President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday accused Western social media platforms of ignoring Russian authorities’ requests to delete illegal content, but stressed the country had no plans to block their work.
The Russian government has in recent months been clamping down on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for hosting content supporting jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
“No, we are not planning to block anybody. We are planning to work with them,” Putin said during his annual televised phone-in.
“But there is a problem that they send us packing when they do not follow our requests and our laws,” Putin added.
“If they work in our country, earn good money, they need to obey our laws.”
Kremlin critics accuse the Russian government of using the pretext of protecting minors and fighting extremism to tighten control over the Russian segment of the web and develop a so-called “sovereign internet”.
During protests in support of Navalny in January, authorities accused platforms including YouTube and Twitter of interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs by not deleting posts calling for minors to join the rallies.
Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor in March said it was slowing down Twitter’s services over its non-compliance with requests to remove content related to child pornography, drug use and calls for minors to commit suicide.
The media regulator also threatened to ban Twitter completely if the prohibited content was not removed.
The watchdog has repeatedly fined Google for failing to remove content and last year fined Twitter and Facebook for refusing to store the personal data of Russian citizens on local servers.
On Wednesday, Roskomnadzor said in a statement that it was drawing up an administrative protocol against Google for failing to provide proof that the data of Russian users has been moved to Russian servers.
The maximum penalty is a fine of six million rubles ($82,000).
Russia has blocked a number of websites that have refused to cooperate with the authorities, such as the Dailymotion video platform and professional social network LinkedIn.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday questioned the point of meeting with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming his country was effectively run by leaders in Washington and European capitals.
“What’s the use of meeting with Zelensky when he has given full control of his country to outside management?” Putin said during an annual televised phone-in with Russians.
“Key decisions are being made in Washington, and Berlin and Paris to some extent,” he added.
“I’m not refusing to meet with Zelensky, it’s just necessary to understand what there is to talk about”.
Ukraine has been battling pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
After a lull in fighting last year, the conflict escalated again at the start of 2021.
In April, as Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and in Crimea, Zelensky invited Putin to meet in eastern Ukraine.
Putin shot down that offer, saying instead the Ukrainian leader was welcome in Moscow “any time”.
Russia later announced a troop pullback, but both Washington and Kiev say that the withdrawal has been limited.
President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said he was opposed to mandatory coronavirus vaccinations for Russians but urged the jab-sceptic population to get inoculated, as his country battles a deadly third wave.
His comments came as Russia earlier Wednesday reported 669 coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours, a pandemic high of fatalities for the second day in a row, according to a government tally.
Russia in mid-June saw infections spike in a third wave driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India, authorities have said, and worsened by a sluggish inoculation drive.
Although free jabs have been available since early December, only around 15 percent of Russia’s population had received at least one dose as of Wednesday according to the Gogov website, which tallies Covid figures from the regions.
The slow uptake prompted Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin earlier this month to order mandatory jabs for service sector employees, with more than a dozen regions in Russia since following suit.
The widening policy has prompted concerns that all Russians eventually would be required to be vaccinated, which Putin shot down Wednesday while fielding questions in his annual phone-in session.
“I do not support mandatory vaccinations,” the Russian president said.
Still, Putin — as he has done repeatedly in recent months — called on Russians to get vaccinated.
“It is necessary to listen, not to people who understand little about this and spread rumours, but to specialists,” he told Russians, the majority of whom polls show oppose receiving coronavirus jabs.
“If a person is sick without a vaccine, then the long-term consequences can be very serious,” the 68-year-old Russian leader said.
Surveys show that Russians are particularly sceptical of the country’s homegrown jabs — Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, CoviVac and the one-dose Sputnik Light.
Putin said Wednesday that the four homegrown vaccines were better than foreign alternatives, naming AstraZeneca and Pfizer. He added that he himself had been vaccinated with Sputnik V.
The president’s plea for Russians to get inoculated came after the Kremlin Tuesday conceded that its target of vaccinating 60 percent of the population by autumn will not be possible.
Critics say the third wave has been spurred by the failure to lock down, a measure taken during the first wave last spring but avoided this time by Russian authorities to support a struggling economy.
Asked Wednesday if he supported a new lockdown, Putin said regional authorities were instead promoting localised mandatory vaccinations and other measures to avoid introducing new quarantines.
In Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak, Mayor Sobyanin has ordered businesses to send home at least 30 percent of unvaccinated employees and restaurants to only allow inside patrons who have been inoculated or were infected in the past six months.
The country’s second-worst hotspot Saint Petersburg has avoided imposing strict restrictions, however, and on Friday it is due to host a Euro 2020 quarter-final drawing hundreds of supporters from abroad.
Dozens of Finland supporters were infected in the city after they travelled there earlier this month for their team’s loss to Belgium in the group stage.
Nationwide, infections grew on Wednesday by 21,042, bringing Russia’s caseload to more than 5.5 million — the fifth-highest worldwide, according to an AFP tally.
With 135,214 deaths from the virus, Russia has the highest official toll from Covid-19 in Europe — even as authorities have been accused of downplaying the severity of the country’s outbreak.
Under a broader definition for deaths linked to coronavirus, statistics agency Rosstat at the end of April said that Russia has seen at least 270,000 fatalities.
President Vladimir Putin has renewed an offer to swap prisoners ahead of his first summit Wednesday with Joe Biden, who has come under growing pressure to free Americans in Russian jails.
Biden, who has vowed a clear-eyed, tougher approach with Putin than his predecessors at the start of their terms, has already made clear that he will raise the fate of jailed Americans when he meets the Russian leader in Geneva.
The most prominent US citizens in Russian custody are Paul Whelan, a former security official at an auto parts company who was arrested in December 2018 on charges of espionage, and Trevor Reed, who was arrested in 2019 for a drunken brawl in which he punched two Russian police officers.
Asked in an interview with NBC News broadcast Monday if he was willing to negotiate with Biden on a prisoner swap, Putin said, “Yes, of course” and called for a broader extradition agreement.
Putin said that some cases were “matters of a humanitarian nature.”
“Why not discuss them as long as they pertain to the health and life of specific individuals and of their families? Of course. Sure thing,” he said.
Putin hinted that Reed’s case could be resolved quickly, calling him a “drunk and a troublemaker.”
“These things happen in life. There is nothing horrible about it. It happens to our men as well,” Putin said.
“What would have happened if he’d fought a cop, if he’d hit a cop in your country? He would have been shot dead on that spot, and that’s the end of it. Isn’t that the case?”
– Russians captured by US – Putin specifically raised the prospect of a swap for contract pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, saying he was also accused of “common crime” and that he has “major health issues” ignored by prison authorities.
Yaroshenko was convicted in 2011 of smuggling drugs into the United States. He was extradited from Liberia in what the Kremlin denounced as a kidnapping.
Other high-profile Russians in US custody include Viktor Bout, the prolific arms dealer arrested in Thailand in 2010 who inspired the Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War.”
He is serving a 25-year sentence on charges of smuggling weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels.
Biden has vowed to raise pressure on Russia for harboring cybercriminals who have been blamed in major attacks on a US oil pipeline and a meat supplier.
Asked at the G7 summit in England about a prisoner exchange involving hackers, Biden said, “I’m committed to holding him accountable.”
Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, later clarified that the United States was not considering a swap including any hackers.
“He’s not saying he’s going to be exchanging cyber criminals with Russia,” Sullivan told reporters.
– Hopes rise in US – US lawmakers across party lines have pushed Biden to put the release of Americans high on the agenda with Putin.
“The Kremlin’s Kafkaesque treatment of American citizens must stop and President Biden should make their return a priority of the visit,” Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week.
Reed’s parents, in a separate interview with NBC News, said their son denies the charges against him and that the judge ignored video evidence — but she voiced hope for a swap.
“We’re very happy to hear that President Putin is open to a prisoner exchange and we hope that that’s something that happens very soon because Trevor and Paul Whelan both have been there long enough considering that they’re innocent,” she said.
