Putin, Addressing Russia, Warns West Not to Cross Red Line: Live Updates

that could be prepared to move into neighboring Ukraine.

President Volodymyr Zelensky on the front line in Ukraine’s Mariupol region this month.
Credit…Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed his nation on Tuesday evening, warning citizens of the possibility of war. He addressed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia directly, urging him to step back from the brink and proposing that the two meet.

The unusual videotaped appearance by Mr. Zelensky — a former comedian elected in 2019 on a promise to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine — was the clearest signal yet that Ukraine is girding for the possibility of a full-fledged war with Russia. Moscow’s buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border, he said, had created “all the preconditions for escalation.”

“Does Ukraine want war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last man.”

It appeared to be no coincidence that Mr. Zelensky’s address came on the eve of Mr. Putin’s annual state of the nation address on Wednesday. At the end of his video, Mr. Zelensky switched from Ukrainian to Russian, speaking to Mr. Putin directly. He pushed back at Mr. Putin’s contention that Russian forces would be used in Ukraine only if the Russian-speaking population in the east was threatened, and proposed a summit in the war-torn eastern region known as Donbas.

“It is impossible to bring peace on a tank,” Mr. Zelensky said.

“I am ready,” he continued, “to invite you to meet anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbas where there is war.”

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin to Mr. Zelensky’s invitation.

Aleksei A. Navalny, left, at a court hearing in February. 
Credit…Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

Russia is moving ahead with efforts to outlaw the organization led by the opposition figure Aleksei A. Navalny, a step that could result in the most intense wave of political repression in the post-Soviet era. But supporters of the jailed opposition leader say they are determined to take to the streets.

Opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin have called for protests across Russia on Wednesday in support of Mr. Navalny, whose allies say he is on a hunger strike and near death in a Russian prison. The police are expected to intervene forcefully to break up the protests, which started in the country’s Far East immediately after Mr. Putin delivered his state of the nation speech.

Mr. Putin has rarely mentioned Mr. Navalny by name and did not do so in his speech. He did not refer to him in any way.

Mr. Navalny is insisting that he be allowed to be seen by doctors of his choosing. A lawyer who visited him, Vadim Kobzev, said on Tuesday that Mr. Navalny’s arms were punctured and bruised after three nurses had unsuccessfully tried six times to hook him up to an intravenous drip.

“If you saw me now, you would laugh,” Mr. Navalny said in a letter that his team posted to social media. “A skeleton walking, swaying, in its cell.”

The Kremlin depicts Mr. Navalny as an agent of American influence, and Russian prosecutors filed a lawsuit on Friday to declare his organization “extremist” and illegal.

The extremism designation, which a Moscow court will consider in a secret trial starting next week, would effectively force Russia’s most potent opposition movement underground and could result in yearslong prison terms for pro-Navalny activists.

The White House has warned the Russian government that it “will be held accountable” if Mr. Navalny dies in prison. Western officials — and Mr. Navalny’s supporters and allies — reject the idea that he is acting on another country’s behalf.

But in the Kremlin’s logic, Mr. Navalny is a threat to Russian statehood, doing the West’s bidding by undermining Mr. Putin. It is Mr. Putin, Mr. Trenin said, who is keeping Russia stable by maintaining a balance between competing factions in Russia’s ruling elite.

“If Putin leaves, a battle between different groups breaks out, and Russia withdraws into itself, has no time for the rest of the world and no longer gets in anyone’s way,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The West is, of course, using Navalny, and will use him to create problems for Putin and, in the longer term, help Putin become history in one way or another.”

Lyubov Sobol, center, was among the close allies of Aleksei A. Navalny to be detained before the planned rallies. 
Credit…Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

MOSCOW — Dozens of opposition activists were arrested in 20 cities across Russia before a rally scheduled for Wednesday night in Moscow in support of the imprisoned Kremlin critic Aleksei A. Navalny.

Some of the activists were beaten and sentenced to administrative arrests, according to OVD Info, an independent rights group that tracks arrests. Many were members of Mr. Navalny’s political organization, but some were arrested simply for sharing social media posts about the rally.

Among those detained were two prominent associates of Mr. Navalny: his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh; and Lyubov Sobol.

In Russia’s Far East — where protests started before rallies were expected to sweep across the vast nation with 11 time zones — the police detained eight people in the city of Magadan, according to Vesma, a local news website. About 40 people came out to protest in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the Kamchatka region, with no arrests reported.

In Vladivostok, a major port on the eastern tip of Russia, about 100 people marched through the city with no arrests reported so far, Vl.ru, a local news website reported.

“Freedom to political prisoners,” people chanted. The police warned protesters through loudspeakers that they could be arrested. “We will not stay silent,” was the response.

In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have conducted raids on Mr. Navalny’s offices across the country, looking for leaflets and other materials calling for protests. Those items would presumably be used in the Kremlin’s drive to have his organization labeled “extremist,” which would expose its members to potentially lengthy prison terms.

