NATO to discuss Open Skies treaty after U.S. announces withdrawal

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO envoys will discuss the future of the Open Skies treaty on Friday after the United States announced it would quit the 35-nation pact that allows unarmed surveillance flights over member countries, an official of the defence alliance said.

Senior officials in President Donald Trump’s administration, which says Russia has repeatedly violated the treaty’s terms, said on Thursday that Washington would formally pull out of Open Skies in six months.

The U.S. move deepens doubts about whether Washington will seek to extend the 2010 New START accord, which imposes the last remaining limits on U.S. and Russian deployments of strategic nuclear arms to no more than 1,550 each. It expires in February.

U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have pressed Washington not to leave the Open Skies pact, whose unarmed overflights are aimed at bolstering confidence and providing members forewarning of surprise military attacks.

The NATO official recalled concern raised at a 2018 summit of alliance leaders that “Russia’s selective implementation” of Open Skies was undermining their security.

“In particular, we are concerned that Russia has restricted flights over certain areas,” the official said. “Allies continue to consult closely on the future of the treaty and the North Atlantic Council will meet today to discuss the issue.”

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Ex-Trump aide Flynn asks appeals court to toss criminal charges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn on Tuesday asked a U.S. appeals court to force a judge to dismiss the criminal charges against him.

In an emergency petition, Flynn’s lawyers asked that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit order District Judge Emmet Sullivan to grant a request by the U.S. Justice Department to dismiss the case.

The Justice Department’s May 7 decision to drop its case against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to charges relating to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, followed pressure from Trump and the Republican president’s political allies.

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Hundreds evacuated as fire at Moscow coronavirus hospital kills 1

Firefighters put out blaze at Spasokukotsky Hospital, designated as one of the facilities to treat COVID-19 patients.

At least one person has died after a fire broke at a hospital treating coronavirus patients in Moscow, according to officials.

The emergencies services said in a statement on Saturday that more than 200 people were evacuated from Spasokukotsky Hospital in the northern suburbs of the Russian capital.

More:

  • Moscow extends lockdown until May 31 as COVID-19 infections soar

  • For fourth day in row, Russia reports more than 10,000 new cases

  • Coronavirus: Russian medics fall from windows as cases rise

“The fire started in one of the rooms on the first floor,” it said, adding that it was quickly extinguished.

Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, confirmed reports that a patient had died and said those evacuated would be transferred to other hospitals.

“The causes of this incident will be thoroughly investigated,” Sobyanin wrote on Twitter.

To date, Russia has registered almost 210,000 confirmed infections and more than 1,900 related deaths.

More than half of the country’s cases and deaths have been recorded in Moscow, a sprawling city of 12.7 million.

The capital and several other regions have been on lockdown since late March to try and stem the spread of the coronavirus. 

This week, Russia overtook France and Germany to become the country with the fifth-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world. The top four hardest-hit countries include: The United States, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.

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Coronavirus: Fears for Russia’s domestic violence victims during lockdown

One Moscow woman says she doesn’t know why her husband attacked her seemingly out of nowhere at the end of their first week in lockdown together.

“He was crashing the furniture, throwing things at me,” she said.

“He knocked over the fridge and the washing machine and all the wardrobes. I sat on the sofa with the children hoping that my kids wouldn’t be hit.”

It was the first time he’d been physically violent towards Natalya (not her real name). Despite the lockdown and not wanting to take any chances, she took her two children and left.

Natalya said she used to criticise women in these kinds of circumstances.

“‘It’s her own fault,’ I would think. But now I’ve read a lot about it and I know that men like this become more and more aggressive. In the beginning he simply asked me to come back. Now he’s threatening to kill me,” she said.

Natalya was lucky to find a shelter that was open and would take her.

Many across Russia have shut because of lockdown. To make things more difficult, moving around in Moscow and some other Russian regions requires digital passes.

If you break the rules, you’re more likely to be sent home than escorted somewhere safe.

One by-product of lockdown felt in country after country is the terrible surge in domestic violence that comes with it.

The UN is predicting a possible 15 million cases of intimate partner violence if lockdowns last three months, and 31 million if they go on for six months.

The UN secretary general has implored governments to put women’s safety first as they consider their pandemic responses.

Now in its sixth week in lockdown, and with the virus spreading at one of the fastest rates globally, Russia claims to be bucking that trend.

According to the interior ministry, figures are down 13% year-on-year with the gravest of violent crimes within the home down an apparent 16.4%.