Whelan, in a telephone interview earlier this month with CNN, also insisted on his innocence and voiced hope that “either an exchange or some sort of resolution” would come about soon.
“So I would ask President Biden to aggressively discuss and resolve this issue with his Russian counterparts,” Whelan said from a Russian prison.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a law expected to be used to ban allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny from running in elections.
Russia’s legal information portal showed Putin had signed the bill on barring staff, members, and sponsors of “extremist” groups from running in parliamentary elections.
Critics have denounced the law as the latest in a series of moves to crack down on Russia’s opposition ahead of elections due in September for Russia’s lower house State Duma.
The law was overwhelmingly approved by the upper house Federation Council earlier this week.
A Russian court is considering whether to designate Navalny’s political network an extremist organisation and could issue a ruling as early as next week.
The law would affect not only senior members and activists of Navalny’s team but potentially tens of thousands of Russians who supported its work with donations.
Leaders of such groups will not be able to run in parliamentary elections for five years, while members and those who helped finance their work will be banned from running for three years.
Navalny, Putin’s most prominent domestic critic, barely survived a near-fatal poisoning with a Soviet-designed nerve agent last summer that he blames on the Kremlin.
After returning to Russia in January following months of treatment in Germany, he was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years on old embezzlement charges in February.
Navalny, who was marking his 45th birthday behind bars Friday, said in a message posted on Instagram that he wanted to “sincerely thank all of those who are around me and support me”.
“I hope I can say today that my success of the last year was that I have kept away from feeling like a ‘caged animal,'” after the “many strange things that happened to me,” Navalny said.
The court in Moscow is due to hold another hearing next week on whether to add Navalny’s network of regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation to a list of “terrorist and extremist” organisations.
Navalny’s network has disbanded to shield its members and supporters from possible prosecution. Most of his top allies have been placed under house arrest or left the country.
Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide living in Lithuania, said he believed Putin had intentionally signed the law on Navalny’s birthday.
“If you think Putin accidentally signed today… then you do not understand anything about Putin,” Volkov said on Telegram, calling the Russian leader a “malicious petty demon”.
Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has written to the FBI demanding that it remove him from its wanted list, calling it a violation of human rights principles, his company said on Wednesday.
The FBI last month offered a $250,000 (210,000-euro) reward for Prigozhin, who was indicted by the United States three years ago for meddling in its 2016 presidential vote.
It said Prigozhin, who is nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because his company Concord has catered for the Kremlin, was wanted “for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to defraud the United States”.
In a statement on the social media network Vkontakte Wednesday, Concord said Prigozhin had written to the FBI director and posted a copy of the letter signed by Prigozhin and addressed to Christopher Wray on March 23.
“The FBI must immediately cease offering a monetary award to the public for my capture and delivery to the United States as this violates several principles of human rights under international law,” Prigozhin wrote.
The Concord statement also cited Prigozhin as saying: “Fraudsters are fraudulently trying to accuse me, a squeaky clean person, of fraud.”
In addition to Concord, Prigozhin is alleged to fund the Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll farm in Saint Petersburg reported to have waged an online campaign in support of then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 US election.
Prigozhin has also been linked to the Wagner private military group, which has been accused of sending mercenaries to conflicts throughout Africa and the Middle East.
In October, the European Union sanctioned Prigozhin on charges of undermining the peace in Libya by supporting the Wagner group.
Later reviews have been largely positive, with leading medical journal The Lancet publishing results showing it safe and more than 90 percent effective.
“Despite the deliberate discrediting of our vaccine, more and more countries are showing interest in it,” Putin said.
Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said during the meeting that experts from the European Medicines Agency will travel to Russia on April 10 to review clinical trials conducted on the vaccine.
The Amsterdam-based EMA this month launched a rolling review of Sputnik V, a key step towards it being approved as the first non-Western coronavirus jab to be used across the 27-nation bloc.