In Kurgan, a city in central Russia, an unknown person sneaked into Mr. Navalny’s office on Monday morning and destroyed a radiator, flooding the premises.

Under various pretexts, the authorities in cities across Russia blocked central squares and streets. In Yekaterinburg, they rescheduled a Victory Day parade rehearsal to ensure that it overlapped with a scheduled protest. In Kostroma, the central square was closed down, ostensibly for pest control measures.

In universities across the country, students were ordered to sit for unscheduled tests and other gatherings with mandatory attendance, TV Rain, an independent news station reported on Tuesday.

The authorities in Moscow denied Mr. Navalny’s allies a permit for the rally they have planned for Wednesday evening, citing coronavirus concerns. The Prosecutor General’s office warned parents that they would be subject to fines and arrest if their underage children are detained at a rally.

More than 450,000 people nationwide registered online to declare their intent to take part in demonstrations against Mr. Navalny’s incarceration and treatment in prison. More than 100,000 people did so in Moscow, and more than 50,000 in St. Petersburg.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus in Sochi, Russia, in February.
Credit…Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a speech filled with bluster and bromides against the West, President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday lingered on a grievance that has not gained much traction outside the Russian state news media: an unfounded accusation that the C.I.A. has been plotting to assassinate the leader of Belarus.

Even as he raised the subject, Mr. Putin acknowledged that it was not being taken seriously outside Russia.

“Characteristically, even such lamentable actions are not discussed in the so-called collective West,” Mr. Putin said. “They pretend nothing happened.”

Over the weekend, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, arrested two men whom it said were plotting to murder President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and to seize television and radio stations.

It said the men had coordinated with U.S. and Polish intelligence agencies and come to Russia to meet Belarusian generals sympathetic to the opposition. The Russian authorities released video that showed the men casually discussing their improbable plot over a meal at a Moscow restaurant.

One of the men, Aleksandr Feduta, is a former spokesman for Mr. Lukashenko. The other, Yuras Zyankovich, has dual U.S. and Belarusian citizenship. The United States and Polish governments denied any role in a murder and coup plot in Belarus.

The arrests aligned with Mr. Putin’s casting of Russia in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday as victimized and pressured by a hypocritical and aggressive Western world that poses imminent threats.

The encroaching West, Mr. Putin said, has “crossed all the boundaries.”

Policies to pressure Russia that were previously limited to economic sanctions “have been reborn as something more dangerous,” he said. “I have in mind the recent facts that came to light of a direct attempt to organize a coup in Belarus and the murder of the leader of that country.”

In an interview in March, President Biden assented when asked whether Vladimir V. Putin was a “killer.”
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as president of the United States, despite his promise to be tough on Russia, initially gave the Kremlin hope, analysts say.

He was seen as more professional, reliable and pragmatic than President Donald J. Trump, with a worldview shaped by a Cold War era of diplomacy in which Washington and Moscow engaged as equal superpowers with a responsibility for global security. In their first phone call in January, Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin agreed to extend the New Start arms-control treaty, a Russian foreign policy goal that the Kremlin had not been able to achieve with Mr. Trump.

Then came the television interview in March in which Mr. Biden assented when asked whether Mr. Putin was a “killer.” A month later, that moment — to which Russian officials and commentators responded with a squall of prime-time-televised, anti-American fury — looks like a turning point. It was followed by last week’s raft of American sanctions against Russia, combined with Mr. Biden’s call for a summit meeting with Mr. Putin, which to many Russians looked like a crude American attempt to negotiate from a position of strength.

“This is seen as an unacceptable situation — you won’t chase us into the stall with sanctions,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

How far Mr. Putin will go in striking back against the West’s real or imagined hostility is an open question. In the state news media, the mood music is dire. On the flagship weekly news show on the Rossiya 1 channel on Sunday, the host Dmitri Kiselyov closed a segment on Mr. Putin’s showdown with Mr. Biden by reminding viewers of Poseidon — a weapon in Russia’s nuclear arsenal that Mr. Putin revealed three years ago.

“Russia’s armed forces are ready to test-fire a nuclear torpedo that would cause radioactive tsunamis capable of flooding enemy cities and making them uninhabitable for decades,” a translation of a Danish newspaper report intoned.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Putin does not want tensions with the West to spiral out of control.

As Europe and the United States scrambled to assess the Russian troop buildup in late March, Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, spoke on the phone with his American counterpart, Gen. Mark A. Milley. On Monday, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Mr. Putin’s Security Council, discussed the prospect of a presidential summit with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser. And the Kremlin said this week that Mr. Putin would speak at Mr. Biden’s online climate change meeting on Thursday.

Ms. Stanovaya, the analyst, says she was convinced that Mr. Putin is more interested than his hawkish advisers in looking for ways to work with the United States. She pointed to Mr. Putin’s determination to return Russia to the ranks of great powers.

“Putin very much believes in his mission as a great historic figure with responsibility not only for Russia, but also for global security,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “He doesn’t understand how it is that the American president doesn’t feel the same way.”

A satellite image of Russian military equipment at the Opuk training area on Crimea’s Black Sea coast.
Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Associated Press

The Russian authorities closed airspace to commercial traffic near the Ukrainian border starting on Tuesday in another sign of rising military tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

The warning to commercial pilots covers parts of the Crimean Peninsula — annexed by Russia seven years ago — and international airspace over the Black Sea. It formalized what had already become obvious: The region is in the grips of an increasingly ominous military crisis.

Ukraine objected last week to Russia’s closing of areas in the Black Sea to shipping, a ban that the U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, on Monday called an “unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine.”

Over the past month, Russia has massed the largest military force along Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea since the outset of war in 2014, according to Western governments. Analysts say that the deliberately high visibility of the buildup indicates that its purpose is more a warning to the West than a prelude to invasion.

“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a policy research group in Arlington, Va. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”

The Russian military says it is conducting exercises in response to Ukrainian threats to two Russian-backed separatist regions and to what it calls heightened NATO military activity in the Black Sea area.

Military tensions have also risen elsewhere. On Tuesday, Russia’s Air Force flew two nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea for eight hours. In the Arctic Ocean, the Northern Fleet has been conducting a huge naval drill, the Defense Ministry said.

President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday hailed Russians’ “singular cohesion, their spiritual and moral values that in a number of countries are forgotten.”
Credit…Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has often sought to bolster domestic support through rally-around-the-flag, aggressive foreign policy moves. But on Wednesday he opened his annual address to the nation by focusing on the bread-and-butter economic issues that polls show most worry Russians.

He rattled off a laundry list of social subsidies that he said his government would begin to provide to new mothers, single parents and low-income families.

“For our entire history, our people triumphed, overcoming challenges thanks to their singular cohesion, their spiritual and moral values that in a number of countries are forgotten, but we on the contrary have strengthened,” Mr. Putin said.

He outlined programs to subsidize summer camp for children, smooth the system for child-support payments to single mothers and move more social services online.

While Russia is still in the throes of a coronavirus wave, Mr. Putin minimized the threat and said Russia would swivel to “healing the wounds” and shoring up the economy. He also laid out a requirement that Russian laboratories be ready to prepare tests for potential new infectious diseases within four days of their discovery.

Mr. Putin traditionally starts his yearly address with a focus on economic issues, and despite rising tensions with the West, this year was no different.

The Russian leader is aware that empty wallets can add fuel to protest movements and that the stagnating economy is taking a toll on support for his government. Russians’ average take-home wages adjusted for inflation have been declining since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, dropping 10 percent since then.

Analysts say it is no coincidence that protests have seeped out of the wealthy cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg to Russia’s far-flung provinces, which are feeling the economic pain more acutely.

The Russian budget fell into deficit during the pandemic last year, but in the first quarter of 2021 was again in surplus, buoyed by rising oil prices. This has provided Mr. Putin room for maneuver on populist policies before parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall.

Over the years, he has padded his speeches with populist announcements that are often repetitions or minor updates on long-running policies.

Russia, for example, has for years paid a bonus of around $10,000 to women for the birth of a child, a policy intended to help reverse Russia’s long demographic decline.

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‘We Know How to Defend Our Interests’: Putin’s Emerging Hard Line

The extremism designation against Mr. Navalny’s organization, which a Moscow court will consider in a secret trial starting next week, would effectively force Russia’s most potent opposition movement underground and could result in yearslong prison terms for pro-Navalny activists.

Mr. Navalny, meanwhile, remains on hunger strike in a Russian prison hospital, insisting he be allowed to be seen by doctors of his choosing. A lawyer who visited him, Vadim Kobzev, reported Tuesday that Mr. Navalny’s arms were punctured and bruised after three nurses tried and failed six times to hook him up to an intravenous drip.

“If you saw me now, you would laugh,” said a letter from Mr. Navalny his team posted to social media. “A skeleton walking, swaying, in its cell.”

The White House has warned the Russian government it “will be held accountable” if Mr. Navalny dies in prison. Western officials — and Mr. Navalny’s supporters and allies — reject the idea that the opposition leader is acting on another country’s behalf.

But in the Kremlin’s logic, Mr. Navalny is a threat to Russian statehood, doing the West’s bidding by undermining Mr. Putin. It is Mr. Putin, Mr. Trenin said, who is keeping Russia stable by maintaining a balance between competing factions in Russia’s ruling elite.

“If Putin leaves, a battle between different groups breaks out, and Russia withdraws into itself, has no time for the rest of the world and no longer gets in anyone’s way,” Mr. Trenin said. “The West is, of course, using Navalny, and will use him to create problems for Putin and, in the longer term, help Putin become history in one way or another.”

How far Mr. Putin goes in striking back against the West’s real or imagined hostility is still an open question. In the state news media, the mood music is dire. On the flagship weekly news show on the Rossiya 1 channel Sunday, the host Dmitri Kiselyov closed a segment on Mr. Putin’s showdown with Mr. Biden by reminding viewers of Poseidon — a new weapon in Russia’s nuclear arsenal that Mr. Putin revealed three years ago.

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Alarm in Ukraine as Russian Forces Mass at Border

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — There are the booms that echo again, and parents know to tell their children they are only fireworks. There are the drones the separatists started flying behind the lines at night, dropping land mines. There are the fresh trenches the Ukrainians can see their enemy digging, the increase in sniper fire pinning them inside their own.

But perhaps the starkest evidence that the seven-year-old war in Ukraine may be entering a new phase is what Capt. Mykola Levytskyi coast guard unit saw cruising in the Azov Sea just outside the port city of Mariupol last week: a flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships.

Since the start of the war in 2014, Russia has used the pretext of a separatist conflict to pressure Ukraine after its Westward-looking revolution, supplying arms and men to Kremlin-backed rebels in the country’s east while denying it was a party to the fight.

Few Western analysts believe the Kremlin is planning an invasion of eastern Ukraine, given the likely backlash at home and abroad. But with a large-scale Russian troop buildup on land and sea on Ukraine’s doorstep, the view is spreading among officials and wide swathes of the Ukrainian public that Moscow is signaling more bluntly than ever before that it is prepared to openly enter the conflict.

“These ships are, concretely, a threat from the Russian state,” Captain Levytskyi said over the whir of his speedboat’s engines as it plied the Azov Sea, after pointing out a Russian patrol boat stationed six miles offshore. “It is a much more serious threat.”

Many Ukrainian military officials and volunteer fighters say that they still find it unlikely that Russia will openly invade Ukraine, and that they do not see evidence of an imminent offensive among the gathered Russian forces. But they speculate over other possibilities, including Russia’s possible recognition or annexation of the separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians are awaiting President Vladimir V. Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address to Russia on Wednesday, an affair often rife with geopolitical signaling, for clues about what comes next.

“I feel confused, I feel tension,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture and information policy minister, said in an interview.

Mr. Tkachenko listed some invasion scenarios: a three-pronged Russian attack from north, south and east; an assault from separatist-held territory; and an attempt to capture a Dnieper River water supply for Crimea.

Russia, for its part, has done little to hide its buildup, insisting that it has been massing troops in response to heightened military activity in the region by NATO and Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials deny any plans to escalate the war, but there is no question that President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken a harder line against Russia in recent months.

Mr. Zelensky has closed pro-Russian TV channels and imposed sanctions against Mr. Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine. He has also declared more openly than before his desire to have Ukraine join NATO, a remote possibility that the Kremlin nevertheless regards as a dire threat to Russia’s security.

Interviews with frontline units across a 150-mile swath of eastern Ukraine in recent days underscored the fast-rising tensions in Europe’s only active armed conflict. Officials and volunteers acknowledge apprehension over Russia’s troop movements, and civilians feel numb and hopeless after seven years of war. At least 28 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting this year, the military says.

“We live in sadness,” said Anna Dikareva, a 48-year-old postal service worker in the frontline industrial town of Avdiivka, where people scarcely flinch when shells explode in the distance. “I don’t want war, but we won’t solve this in a peaceful way, either.”

For much of last year, a cease-fire held.

Mr. Zelensky, a television comedian elected in 2019 on a promise to end the war, negotiated with the Kremlin for step-by-step compromises to ease the hardships of frontline residents and look for ways out of a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people. But Russia’s insistence on policies that would essentially give it a say in eastern Ukraine’s future was unacceptable to Kyiv.

“The hope that Zelensky had to solve this issue, it didn’t happen,” said Mr. Tkachenko, the information minister and a longtime associate of the president.

Instead, the fighting has picked up again.

The Ukrainians’ labyrinths of trenches and fortifications along the roughly 250-mile front is by now so well established that in one tunnel near Avdiivka, the soldiers put up multicolored Christmas lights to spruce up the darkness. The town lies just a few miles north of the city of Donetsk, the separatists’ main stronghold.

At their hillside battle position, overlooking a separatist position in a T-shaped growth of trees, the soldiers described the sound of separatist drones they said carried land mines dropped about a mile behind the line. Since December and January, they said, sniper fire from the other side increased, and they could see the separatists digging new trenches.

The lettering above the skull on their shoulder patches read: “Ukraine or death.”

“The enemy has activated lately,” said one 58-year-old soldier, nicknamed “the professor,” who said he would not give his full name for security reasons.

In Avdiivka, a volunteer unit of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Right Sector keeps a pet wolf in a cage outside the commander’s office. The commander, Dmytro Kotsyubaylo — his nom de guerre is Da Vinci — jokes that the fighters feed it the bones of Russian-speaking children, a reference to Russian state media tropes about the evils of Ukrainian nationalists.

Both sides have accused each other of increasing numbers of cease-fire violations, but Mr. Kotsyubaylo said that — to his regret — his fighters were allowed to fire only in response to attacks from the separatist side.

On the video screen above his desk, Mr. Kotsyubaylo showed high-definition drone footage depicting the quotidian violence taking place just 400 miles from the European Union’s borders. In one sequence, two of his unit’s mortar rounds explode around separatist trenches; a naked man emerges, sprinting. In another, an explosion is seen at what he said was a separatist sniper position; the clearing smoke reveals a body coated with yellow dust.

Asked what he expects to happen next, Mr. Kotsyubaylo responded: “full-scale war.”

Mr. Kotsyubaylo said he believed Russia’s troop movements north and south of separatist-held territory were a ruse meant to draw Ukrainian forces away from the front line. He said he expected Russia instead to launch an offensive using its separatist proxies in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” allowing Mr. Putin to continue to claim that the war is an internal Ukrainian affair.

“If Russia wanted to do it in secret, they would do it in secret,” Mr. Kotsyubaylo said of the massing troops. “They’re doing everything they can for us to see them, and to show us how cool Putin is.”

Under the peace plan negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015, both sides’ heavy weaponry is required to be positioned well behind the front line.

Ukraine’s artillery is now stationed in places like a Soviet-era tractor yard in an out-of-the-way village reached by treacherous dirt roads an hour’s drive from Mariupol. Col. Andrii Shubin, the base commander, said he was ready to send his artillery guns and his American-provided weapon-locating radar trucks to the front as soon as the order came.

Ukrainian officials say that they are not repositioning troops in response to the Russian buildup, and that any current troop movements are normal rotations.

On Monday, dozens of tanks and armored vehicles could be seen on the move in the southwest of the government-controlled area of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Soldiers relaxed on cots at a village train station under graffiti that used an obscenity to refer to Mr. Putin.

Around the region, from Mariupol’s fashionable waterfront to the shrapnel-scarred streets of Avdiivka, many residents said they were so exhausted from the war that they did not even want to consider the possibility that the fighting will flare up again.

Lena Pisarenko, a 45-year-old Russian teacher in Avdiivka, said she had never stopped keeping an emergency supply of water on hand in pots and bottles all over her apartment and her balcony. During the shelling at the height of the war, she created a ritual to keep her children calm: They would play board games and drink tea while three candles burn down three times. Then it was time for bed.

Another woman passing by, Olga Volvach, 41, said she was paying little mind to the recent escalation in shelling.

“Our balcony door isolates sound well,” she said.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Mariupol, Ukraine.

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Pope Francis Delivers Sunday Blessing in Person After a Month

Pope Francis spoke to the faithful from his study overlooking St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, the first time he had done so in just over a month.

“I’ll tell you something: I miss the square when I have to recite the Angelus in the library,’ Francis said, referring to the prayer that he leads the faithful in praying on most Sundays. Throughout the pandemic, the pope has often delivered the weekly address, prayer and blessing from the apostolic library, with no public in attendance.

“I am happy, thanks be to God! And thank you for your presence,” the pope said Sunday, smiling.

The pope identified several flags among the several hundred faithful in the square, “Brazilians, Poles, Spanish people,” Francis said, offering a “warm greeting” also to the “people of Rome and pilgrims.”

Italy suffered one of the earliest and most severe outbreaks of the coronavirus in Europe. During the first lockdown, in 2020, pilgrims were not allowed to gather in St. Peter’s Square from March 8 to May 24. A huge surge over the winter brought back new restrictions, and another that peaked last month prompted another tight lockdown. That has succeeded in lowering infections, and many restrictions are expected to be eased beginning on April 26.

setting off alarms in Europe and Washington, the largest build up since the conflict in the contested region began seven years ago.

“Please, I firmly hope that the increase of tensions may be avoided and, on the contrary, gestures may be made that are capable of promoting mutual trust and fostering reconciliation and peace, both so necessary and so desired,” Francis said.

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Czechs Blame 2014 Blasts at Ammunition Depots on Elite Russian Spy Unit

The Czech Republic on Saturday blamed a series of mysterious 2014 explosions at Czech ammunition depots on an elite unit of Russia’s military intelligence service — a group that Britain has linked to a 2018 attack with a nerve agent on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said at a Prague news conference that his government would respond by expelling 18 Russian diplomats, whom it had identified as spies. He said there was “clear evidence,” assembled by the Czech intelligence and security services, showing “reasonable suspicion” that the Russian group, known as Unit 29155, had been involved in the blasts in late 2014, which killed two Czechs.

The announcement underscored the breadth of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and pursue aggressive actions around the world, including military-style operations, assassinations and cyberattacks.

The elite Russian unit has operated for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. It first came to light after the March 2018 attack in Salisbury, England, on a turncoat Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using the nerve agent Novichok. Both fell gravely ill but later recovered.

The Czech police also released photographs of the two men, who looked like the men shown in photographs released in 2018 by Britain. The police said the men had used at least two different identities and asked anyone who had seen them or knew anything about their movements in the Czech Republic to call a hotline.

Mr. Babis, the prime minister, did not accuse the two Russians directly of involvement in the arms warehouse explosions, but he said there was “unequivocal evidence” that agents working for Russian military intelligence had been involved.

“Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations,” Mr. Babis added.

The Czech Republic, a member of NATO, has expelled Russian diplomats in the past but has never ordered as many out as it did on Saturday. The expulsions came just days after Washington expelled 10 Russian diplomats over interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election and the hacking of computer systems used by government agencies.

Poland, another NATO member, also expelled Russia diplomats in recent days, ordering three to leave on Thursday in what Warsaw said was a gesture of “solidarity” with the United States.

The Czech action, however, was more severe and unusually sweeping.

“I am sorry that Czech-Russian relations will suffer, however, the Czech Republic must react,” the acting foreign minister, Jan Hamacek, said in Prague.

What caused the ammunition depot blasts, which began in the village of Vlachovice and resumed at a nearby depot in December 2014, has never been fully explained.

They coincided with efforts by Ukraine to increase its supply of weapons from abroad as it struggled to recover eastern territory seized by Russian-backed rebels in the summer of 2014.

Czech media reports on Saturday also linked the blasts to what they said may have been a Russian drive to halt the delivery of Czech-made weapons to forces fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

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Post-Merkel Germany May Be Shaded Green

Whatever government fills the vacuum in Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel will be tinged with green.

After nearly 16 years in office, Ms. Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democrats, is slipping and stagnant, critics say — short of ideas on how to keep Germany vibrant and rich in a world where its industrial and export model is outdated; where faith in the United States has been damaged; and where China is more self-sufficient and Russia more aggressive.

The other traditional mainstay, the left-center Social Democrats, currently junior partners with Ms. Merkel, is in even worse shape, both electorally and ideologically.

The German Greens are filling the vacuum. Five months before elections in September, the party is running a close second in the opinion polls to the struggling Christian Democrats, and some think it might even lead the next government.

“They will be part of the next government,’’ said Norbert Röttgen, a prominent Christian Democrat, in a forecast widely shared in Germany. “Either a big part or even the leading part.’’

But these are not the Greens of the Cold War, a radical party appalled by the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States over a divided Europe. The Greens are now centrist, eager for power, with a surprisingly gimlet-eyed view of international affairs and of how Germany needs to change without alienating big business.

If the Greens surge in Europe’s largest and richest country, it would be a watershed not only for the party but for all of Europe, where it already is part of the governing coalitions in six countries.

It would also potentially herald a shift toward a more assertive foreign policy in Germany, especially toward China and Russia, as global politics is becoming a competition between authoritarian and democratic ideals.

“This is a different party, a different generation, a different setting and a different world,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green member of the European Parliament. “With Covid, climate and common global challenges clearer to many, it’s easier to push for a transformative green agenda in the classic sense.”

“But the confrontation with authoritarianism is now clear,” he added, “and that puts us in a different place.”

Jana Puglierin, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said: “The Greens are the only party that can rock the boat a bit, especially on China and Russia. They will strike a better balance between the economy and human rights.’’

Led by two pragmatists, or “realos,” the German Greens honor their “fundis,” the more idealistic among them, without allowing them to marginalize the party, as in the past.

The party’s co-chairs are Robert Habeck, 51, and Annalena Baerbock, 40, who is considered the most likely chancellor candidate. The choice is expected on Monday; she would be the only woman in the race to replace Ms. Merkel.

With the environment central to their program, the Greens represent the current zeitgeist. Its leaders argue that correct economic policies can produce a Germany that is digital, modern and carbon neutral, no longer so dependent on old-fashioned industrial production, however sophisticated.

They oppose Nord Stream 2, the Russian natural-gas pipeline to Germany that circumvents Ukraine and Poland. They also oppose the European Union’s investment deal with China. They are committed to European cooperation, democracy promotion, the defense of human rights, Germany’s membership in NATO and its strong alliance with the United States.

While the Greens consider NATO’s goal of military spending of 2 percent of gross domestic product to be arbitrary, the party favors more spending to ensure that the woefully weak German military is able to meet its NATO responsibilities.

Even Mr. Röttgen, the Christian Democrat who is chairman of the Bundestag foreign policy committee, said that “however embarrassing for me, the Greens have the clearest stance of all the parties on China and Russia.”

They would make “a much more realistic and preferable partner for us on foreign policy,” he said.

