the outlet noted.

“At this point we have to try to find the person in question by means of a manhunt. But of course we always reserve the right to take measures,” Mrs. Merkel added, according to Politico. “Nevertheless, I will continue to strive for a good relationship with Russia, because I believe that there is every reason to always continue these diplomatic efforts.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has previously identified Mr. Badin as a member of the Russian military intelligence agency better known as the GRU. In addition to charging him in connection with interfering in the 2016 presidential race, the Justice Department has also accused Mr. Badin of participating in a conspiracy to retaliate against anti-doping organizations and officials who revealed the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Russian professional athletes.

Russian government officials have previously denied Moscow was responsible for cyberattacks waged against German and U.S. targets.

Russia suspends use of ventilator model involved in fatal fires

Russia suspends use of ventilator model involved in fatal fires

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with representatives of the Russian aviation industry via teleconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Russia on Wednesday suspended the use of certain medical ventilators after the machines were believed to have been involved in two fatal hospital fires over the weekend.

On Saturday, one person died in a fire at a hospital in Moscow, and five were killed in a fire at Saint George’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Reuters reported. In both cases, Russian media reported that the sources of the fires were faulty Aventa-M ventilators.

Russia last month delivered hundreds of the same ventilators as part of a U.S. purchase to help American hospitals with the rise in coronavirus patients. Officials in Washington have since said they have not needed the additional medical equipment.

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The suspension of the ventilators comes amid a spike in new COVID-19 cases in Russia.

The number of confirmed cases in Russia, with a population of 144.5 million, has jumped the highest in Europe at 242,271, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The country has reported 2,121 deaths and 48,003 recoveries.

Officials have attributed the rising number of cases and low number of deaths to an expansive testing program, which has reportedly conducted 5.6 million tests. But some experts have cautioned that the true figures are much higher than what has been reported.

Moscow, which has emerged as the epicenter of the outbreak in Russia, has reported more than half of all cases and deaths in the country. The city has implemented strict lockdown precautions that will continue until at least May 31 in an effort to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus.