The majority of Russian voters backed constitutional reforms that could keep President Vladimir Putin in power until 2036, election officials say.
According to electoral commission, with all the ballots counted, 77.9% voted for the reform package and 21.3% against.
The reforms will reset Vladimir Putin’s term limits to zero in 2024, allowing him to serve two more six-year terms.
Opposition figures denounced the vote, saying Vladimir Putin was aiming to be “president for life”, a claim the Russian president denies.
Vladimir Putin is already the longest-serving leader in modern Russian history since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
There was no independent scrutiny of the seven-day vote, and copies of the new constitution appeared in bookshops during the week.
By spreading out the vote, because of the coronavirus infection risk, the authorities made any monitoring of it more difficult.
Top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny described the results as a “big lie” which did not reflect real public opinion in the country.
Golos, an independent Russian election monitoring group, has castigated the vote, alleging there were many violations of democracy.
Its criticisms include: opponents were barred from campaigning in the media; remote electronic voting was organized on an illegal basis; election monitors were appointed by the Civic Chamber – a government body.
Golos describes it as “just a PR exercise from the very start” and says “there was no legal need for it”. The vote “will go down in history as an attack on the sovereignty of the people”.
The reforms include a ban on same-sex marriage – by defining marriage as between a man and a woman – and introducing a reference to Russia’s ancestral “faith in God”.
According to election officials, turnout was 65%. The highest levels of support – above 90% – were in Crimea, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, in Chechnya in the North Caucasus, and Tuva, in Siberia.
Vladimir Putin, aged 67, has not said he will run again for the presidency when his latest term runs out in 2024 – but has said it is vital he has the option to do so.
He has been in power in Russia, either as president or prime minister, for 20 years.
Vladimir Putin and his supporters say the reforms – more than 200 changes – are needed to ensure national stability.
In New York, 816 voted at the Russian consulate and 505 rejected the reforms, while 310 voted for. The other voting district where a majority were against was Nenets, in Russia’s remote Arctic.
Preliminary results were released hours before the last polling stations closed at 18:00 GMT in the western enclave of Kaliningrad, in the vast country spanning 11 time zones.
Before the vote had ended, the internal affairs ministry said there had been no violations that could affect the result, Interfax reported. However, Golos said it had received some 2,100 reports of possible violations.
Several hundred opponents of the constitutional changes staged protests in Moscow and St Petersburg.
The final results show 65% voted yes to the reforms in Moscow, and 77.6% in St Petersburg.
Both Russia’s houses of parliament have already adopted the changes, but President Putin ordered a public vote in a bid to legitimize the reforms. The vote was delayed from April due to the coronavirus outbreak.
As a measure to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, Russia is beginning what President Vladimir Putin called a “non-working week”.
The Russian government is urging people to stay at home, though mixed messaging has left many people confused.
According to officials, the new restrictions could be extended beyond April 5, depending on the health situation.
The number of Russians infected with Covid-19 passed 1,000 on March 27, with most cases detected in Moscow.
Based on that figure, the Kremlin spokesman has stressed that there is “de facto no epidemic” here, comparing Russia’s position favorably with the crisis in Europe.
Whilst state TV’s rolling news channel has changed its name to We’re Staying Home – broadcasting from presenters’ living rooms – many people are struggling to adjust after its previous insistence that Covid-19 was a “foreign threat”.
When President Putin announced a paid week off work for all, there was a rush to book holidays.
The governor of Krasnodar region, which includes the Black Sea resort of Sochi, had to order the closure of all shopping centers, parks and restaurants – and limit flights – after hotel reservations sky-rocketed.
Many Moscow residents have already headed out of town to their dachas, or summer houses.
In the Russian capital, there has been a noticeable increase in people in facemasks on the streets since President Putin’s national address.
Supermarket staff have begun wearing them and there are bottles of hand sanitizer in coffee shops.
Food stores will remain open, as well as other essential services, but from this weekend cafes and restaurants can offer takeaway only.
Later on March 25, Russia confirmed the deaths of two people who had been diagnosed with the new coronavirus. According to Ria Novosti, the 88- and 73-year-olds had pre-existing conditions. Russia has a total of 658 cases.
President Putin said: “The absolute priority for us is the health, life and safety of people. Therefore I believe that the vote should be postponed until a later date.”
He also announced that Russians would not work next week “to slow the speed” of the infection.
However, the Russian leader warned that it was impossible to prevent any spread of the virus at all in Russia because of the country’s size.
The Russian economy was also under serious pressure because of the virus, he said.
During their week off, employees would continue to be paid and key services would continue, Vladimir Putin said.
The president also announced extended welfare support, including for families with children and those who had lost jobs.
Russia has already taken measures such as 14-day quarantine for people arriving from abroad, school closures and warning for elderly people in Moscow to self-isolate.
It has also stopped cultural and sporting events and closed gyms, theaters and nightclubs, although cafes and restaurants have been allowed to stay open.
Russia has so far stopped short of imposing the kind of lockdown seen in some European countries.
There have been more than 435,000 confirmed cases worldwide. Europe is now the center of the global outbreak.
Russian PM Dmitry Mevedev has announced that his government is resigning, hours after President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes that could prolong his stay in power.
If approved by the public, the proposals would transfer power from the presidency to parliament.
President Putin is due to step down in 2024 when his fourth term of office comes to an end.
However, there is speculation he could seek a new role or hold on to power behind the scenes.
President Putin put forward his plans in his annual state of the nation address to lawmakers. Later, in an unexpected move, PM Dmitry Medvedev announced that the government was resigning to help facilitate the changes.
Vladimir Putin said during a speech to both chambers of parliament that there would be a nationwide vote on changes that would shift power from the presidency to parliament.
Constitutional reforms included giving the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, “greater responsibility” for the appointment of the prime minister and the cabinet.
Currently, the president appoints the prime minister and government ministers, and the Duma approves the decision.
Presidnet Putin also suggested an increased role for an advisory body called the State Council. The council, which is currently chaired by Vladimir Putin, comprises the heads of Russia’s federal regions. President Putin said it had proved to be “highly effective”.
Other measures include:
Limiting the supremacy of international law
Amending the rules that limit presidents to two consecutive terms
Strengthening laws that prohibit presidential candidates who have held foreign citizenship or foreign residency permits
PM Dmitry Medvedev made his announcement on state TV with President Putin sitting next to him.
He said: “These changes, when they are adopted… will introduce substantial changes not only to an entire range of articles of the constitution, but also to the entire balance of power, the power of the executive, the power of the legislature, the power of judiciary.
“In this context… the government in its current form has resigned.”
Vladimir Putin thanked Dmitry Medvedev for his work but said “not everything” had been accomplished.
He asked the prime minister to become deputy head of the National Security Council, which is chaired by the president.
Vladimir Putin later nominated tax service chief Mikhail Mishustin to replace Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister.
Dmitry Medvedev has been prime minister for several years. He previously served as president from 2008-2012, switching roles with Vladimir Putin – a close ally – after the latter served his first two terms as president. Russia’s constitution only allows presidents to serve two consecutive terms.
Even when he was prime minister, Vladimir Putin was widely seen as the power behind then President Medvedev.
Opposition leader and leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said he believed that any referendum on the constitutional changes would be “fraudulent crap”. He said Vladimir Putin’s goal was to be “sole leader for life”.
The last time Russia held a referendum was in 1993 when it adopted the constitution under President Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin’s predecessor.
Vladimir Putin became acting president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999 and was formally inaugurated a year later. He has held the reins of power – as president or prime minister – ever since.
President Putin and President Trump have spoken on the phone and in person various times since the latter took office.
Records from the conversations show they have often talked about Syria, as well as nuclear agreements, North Korea and trade.
In December 2017, Vladimir Putin thanked President Trump for another warning from US intelligence agencies, which again apparently prevented a terrorist plot in St Petersburg, according to a White House account.
During that call, the Kremlin said President Putin had promised to reciprocate with information about terrorist threats to the US.
The US and Russian relations plummeted after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from neighboring Ukraine in 2014.
They were also strained when US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite this, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have appeared to be on good terms personally – and they have vowed to co-operate on terrorism.
President Trump has indicated he is considering attending the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow next May, after an invitation from President Putin.
The man who opened fire at the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Moscow has been identified as a 39-year-old loner and gun enthusiast, Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.
According to Russian police, Yevgeny Manyurov is from Podolsk, about 25 miles south of Moscow. On December 19, the gunman killed an FSB officer and wounded five others with an automatic weapon, before a sniper shot him dead.
One of the wounded is a civilian.
At the moment of the attack, President Vladimir Putin was at a gala evening honoring the FSB at the Kremlin, a couple of miles away.
The shooting happened at the entrance of the Lubyanka, the FSB headquarters which used to house the Soviet KGB.
On December 19, police searched Yevgeny Manyurov’s flat, which he had shared with his mother, and they detained her for questioning.
Yevgeny Manyurov had worked as a security guard but lost his job recently and never had any visits from friends, Russian media quote his mother as saying. Police found five guns at the flat – legally registered and kept in a safe – along with a large quantity of ammunition.
He once trained as a lawyer and did some legal consulting work, reports say.
Yevgeny Manyurov practiced shooting regularly at a gun club, which was a passion for him, his mother is quoted as saying.
She also said she had heard him speaking English on the phone with some “Arabs”, who had started calling him since he had lost his security job.
According to Kommersant newspaper, when he opened fire, Yevgeny Manyurov “was shouting slogans typical of Islamic State”. The publication says the information came from a security source, who quoted witnesses questioned by police.
The first “foreign agent” law, introduced in 2012, targeted non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including charities and civil society groups, which get foreign funding and engage in political activity in Russia.
In 2015 Russia’s justice ministry listed Memorial – a distinguished chronicler of human rights abuses – as a “foreign agent”.
The anti-corruption organization of anti-Putin campaigner Alexei Navalny has also been declared a “foreign agent”.
Groups, and now individuals, labeled as “foreign agents” have to put that label on their publications and submit detailed paperwork to the authorities, or face fines for not doing so.
The media law was steered through parliament’s lower house – the Duma – by lawmakers Leonid Levin and Pyotr Tolstoy.
Leonid Levin explained that for an individual to be labeled a “foreign agent” two criteria must be valid: they must be producing or spreading material from a “foreign agent” media source, and they must be getting foreign funding.
He said that re-tweeting “foreign agent” news would only make an individual a “foreign agent” too if he or she was also receiving foreign funding.
There has been a chorus of disapproval from human rights groups for the new law.
OSCE media freedom representative Harlem Désir said the law “represents a disproportionate interference in the freedom of expression and media freedom”.
Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), said the legislation “imposes an additional administrative and financial burden, as well as stigmatizes the media or NGO concerned, thus restricting the exercise of fundamental freedoms”.
She said: “Taking into account the already limited space for free media in the country, a further extension of the scope of the legislation is yet another worrying step against free and independent media and access to information, as well as a further attempt to silence independent voices in Russia.”
According to Amnesty International the new law “will have a detrimental impact on the already restrictive environment for independent journalism in Russia, and must be dropped”.
Hundreds of people were arrested during a pro-Golunov rally in central Moscow on June 12, many of them bearing the same slogan as the newspapers.
The interior minister announced the suspension of officers involved in the case on June 11, saying that the reporter’s guilt “had not been proven”.
President Vladimir Putin has avoided commenting on the case, although his spokesman said earlier in the week that the Kremlin had been keeping a close eye on it.
He will appear before the Russian public in the annual “Direct Line” phone-in on June 20, when Russians are given the chance to speak to the president.
Russian commentators have suggested the Kremlin is keen for the story to disappear before the event.
Ivan Golunov was stopped last week while on his way to meet another journalist in Moscow. Police officers said they found the drug mephedrone in his bag, and more drugs and weighing scales in a search of his home.
The journalist’s lawyers and press freedom activists said the drugs had been planted in order to silence the investigative journalist.
Ivan Golunov’s supporters immediately claimed that he was innocent and a victim of false drugs charges used against opposition figures and human rights activists by the Russian state.
On November 29, President Poroshenko announced that Russians living in Ukraine would soon face restrictions on bank withdrawals, changing foreign currency and travelling abroad.
The incident happened on November 25, when two Ukrainian gunboats and a tug were sailing from Odessa to the port of Mariupol, in the Sea of Azov – which is shared between Russia and Ukraine.
The ships were stopped from entering the Kerch Strait and confronted by FSB border guards. After a lengthy standoff, during which the Ukrainian tug was rammed, the vessels began turning back towards Odessa, the Ukrainian government says.
The Russians opened fire, wounding at least three sailors, and seized the Ukrainian flotilla.
The Kerch Strait separates Russia from Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014.
However, Ukraine says Russia is deliberately blockading Mariupol and another Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov, Berdyansk.
The 24 captured Ukrainian sailors have now been given two months in pre-trial detention by a court in Crimea.
President Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a peace conference – the Paris Peace Forum – with leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On November 10, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel visited the town of Compiègne in northern France. They signed a book of remembrance in a railway carriage identical to the one in which the 1918 Armistice was sealed.
President Donald Trump caused controversy by canceling a trip to a cemetery for the war dead because of bad weather.
A group of around 50 activist organizations held a demonstration in Paris in protest against President Trump’s visit.
President Donald Trump has invited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to visit the US, in a move that drew startled laughter from US intelligence chief Dan Coats.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said when he was told about the invitation during a live interview: “That’s gonna be special!”
President Trump’s presidency has been clouded by allegations that Russian hackers meddled in the 2016 US presidential election in his favor. However, the Kremlin denies the allegations.
At the Helsinki summit, President Putin offered access to 12 Russians indicted in absentia by the US authorities over the alleged interference, on condition the Russian authorities could question 12 Americans over a different case. President Trump first praised the suggestion as “incredible” but later rejected it.
Since his return from Finland, President Trump or the White House have had to correct or clarify other comments regarding Russia, creating confusion and prompting the Democrats to demand details of his private talks with President Putin.
Vladimir Putin, in power in Russia since 2000, last visited the US in 2015, when he met President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York to discuss the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
On July 19, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that discussions about a visit by Vladimir Putin to Washington DC this autumn were already under way.
Russian ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov said Russia had always been open to the idea of a visit but it was “up to the Kremlin to decide how many summits are needed, and when”.
The announcement appeared to come as a surprise to US intelligence chief Dan Coats, who was told about it during a live interview at the Aspen Security Forum in the state of Colorado.
Dan Coats added that he did not yet know what President Trump and President Putin had discussed during their meeting, at which only the pair and their interpreters were present.
At the post-summit news conference in Helsinki, President Putin was asked whether he would extradite 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted in the US for hacking Democratic Party computers.
No extradition treaty exists between the US and Russia, but Vladimir Putin said he would meet the US government “halfway”.
President Putin said that US investigators could question the 12 suspects inside Russia if, in turn, Russian investigators were allowed to question US citizens with regard to a case against financier Bill Browder.
Bill Browder was instrumental in the US imposing sanctions in 2012 on top Russian officials accused of corruption in the Magnitsky affair.
One of the Americans on Russia’s list is a former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul.
The idea of allowing Russia to quiz US citizens sparked outrage and the Senate voted 98-0 against it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was “not going to happen”.
Michael McFaul tweeted his gratitude to the Senate: “98-0. Bipartisanship is not dead yet in the US Senate. Thank you all for your support.”
At the news conference in Helsinki, President Trump said: “He [Vladimir Putin] offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigations with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Now, however, President Trump says he “disagrees” with President Putin’s proposal.
He has also clarified remarks at the news conference in which he said he saw no reason for Russia to have meddled in the 2016 US election – despite US intelligence concluding just that.
Speaking to CBS News on July 18, President Trump said he held Vladimir Putin personally responsible for interfering in the election, and that he was “very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling”.
Vladimir Putin has also described the summit as “successful” but warned “there are forces in the United States that are prepared to casually sacrifice Russian-US relations”.
At a news conference after the summit, President Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to allegations of meddling in the election.
He replied: “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
President Trump also blamed poor relations with Russia on past US administrations rather than Russian actions.
US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorized campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.
President Trump later backtracked, tweeting that he had “great confidence in my intelligence people”.
He tweeted: “As I said today and many times before, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has inaugurated a highly controversial bridge between the mainland Russia and annexed Crimea. The $3.7 billion bridge has been a flagship political project for Russia as it seeks to cement its hold on to the territory it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The Kerch Strait bridge was opened in a typically hands-on fashion by the Russian leader. By driving a truck.
The 12 mile (19km)-bridge, now the longest in Europe, is the only direct road link with Russia. It links Russia’s Krasnodar region with Crimean peninsula. Its opening marks the physical “reunification” of Crimea with Russia mainland. Once fully completed, the road and rail link will be able to handle 40,000 cars a day and to move 14 million passengers and 13 million tons of cargo per year, according to RIA Novosti. Russian special forces seized Crimea in a lightning operation in February 2014. The West responded with crippling economic sanctions.
Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has been held at a Moscow rally two days before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration.
Alexei Navalny was carried away struggling through the crowd of demonstrators, who had gathered to protest at President Putin’s forthcoming fourth term in office.
Moscow and St Petersburg rallies were not approved by the authorities.
At least 1,000 arrests were reportedly made at rallies across Russia.
On May 6, Alexei Navalny was released from police custody after being charged with organizing a rally and resisting the police.
Protesters on Moscow’s Pushkin Square shouted slogans such as “Down with the tsar!” – “tsar” was the historical title of Russia’s pre-revolutionary emperors – and “Russia without Putin!”. In St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, they shouted “Jail the tsar!”.
Activists have been using a Russian hash tag on Twitter which translates as “He’s not our tsar”.
Meanwhile, the pro-Kremlin National Liberation Movement held a rival rally at the same location in Moscow.
Alexei Navalny, a long-time anti-corruption campaigner is not an elected politician but has led protests against the rule of Vladimir Putin and his allies since the parliamentary election of 2011.
The activist was barred from running for president against Vladimir Putin this year because of a conviction for embezzlement, which he denies, saying the case against him was politically motivated.
Alexei Navalny has been arrested at protests on numerous occasions before, and is typically held for a few weeks before being released.
Reports say he was forced to stay at a secret location on May 4 in order to make it to the Moscow rally at all.
When the Moscow city authorities warned people of possible “negative consequences” of taking part in unsanctioned rallies on May 5, Alexei Navalny tweeted back: “And I would like to warn everyone of the negative consequences of non-participation in the rallies.”
He added: “If you stay at home, Putin’s gang will tear the country apart and deprive you personally of a future.”
Vladimir Putin was re-elected president with more than 76% of the vote, his best ever election performance.
President Donald Trump has said that Russia should “get ready” for missiles to be fired at its ally Syria, in response to an alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma on April 7.
The president tweeted: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and <<smart>>!”
Senior Russian figures have threatened to meet any US strikes with a response.
The Syrian government denies mounting a chemical attack on Douma.
In one his tweets on April 11, President Trump called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a “gas killing animal”.
In another, President Trump painted a dark picture of US-Russia relations but said it did not have to be that way.
He tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?”
Meanwhile, the US, UK and France have agreed to work together and are believed to be preparing for a military strike in response to the alleged chemical attack at the weekend.
Syrian opposition activists and rescuers say government aircraft dropped bombs filled with toxic chemicals on Douma.
According to the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), which operates in rebel-held areas, and local aid workers, more than 500 people had been treated for symptoms “indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”.
On April 11, the UN’s World Health Organization demanded access to verify reports from its partners, which include SAMS, that 70 people had died – including 43 who showed “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”.