Those statistics paint a very different picture from the surge in calls to crisis hotlines reported by women’s support groups.

Moscow City Council said calls to their psychologist hotline were up 20% over lockdown.

They also said that appeals for help from elderly women and women with disabilities, often the target of physical or psychological violence by close relatives, had almost doubled.

In February, they’d had 264 calls; in April, 446.

One of the major problems with the interior ministry’s claim is that it is tricky to count something which doesn’t exist in law.

Three years ago Russia’s parliament voted 380-3 to reduce the punishment for domestic violence, effectively removing the term from the criminal code.

Under current legislation, which is first instance domestic battery, if it doesn’t require hospitalisation, the offender will receive just an administrative fine or fifteen days in prison.

That means that a slapping, kicking or beating that doesn’t break bones is not a criminal offence. That is, if it even gets reported.

Oksana Pushkina is one of the three lawmakers who voted against the legislation.

She has devoted her career first as a television host and now as a politician to women’s rights in a country which during that time has become increasingly socially conservative.

She dresses for TV, vivid blues and striking blonde bombast – she is the kind of woman who knows how to make an impact when she wants to drive a point home, even if she knows it may cost her.

“It is clear that someone like me always walks on the edge,” she said.

“I understand that I may not get into the next parliament because I voice unpopular topics.”

She said one of her constituents killed their husband.

“The neighbours heard the screams, but they didn’t call the police. Possibly at a different time the situation could have been settled somehow. But during the pandemic – no. Everyone’s nerves are frayed.”

According to a study in November 2019 by two independent media outlets, Novaya Gazeta and Mediazona, 80% of female prisoners convicted of pre-meditated murder were acting in self-defence against a violent partner.

In a remarkable reversal, Russian prosecutors earlier this year dropped murder charges against three teenage sisters who had killed their father after years of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

The Khachaturyan sisters‘ case had become a national talking point.

Their self-defence plea was finally accepted in a country where, according to their lawyer, acquittal on self-defence grounds happens in just 0.4% of cases.

Margarita Gracheva is another woman whose case had become a cause celebre. It is appallingly gruesome.

Gracheva married her childhood sweetheart, but in her mid-twenties and with two children, their marriage started to deteriorate. She said her husband thought she was being unfaithful to him. She asked him for a divorce.

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Russia fund says will continue to invest in Saudi Arabia: Al-Arabiya

DUBAI (Reuters) – Russia’s sovereign wealth fund will continue to invest in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 development programme, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel on Monday cited the head of the fund as saying.

Kirill Dmitriev, who is also one of Moscow’s top oil negotiators, said a global agreement to cut oil production prevented oil prices from falling to $10 a barrel, it added.

The oil talks, which concluded on Sunday, proved Russia’s ability to work with the United States, which is backing the agreement to reduce global oil supply, Dmitriev was quoted as saying.

The fund plans joint agricultural projects with Saudi Arabia, and is also working on a vaccines factory in the kingdom, he was quoted as saying, describing the relations with Riyadh as “very, very positive,” according to al-Arabiya.

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Kremlin warns of huge influx of Moscow patients as coronavirus toll climbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Saturday a “huge influx” of coronavirus patients was beginning to put a strain on hospitals in Moscow as Russia’s death toll rose to more than 100.

Moscow and many other regions have been in lockdown for nearly two weeks to stem the contagion, but hospitals in the capital are still being pushed to their limit, officials said.

On Saturday, a Reuters witness saw a tailback of dozens of ambulances queuing outside a hospital handling coronavirus cases in the region immediately outside Moscow, waiting to drop off patients.

One ambulance driver said he had been waiting 15 hours outside the hospital to drop off a patient suspected of having the virus.

“The situation in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, but mostly in Moscow, is quite tense because the number of sick people is growing,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview on state television, Russian news agencies reported.

“There is a huge influx of patients. We are seeing hospitals in Moscow working extremely intensely, in heroic, emergency mode.”

Russia’s coronavirus crisis response centre said hospitals were taking all possible measures to ensure rapid admissions and that cases of ambulances needing to wait hours to drop off patients was not a systemic issue.

AN UNFORTUNATE ‘NECESSITY’

Russia has reported 13,584 cases of the virus, and the authorities said on Saturday that 12 new coronavirus-related deaths in the last day had pushed the death toll to 106.

Peskov added that it would become clearer only in the next few weeks whether the country was nearing the worst point in its outbreak.

Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said on Friday that the city was far from reaching the peak of the outbreak, saying it was merely in its “foothills”.

On Saturday he said Moscow would introduce digital permits next week to control movement around the city to help enforce the lockdown.

He said residents will have to request the permits, which will contain a code that identifies the holder, in order to travel using motorcycles, scooters, cars, taxi services or the city’s vast public transport network.

Sobyanin added that residents should be ready to present identification documents and their digital permit to law enforcement officers patrolling the city.

“Unfortunately this is a necessity,” Sobyanin wrote on his website. “It is needed to protect the lives and health of many Muscovites, to overcome this calamity and to return to normal life.”

A stronger police presence was visible on the streets of Moscow. Traffic police had set up check points on major thoroughfares on the outskirts of the city but were not systematically carrying out checks.

In the early stages epidemic, Russia recorded fewer cases of the new coronavirus than many Western European countries, but its tally began to rise sharply this month.

Until late March officials were saying the situation was under control and that there was no epidemic in the country.

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Kremlin says Moscow hospitals flooded as coronavirus death toll passes 100

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Saturday a “huge influx” of coronavirus patients was beginning to put a strain on hospitals in Moscow as Russia’s death toll rose to more than 100.

Moscow and many other regions have been in lockdown for nearly two weeks to stem the contagion, but hospitals in the capital are still being pushed to their limit, officials said.

On Saturday a Reuters witness saw a tailback of dozens of ambulances queuing outside a hospital handling coronavirus cases in the region immediately outside Moscow, waiting to drop off patients.

One ambulance driver said he had been waiting 15 hours outside the hospital to drop off a patient suspected of having the virus.

“The situation in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, but mostly in Moscow, is quite tense because the number of sick people is growing,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview on state television, Russian news agencies reported.

“There is a huge influx of patients. We are seeing hospitals in Moscow working extremely intensely, in heroic, emergency mode.”

Russia has reported 13,584 cases of the virus, and the authorities said on Saturday that 12 new coronavirus-related deaths in the last day had pushed the casualty toll to 106.

Peskov added that it would become clearer only in the next few weeks whether the country was nearing the worst point in its outbreak.

Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said on Friday that the city was far from reaching the peak of the outbreak, saying it was merely in its “foothills”.

The authorities in Moscow are set to begin introducing a system of permits to control movement around the city starting next week to help enforce the lockdown.

A stronger police presence was visible on the streets of Moscow on Saturday. Traffic police had set up check points on major thoroughfares on the outskirts of the city but were not systematically carrying out checks.

In the early stages epidemic, Russia recorded fewer cases of the new coronavirus than many Western European countries, but its tally began to rise sharply this month.

Until late March officials were saying the situation was under control and that there was no epidemic in the country.

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Russian ventilators shipped to U.S. made by firm under U.S. sanctions: RBC

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ventilators delivered by Russia to the United States to help treat patients of the new coronavirus were manufactured by a Russian company that is under U.S. sanctions, Russia’s RBC business daily reported on Friday.

A Russian military plane carrying the ventilators landed in New York on Wednesday after U.S. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone.

Russian state television footage of the plane’s unloading showed boxes of “Aventa-M” ventilators, which are produced by the Ural Instrument Engineering Plant (UPZ) in the city of Chelyabinsk, 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Moscow, RBC reported.

UPZ is part of a holding company called Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET), which itself is a unit of Russian state conglomerate Rostec.

KRET has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014, with U.S. firms and nationals barred from doing business with it.

In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said the United States had agreed to purchase medical supplies from Russia, but it made no mention of any company nor regarding sanctions.

“Both countries have provided humanitarian assistance to each other in times of crisis in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. This is a time to work together to overcome a common enemy that threatens the lives of all of us,” said the statement, issued by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

U.S. officials in Washington could not immediately be reached for further comment on Friday. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it had nothing to add beyond what Ortagus had already said.

The United States initially began imposing economic sanctions on Russia in 2014 to punish it for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Additional rounds of sanctions have since been imposed on Moscow in response to its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and alleged involvement in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018. Moscow denies both allegations.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressed surprise and disappointment that anyone was questioning what Moscow has cast as a sincere goodwill gesture meant to help the United States at a time of crisis.

“Aren’t ventilators needed in the United States?,” she said, saying Russia could take them back if they were not wanted.

Trump on Thursday described the Russian shipment as containing “a lot of medical, high-quality stuff” which could save a lot of lives and said he’d “take it every day” if he had the opportunity.

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which said it had paid for half the shipment of medical equipment to the United States, was also added to U.S. sectoral sanctions in 2015.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow had paid half the cost with the other half picked up by Washington, though a Trump administration official later said the United States had picked up the whole tab.

RDIF declined to comment.

Rostec, the state conglomerate which ultimately owns the Russian ventilator plant, told Reuters that its units were producing ventilators for the domestic market as part of the Russian government’s measures to fight the virus.

The decision to ship its products internationally was the prerogative of the Russian president and government, it said.

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Putin extends Russia's coronavirus nonworking period

Despite a raft of measures, reported cases spiked on Thursday with 771 new infections, bringing the total to 3,548.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced the extension of a nonworking period in Russia to slow the spread of the coronavirus until April 30 as cases spike.

Putin announced the longer work-free period on Thursday in an address broadcast on state television, after health officials had said more time was needed.

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  • Is Russia prepared for a coronavirus outbreak?

The president first announced a week-long break from work in a rare televised address last week as part of a series of escalating measures to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Russia.

Despite a raft of measures, coronavirus cases spiked on Thursday with 771 new infections bringing the total to 3,548 and 30 deaths, according to official numbers.

“The threat remains,” Putin said. “The peak of the epidemic in the world has not yet been passed, including in our country.”

Moscow, with more than 12 million inhabitants, has seen the most cases so far.

Muscovites have been under a strict lockdown since Monday, with residents allowed to leave their homes only for essential shopping, medical emergencies, to walk pets or to take out rubbish.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in his blog Thursday evening that these measures would be extended, but announced that a plan to issue official passes for moving around the city using quick response (QR) codes would not go ahead for now.

He said this could come up for discussion again if the virus situation worsens or more people flout rules on staying home.

From Thursday, Muscovites diagnosed with the virus whose health allows them to stay at home and quarantined family members have to consent to monitoring of their movements using satellite location capability on mobile phones.

Moscow is also using facial recognition cameras to watch for breaches of quarantine.

“We will have to live through hard times,” Sobyanin said.

The lockdown has been extended across almost all regions, and parliament has approved a coronavirus-focused package of legislation including prison terms of up to seven years for those who cause multiple deaths by flouting protective measures.

‘Ensuring health’

In his televised address on Thursday, Putin said that measures already taken had “managed to protect the older generation from a serious threat” and prevented an outbreak in kindergartens.

He added that it would be up to each region to decide what lockdown measures were needed “in terms of ensuring health, people’s safety and the sustainability of the economy”.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on Wednesday that Russia had set aside $18bn to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and was drafting measures to support regional economies as well as small businesses.

In his initial address to the nation last week, Putin postponed a key public vote scheduled for April 22 on constitutional reforms that would allow him to stay in power until 2036.

Lawmakers have also approved a bill allowing the government to introduce a state of emergency across the country.

The Russian leader is himself taking precautions against coronavirus, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week, opting to carry out most of his duties remotely.

The head of Russia’s main coronavirus hospital, who gave Putin a tour of the facilities last week, announced Tuesday that he had tested positive for coronavirus, sparking speculation the president may have been infected after shaking hands with the doctor.

“Everything is fine” with Putin, Peskov said. “We are taking all the precautionary measures.”

Russia has already closed its borders and grounded all international flights to help prevent new cases.


The Listening Post

Coronavirus: Tracking the Outbreak, or Spying on People?

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Oil crash poses severe test for OPEC+ after Moscow, Riyadh miscalculate

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump says he has brokered a deal with Saudi Arabia and Russia that would see sweeping oil output cuts. Riyadh has called for emergency talks, and Moscow has said it no longer plans to hike production in a battle for market share.

But the question remains: even if the world’s top three producers reach an unprecedented pact to curb oil output, can any deal remove enough oil when the coronavirus has destroyed a third of global demand for crude? [nL8N2BQ36Q]

One thing, however, has become clear: as oil prices in the past three months made some of their biggest gyrations in history, taking action will prove a severe, if not impossible, test for OPEC+, the informal grouping that had propped up crude prices for three years until their agreement collapsed in March.

An OPEC source briefed on Saudi oil policy said the scale of the fall in demand might require action beyond the scope OPEC+ could take alone. “This is an extraordinary situation that needs extraordinary measures,” the source said.