Wolfgang Streeck, a leftist German economist, once famously called the Greens “the vegetarian section of the Christian Democrats,” noted Hans Kundnani of Chatham House, a research organization based in London. In the way the party criticizes Russia and China on the grounds of democracy and human rights, Mr. Kundnani said, it is similar to American neoconservatives.

“The German Greens are now a pragmatist centrist party,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “They want to be part of the government and play a big role, with a focus on greening the economy. They think there are enough in business who understand that this is the future.”

Foreign policy is secondary, Mr. Speck said. “But the democracy agenda matters, and they position themselves in solidarity with opposition democrats in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and China. And they are very tough on China.”

In Germany, the Greens are already part of governing coalitions with a variety of other parties in 11 of the 16 German states, and were just re-elected to head the government in Baden-Württemberg, where the car industry is important.

In fact, argued Arne Jungjohann, a political analyst with Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Greens are flexible enough to go into coalition with any party, except the far-right Alternative for Germany.

In Britain and Western European countries like France, the Greens are more modest and leftist, committed to the environment. But even there, they are benefiting from the weakness of more established parties.

In six countries, Mr. Jungjohann said, they are already in government. They are part of the governing coalitions in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden.

In Europe’s south and in post-Communist Europe, as in the east of Germany itself, the Greens are not such a big factor, though they are more popular with the urban young.

One of Germany’s main problems is that its successful economic model has become a trap, argued John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany who still lives there.

“They haven’t done very well with digital, but found a market in China for their 19th-century products,” he said. “The Chinese at this point still need them and buy them, but at some point soon China will make all that themselves.”

The other establishment parties “believe that Germany’s existence depends on this 19th-century machine-tool economy,” he said.

Alone among the main parties, the Greens have a vision for a Germany that is digital, climate neutral, deeply committed to the European Union, to democratic values and gender equality. A party that, as Ms. Puglierin said, believes that the future is no longer the diesel Mercedes but the electric Tesla.

Still, the party has had to dance carefully over issues of the military, security and nuclear policy, where idealism confronts the world as it is, and where soft power is not always matched with hard power.

“A test will come, because the reality of foreign policy is not just value-driven, but you need to define your interests,’’ Mr. Lagodinsky said.

True to its roots, the party calls for a Germany without U.S. nuclear weapons. But it has also been careful to hedge its election manifesto.

“They want a world without nuclear weapons, but acknowledge that it will take time to get there — they’ll first have to find other ways to reassure eastern and central European partners,” said Sophia Besch, an analyst with the Center for European Reform in Berlin.

They want close cooperation with France on Europe but are less enamored of French ideas for a European army; are ambivalent about a new European air combat system that could carry nuclear bombs and armed drones; and would be strict about exports of arms to customers like Saudi Arabia.

They would also be strict about how and when German forces could engage overseas, even in coalitions of the willing, in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

But what may be most important for Germany, Ms. Puglierin noted, is that the Greens would at least produce new, needed debates on long-suppressed topics, like the ambivalent German policies toward China and Russia, let alone German dependency on the combustion engine.

“The Greens are the only chance to see real change in German foreign policy,” she said. “We’ve been so status-quo oriented in the Merkel years.”

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In Russia, a Military Buildup That Can’t be Missed

MASLOVKA, Russia — Deep in a pine forest in southern Russia, military trucks, their silhouettes blurred by camouflage netting, appear through the trees. Soldiers in four-wheel-drive vehicles creep along rutted dirt roads. And outside a newly pitched tent camp, sentries, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, pace back and forth.

Over the past month or so, Russia has deployed what analysts are calling the largest military buildup along the border with Ukraine since the outset of Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists seven years ago.

It is far from a clandestine operation: During a trip to southern Russia by a New York Times journalist, evidence of the buildup was everywhere to be seen.

The mobilization is setting off alarms in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European capitals and Washington, and is increasingly seen as an early foreign policy test for the Biden administration, which just hit Moscow with a new round of sanctions. Russia responded almost immediately, announcing on Friday that it would expel 10 U.S. diplomats.

“Solar Winds” hacking of government agencies and corporations, various disinformation efforts and the annexation of Crimea.

told European lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia is now garrisoning about 110,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border. In Washington, the director of the C.I.A. told Congress that it remains unclear whether the buildup is a show of force or preparation for something more ominous.

Even if the goal of the buildup remains unclear, military analysts say it was most certainly meant to be seen. A show of force is hardly a good show if nobody watches.

“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., who has been monitoring the military activity. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”

foreign reporters have been showing up daily to watch the buzz of activity.

Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent Russian military analysts.

Gigantic military trucks are parked within sight of the roads, which have, strangely, remained open to public traffic.

news release to announce the redeployment of the naval landing craft closer to Ukraine, in case anybody was curious. The vessels sailed along rivers and canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. The ministry posted pictures.

forces for a possible incursion.