Meanwhile, a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is due to deploy to Syria “shortly” to determine whether banned weapons were used.
The town of Douma, the last major rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus, was under renewed assault from Syrian and Russian forces last week.
Image source Flickr
Rebels have now been evacuating Douma under an agreement involving the Russian military.
Russia said it would deploy military police to Douma on April 12 and that the situation there had stabilized.
Several senior Russian figures have warned of a Russian response to a US attack, with Alexander Zasypkin, Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, repeating on April 11 a warning by the head of the military that missiles would be shot down and their launch sites targeted if they threatened the lives of Russian personnel.
Also on April 11, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asked whether the aim of Western strikes might be “to quickly remove the traces of the provocation… [so] international inspectors will have nothing to look for in terms of evidence”.
Addressing new ambassadors in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said the world was becoming more chaotic. He said he hoped common sense would prevail and that the situation would stabilize.
President Putin said Russia would “keep all its international obligations in full”.
On April 10, President Trump cancelled his first official trip to Latin America so he could focus on Syria.
On April 11, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US was still assessing the chemical attack and that the US military stood ready “to provide military options if they are appropriate as the president determines”.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron said any strikes would “not target allies of the [Syrian] regime or attack anyone, but rather attack the regime’s chemical capabilities”.
However, The Times newspaper reports that the UK’s PM Theresa May has urged President Trump to provide more evidence of the suspected chemical attack.
A US Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean Sea.
On April 10, the UN Security Council failed to approve moves to set up an inquiry into the alleged attack on Douma.
As permanent members of the council, Russia and the US vetoed each other’s proposals to set up independent investigations.
The US-drafted resolution would have allowed investigators to apportion blame for the suspected attack, while Russia’s version would have left that to the Security Council.
The OPCW’s fact-finding mission will not seek to establish who was responsible for the attack.
According to the Washington Post, citing officials it said were familiar with the matter, the call was made despite warnings from the president’s security advisers, who provided a briefing which included a section that read “DO NOT CONGRATULATE”.
During the call, President Trump did not mention the issue that has sparked growing Western tensions with Russia – the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK.
The UK government blamed the nerve agent attack on Moscow, which denies any involvement.
The Kremlin said the conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was “constructive and business-like”, adding that Russia hoped to “overcome problems” that had arisen between the two nations.
Senator John McCain criticized President Trump over the call, saying in a statement: “An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country’s future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin’s regime.”
On March 20, EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker also wrote a letter of congratulations to Vladimir Putin, pledging to “always be a partner” in improving security co-operation with the Kremlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the first Western leaders to “warmly congratulate” the Russian leader on March 19 – a day after his re-election – stressing the need to continue dialogue “to address important bilateral and international challenges and find viable solutions”.
French President Emmanuel Macron wished Vladimir Putin success in “modernizing Russia”, but urged Moscow to shed light on the “unacceptable” attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in the UK.
President Trump has refused to acknowledge a reported assessment by the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
The contents of the emails, passed to WikiLeaks and posted online, were embarrassing to the Democrats and shook up the presidential campaign, which ended in defeat for Hillary Clinton.
In addition to Robert Mueller’s inquiry, congressional committees have been set up to carry out their own investigations.
Relations between the US and Russia have been strained for years, with the Kremlin long accusing Washington of seeking to sway elections in Russia and other ex-Soviet states including Ukraine and Georgia.
While Russian hackers are widely suspected of involvement, there has been no conclusive link to the Kremlin.
Denying that Russia had tried to interfere last year by fostering contacts with Donald Trump’s campaign, Vladimir Putin told reporters in Vietnam: “Everything about the so-called Russian dossier in the US is a manifestation of a continuing domestic political struggle.”
President Trump said he believed President Putin had been “very insulted by” the allegations and that was “not a good thing” for America.
“He [Vladimir Putin] said he didn’t meddle,” the president added.
“I asked him again.”
Asked if he believed President Putin, Donald Trump replied: “He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. You have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he has nothing to do with that. Now, you are not going to get into an argument, you are going to start talking about Syria and the Ukraine.”