Oil demand has dropped by as much as 30 million barrels per day (bpd), roughly equivalent to the combined output of Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States.

The fall is also more than the total production of all members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the group that for decades was the most powerful player in the oil market.

“The magnitude of the current disruption is far beyond what OPEC can deal with alone,” the Saudi state King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center wrote this week.

It said “greater international cooperation was needed” and predicted U.S. and other higher cost producers could suffer.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Russia has directly asked the United States – which has become the world’s biggest oil producer on the back of the shale revolution helped by OPEC+ support for prices – to join the any output cuts, a move prohibited by U.S. antitrust law.

But, in reality, some degree of U.S. participation would be essential for any deal that hoped to make a difference to market fundamentals.

MISCALCULATIONS

“If the number of OPEC+ members increase and other countries join, there is a possibility of a joint agreement to balance oil markets,” one of Russia’s top oil negotiators, Kirill Dmitriev, who heads the nation’s wealth fund, told Reuters.

Still, how to respond revives the acrimonious debate in early March in Vienna, where Moscow and Riyadh fell out and the OPEC+ deal on supply curbs came to an abrupt end.

Saudi Arabia had pushed for deep additional cuts, saying it was no longer ready to shoulder the biggest burden of reductions and wanted others – with a finger pointed firmly at Russia – to take a more equitable share.

Moscow’s response was that deeper cuts made no sense until the full extent of the fallout from the coronavirus was known, given measures to combat the virus were bringing the world to a standstill, sending demand for jet fuel, gasoline and diesel into a nosedive.

Instead of finding a way to overcome their differences. Both sides misread the determination of the other to stick to their guns. Even as the finances of both nations took a pounding, they left the meeting promising to open the taps and grab market share with the inevitable result that oil prices crashed.

“Russia had miscalculated the Saudi response,” a veteran Russian oil insider said. “Moscow had never thought the Saudis would threaten to raise production so steeply. We thought they would just carry on with existing cuts.”

Saudi Arabia for its part also misjudged the magnitude of the oil demand collapse that sent oil prices to their lowest in almost two decades.

Riyadh quickly found that, in a market awash with crude, even usually reliable buyers don’t want more and steep discounts do little to change this. Oil majors and big importing nations alike have spurned the extra cargoes. [nL8N2BJ6O8]

CLAIMING VICTORY

Now both sides may now have a chance to reconsider – and possibly a way to claim they were both right. If a deal is reached, Riyadh can say pumping more crude forced Russia back to the table. If others join in, Moscow can say the virus has had a bigger impact than anything OPEC+ alone could have dealt with.

Trump, who has said Moscow and Riyadh “went crazy” by pumping more after their supply deal fell apart, stunned the market on Thursday by saying he had brokered a deal with Saudi Arabia and Russia.

“I expect and hope that they will be cutting back approximately 10 Million Barrels, and maybe substantially more which, if it happens, will be great for the oil & gas industry!” Trump wrote on Twitter, citing a figure for cuts that would be equivalent to 10% of global supply.

Trump was due to meet U.S. company executives on Thursday, but a senior administration official said U.S. domestic producers would not be asked to chip in with their own cuts.

However, even if U.S. producers don’t voluntarily take part, they may be forced to. With oil at such low prices, they may have to shut down a lot of higher cost oil production — or they will have ask for state funds to keep them afloat.

Any formal agreement to cooperate with OPEC would be complex because of the antitrust laws. But some U.S. shale producers in Texas have requested the energy regulator mandate cuts for the first time in 50 years – and one of the three commissioners at the U.S. energy regulator has said it might make sense to do so.

The commissioner, Ryan Sitton, held a call with OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo last month.

“There is so much oil and in some cases it’s probably less valuable than water … We’ve never seen anything like it,” Trump said after speaking to Putin.

U.S. officials have discussed a number of ideas about how the country can help manage global oil markets. [nL1N2BK2VY]

But in a nod to Moscow, Washington offered this week to begin lifting Venezuela sanctions if the opposition and members of the government agreed to form an interim government, shifting on a policy Moscow has called unfair. [nL1N2BO0FP]

The OPEC source said it was not clear what Washington could propose to Riyadh to alleviate the crisis.

It is also far from clear if the producers can act fast enough to make a swift difference in these turbulent times.

“You can see every now and then when Trump says he will talk to Putin about energy, the market picks up a bit,” said Saad Rahim, chief economist at trader Trafigura. “But … it’s too late.”

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