But Mr. Burns said U.S. officials were still trying to determine if the Kremlin was preparing for military action or merely sending a signal.

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Biden Administration Says Russian Intelligence Obtained Trump Campaign Data

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration revealed on Thursday that a business associate of Trump campaign officials in 2016 provided campaign polling data to Russian intelligence services, the strongest evidence to date that Russian spies had penetrated the inner workings of the Trump campaign.

The revelation, made public in a Treasury Department document announcing new sanctions against Russia, established for the first time that private meetings and communications between the campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and their business associate were a direct pipeline from the campaign to Russian spies at a time when the Kremlin was engaged in a covert effort to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.

Previous government investigations have identified the Trump aides’ associate, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, as a Russian intelligence operative, and Mr. Manafort’s decision to provide him with internal polling data was one of the mysteries that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, sought to unravel during his two-year investigation into Russia’s election meddling.

“During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy,” the Treasury Department said in a news release. “Additionally, Kilimnik sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

new sanctions against Russia are in response to the Kremlin’s election interference, efforts to hack American government agencies and companies, and other acts of aggression against the United States.

The sanctions now make it extremely difficult for Mr. Kilimnik, who was indicted by the Justice Department in 2018 on charges of obstruction of justice, to engage in financial transactions that may involve the United States.

It is unclear how long American spy agencies have held the conclusion about Mr. Kilimnik. Senior Trump administration officials, fearing Mr. Trump’s wrath, repeatedly tried keep from the public any information that seemed to show Mr. Trump’s affinity for Russia or its president, Vladimir V. Putin.

that scrutinized the links between the Trump campaign and Russia — calling Mr. Kilimnik a “Russian intelligence officer.”

The report contained several significant redactions that appeared related to Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik but said that Mr. Manafort’s willingness to share the information with him “represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

The report called the relationship between Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik “the single most direct tie between senior Trump campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”

The Senate report portrayed a Trump campaign stacked with businessmen and other advisers who had little government experience and “presented attractive targets for foreign influence, creating notable counterintelligence vulnerabilities.”

A New York Times article in 2017 said that there had been numerous interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence during the year before the election. F.B.I. officials had disputed the report, but both the Senate report and the Treasury Department document confirm the article’s findings.

The assertion that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that sought to disrupt the 2016 election has long been both a Kremlin talking point and a claim by Mr. Trump that foreign actors tried to help his opponent, Hillary Clinton, rather than him.

is offering $250,000 for information that could lead to his arrest.

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Biden Sanctions on Russian Debt Called a ‘First Salvo’ That Send a Message

The Biden administration on Thursday barred American banks from purchasing newly issued Russian government debt, signaling the deployment of a key weapon in Washington’s intensifying conflict with Moscow — threatening Russia’s access to international finance.

The curbs on debt were part of new measures against Russia that primarily involved sanctions on dozens of entities and individuals and the expulsion of 10 diplomats from the Russian embassy in Washington. The moves aim to exploit Russia’s weak economy to pressure Moscow to relent in its campaign to disrupt American political life and menace Ukraine. The limits on debt purchases, which apply to bonds issued by the Russian government after June 14, could raise the cost of borrowing within the Russian economy, limiting investment and economic growth.

For now, that threat remains minuscule. Russian government debt held outside the country amounts to about $41 billion, according to the Russian central bank — a relative pittance in the global economy. For comparison, the U.S. Treasury issued a total of $274 billion in sovereign debt over the first three months of this year alone.

Russia’s government sells most of its debt domestically, and it finances much of its operations through the sale of energy. American investors hold only 7 percent of Russian government debt denominated in rubles, according to Oxford Economics in London.

European business interests seek access to the potentially vast Iranian marketplace. Russia, by contrast, is a major supplier of energy across Western Europe. Russia sits on the region’s doorstep, making European leaders — especially Germany — loath toward greater conflict.

Limiting Russia’s access to the international bond markets amounts to “nibbling around the edges,” said Simon Miles, a Russia expert at Duke University. A meaningful hit would threaten Russia’s market for natural gas in Western Europe.

severed Iran from the global financial system, something Washington could bring about given that the American dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the means of exchange in transactions around the planet. Any bank anywhere on earth that handled business for Iran risked being cut off from the international payment network and denied access to dollars.

Russia has very limited need to borrow money from abroad, having cut its deficits sharply following sanctions that were imposed after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“We’ve had a period of austerity, fiscal austerity, ever since that sanctions shock,” said Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, a trade association representing international banks. “They prepared themselves.”

Thursday’s order on Russian debt applies only to American financial institutions, but it could prompt multinational companies beyond the United States to recalculate the risks of transacting with the Russian government.

“It puts them on notice, if you like,” said Mr. Nixey. “Every company that is significantly in Russia is listening to this very, very carefully and wondering if it is a good idea, reputationally or in terms of political risk, whether they should continue doing business at the same volume that they are.”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

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