In December 2016, former President Barack Obama had ordered those expulsions, along with the closure of two compounds.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin did not respond initially to that move, with President Trump set to assume office, he then announced on July 31 a reduction of 755 US diplomatic staff in Russia, in retaliation for the US sanctions.
The US diplomats expelled have until September 1 to leave Russia – a day before the US closures of the Russian consulate and two annexes, which are trade missions, must be completed.
Image source Wikimedia
A senior administration official said on August 31 that the consulate and the residence attached to it as well as the two trade missions would close but no Russian staff would be required to leave the US.
Russia will be allowed to maintain the properties, but not use them, the official added.
According to the State Department, the US actions were “in the spirit of parity”. It blamed Russia for what it called a downward spiral in bilateral ties, but suggested it wanted an end to the current spat.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement: “The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased co-operation on areas of mutual concern.”
The move leaves each country with three consulates in place, Heather Nauert added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a phone call on August 31, expressing “regret at the escalation of tensions in bilateral relations”.
According to a statement from the Russian foreign ministry, Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would study the order and respond accordingly.
Sergei Lavrov and Rex Tillerson are due to meet in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The president, who wanted warmer ties with Russia, had opposed the bill, which included a provision that limits his ability to lift sanctions and forces him to consult Congress first.
President Trump has been dogged by claims that Russia tried to sway the election in his favor and several investigations are under way to determine whether anyone from his campaign colluded with Moscow.
However, Russia has repeatedly denied interfering and President Trump has insisted that there was no collusion, calling the investigations a “witch hunt”.
Staff in the embassy in Moscow as well as the consulates in Ekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St. Petersburg are affected.
Vladimir Putin did strike a conciliatory note, saying he did not want to impose more measures, but also said he could not see ties changing “anytime soon”.
The president told Russian TV: “More than 1,000 people were working and are still working” at the US embassy and consulates, and that “755 people must stop their activities in Russia.”
Russia has also said it is seizing holiday properties and a warehouse used by US diplomats.
Vladimir Putin suggested he could consider more measures, but said: “I am against it as of today.”
The Russian president also noted the creation of a de-escalation zone in southern Syria as an example of a concrete result of working together.
However, in terms of general relations, Vladimir Putin added: “We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better.
“But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it’s not for anytime soon.”
The new US sanctions were in retaliation both for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian interference in the US election.
In December, the Obama administration ordered the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds and expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to alleged hacking of the US Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The new US sanctions on Russia were overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress despite objections from the White House.
US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the election in favor of President Donald Trump and now there are several investigations looking into whether anyone from his campaign helped.
Russia has always denied interfering and Donald Trump insists there was no collusion.
President Trump left his seat and headed to Vladimir Putin, who had been sitting next to Melania Trump, media said. The president was alone with Vladimir Putin, apart from the attendance of the Russian president’s official interpreter.
Donald Trump had been seated next to Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s wife, so the US interpreter at the dinner spoke Japanese, not Russian. No media were in attendance.
The length of the talks has been disputed.
Ian Bremmer, president of the US-based Eurasia Group, who first reported them in a newsletter to clients, said: “Donald Trump got up from the table and sat down with Putin for about an hour. It was very animated and very friendly.”
No-one else was nearby, so the topics of discussion were not known, he said.
Image NBC News
Ian Bremmer had not been at the dinner but said details were given to him by unnamed attendees who, he said, were “flummoxed, confused and startled” by the turn of events.
He told Bloomberg he had never before seen “two major countries with a constellation of national interests that are as dissident while the two leaders seem to be doing everything possible to make nice-nice and be close to each other”.
In a statement, a senior White House official said there was no “second meeting”, just a brief conversation after dinner.
The official said: “The insinuation that the White House has tried to <hide> a second meeting is false, malicious and absurd. It is not merely perfectly normal, it is part of a president’s duties, to interact with world leaders.”
National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said it was not a meeting but a “pull aside”, adding: “A conversation over dessert should not be characterized as a meeting.”
President Trump later said on Twitter: “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is <sick>. All G20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!”
The dinner and its attendees have always been known. Only the Trump-Putin discussion had not been reported before.
At the earlier, formal meeting, their first face-to-face encounter, President Trump said he had repeatedly pressed President Putin about the allegations of interference in the US vote.
“I said, <Did you do it?> He said, <No, I did not, absolutely not>. I then asked him a second time, in a totally different way. He said, <Absolutely not>.”
There are congressional investigations, and one by a special counsel, into the allegations of Russian interference in the US election and possible collusion with the Trump team.
On July 18, the Senate intelligence committee said it wanted to interview Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr., and other members of the Trump team, over a meeting they had with a Russian lawyer in June 2016.
Donald Trump Jr. said he had attended the meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya as he was promised damaging material on Hillary Clinton, but it did not materialize.
On July 19, Natalia Veselnitskaya told Russia’s RT TV channel she would be willing to testify before the Senate on the matter.
Meanwhile, the White House said President Trump would nominate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Russia, a key post for a president who promised to improve relations with Moscow.
Jon Huntsman, who served as ambassador to China and Singapore, needs to have his name confirmed by the Senate.
The suspicions over Russian interference are likely to play a significant factor in his confirmation process, correspondents say.
Russia is threatening to expel about 30 US diplomats and seize US state property in retaliation for Washington’s sanctions, local officials confirm.
The threat came from Russian foreign ministry sources, quoted by the daily Izvestia. Other Russian officials have made similar statements recently.
In December 2016, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two intelligence compounds.
The measures were a response to alleged Russian meddling in the US election.
Russia was already under US sanctions.
Former President Barack Obama acted against Russia after US intelligence sources had accused Russian state agents of hacking into Democratic Party computers to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
President Vladimir Putin raised the issue of the Obama sanctions with President Donald Trump when they met in Hamburg last week, Izvestia reported.
Meanwhile, the Trump team is under investigation over alleged Russian collusion during last year’s presidential campaign. Russia has strongly denied interfering in the election.
In addition to expelling 35 Russian diplomats from Washington and San Francisco, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on nine entities and individuals including Russia’s GRU and FSB intelligence agencies. The US closed Russian intelligence compounds in New York and Maryland.
President Putin refrained from tit-for-tat retaliation – unlike in previous diplomatic spats.
Russia says President Donald Trump presented “no plan to resolve the crisis” when the issue was raised in Hamburg.
An unnamed Russian diplomat told Izvestia that in retaliation Russia could seize a US government dacha (country villa) at Serebryany Bor, to the northwest of Moscow, and a US warehouse in the city itself.
However, the US ambassador’s Spaso House residence and the Anglo-American School in St Petersburg would not be affected.
Russia would carry out the threat if no compromise was reached at a St Petersburg meeting later this month between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, Izvestia reported.
The US and its Western allies have also imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia because of Moscow’s role in the Ukraine conflict.
Russia blocked most imported Western food and drink in retaliation.
President Trump described the outcome of the talks as positive and suggested closer co-operation between the two nations.
“Putin and I discussed forming an impenetrable cyber security unit so that election hacking, and many other negative things, will be guarded and safe,” he said.
The initial proposal immediately prompted derision from Democrats, as well as some Republicans who questioned why the US would work with Russia after the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US election.
However, Republican Senator Marco Rubio suggested that such an initiative would be like partnering with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on chemical weapons.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said: “It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close.”
A special prosecutor is investigating whether Trump associates colluded with alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US election.
Both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin said the allegations had been discussed.
However, the two sides described the content of the meeting differently.
President Trump said he “strongly pressed” the issue with Vladimir Putin, who had “vehemently denied” interfering in the US election.
The president also said it was time to work more “constructively” with Russia.
Vladimir Putin said he believed President Trump had accepted his assurances that Moscow had not interfered in the vote.
However, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said interference in the 2016 election remained an impediment to better relations with Russia, while the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said the US “can’t trust Russia” and “won’t ever trust Russia”.