– Vaccine scepticism –
On Sunday EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said Europe had “absolutely no need for Sputnik V,” sparking a fierce response from Moscow.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which backed the development of Sputnik, accused Breton of being “clearly biased” against the jab because it was Russian.
“Europeans want a choice of safe and efficient vaccines, which you so far failed to provide,” the RDIF said on Twitter.
It says that Sputnik V has been approved for use in 55 countries.
If Breton’s remarks were an official position of the EU,” it said, “please inform us that there is no reason to pursue EMA approval because of your political biases.”
More than four million Russians have received two doses of a vaccine, and more than six million people one dose, Putin said on Monday.
Many in Russia are sceptical about being vaccinated, with a poll earlier this month showing less than a third willing to have a jab, and close to two-thirds saying they believe that the coronavirus is a man-made biological weapon.
By Monday, Russia had registered more than 4.4 million cases of the coronavirus and more than 95,000 deaths.
Biden said he had spoken to Putin in January after taking office.
“We had a long talk, he and I, I know him relatively well,” Biden said.
“The conversation started off, I said, ‘I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared,” Biden said.
He did not specify if he meant Russia interfering in the US election or other behavior to which the US objects, such as the poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Russia reacted furiously to Biden’s comments on Putin being a killer.
“Biden insulted the citizens of our country with his statement,” the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, wrote on his Telegram channel, adding that attacks on Putin are “attacks on our country.”
Russia on Friday condemned US strikes on Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria, demanding that Washington respect the country’s territorial integrity.
“We strongly condemn such actions and call for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to be unconditionally respected,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.
Russia has been a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests, and Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 helped turn the tide of the war.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, said Russia wanted to know Washington’s plans in Syria and suggested that the United States had no plans to ever leave the country.
“Lately we’ve been hearing various information from various sources — so far we cannot confirm it and would like to ask the Americans directly,” Lavrov told reporters.
“Allegedly they are taking a decision to never leave Syria at all … up to the point of destroying this country.”
He said the Russian and US militaries were in touch over Syria but stressed it was important for the two countries’ political teams to be in contact.
“It is very important for us to understand the United States’ strategic line on the ground and in the region as a whole,” Lavrov said.
He also complained that the Russian military had been notified just four or five minutes before the US struck the targets on Thursday.
“This sort of warning — when strikes are already underway — gives (us) nothing,” Lavrov said.
Zakharova reiterated Russia’s long-standing position that Moscow rejected any attempts to turn Syria into “an arena to settle geopolitical scores”.
In its first military action against Iran-linked groups since Joe Biden became US president five weeks ago, the Pentagon said it had carried out air strikes on Thursday at a Syria-Iraq border control point used by Iran-backed groups.
The operation killed at least 22 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday offered his condolences on the death of US TV and radio broadcaster Larry King, the Kremlin’s spokesman said.
“King repeatedly interviewed Putin. The president has always appreciated his great professionalism and unquestioned journalistic authority,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by state RIA Novosti news agency.
Russian police detained dozens of protesters on Saturday as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets following his call to protest against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Putin’s most vocal domestic critic called for mass rallies after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent and returning to Moscow last weekend following months of treatment in Germany. He was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport and jailed.
The rallies — planned for dozens of cities across Russia — are expected to be a major test of the opposition’s ability to mobilise despite the increasing Kremlin pressure on critics and the coronavirus pandemic.
The first protests took place in the Far East and Siberia including Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Chita where several thousand took to the streets, Navalny supporters said.
OVD Info, which monitors detentions at opposition rallies, said around 50 people were detained in 10 cities.
Authorities vowed a tough crackdown with police saying unsanctioned public events would be “immediately suppressed”.
In Moscow, which usually mobilises the largest rallies, protesters plan to meet in the central Pushkin Square at 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) and then march towards the Kremlin.
– ‘Help will come’ –
On the eve of the rallies, Navalny, who is being held in Moscow’s high-security Matrosskaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters.
“I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison’s walls and help will come,” he said on Friday.
Navalny’s wife Yulia said she would join the protest in Moscow. “For myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share,” she said on Instagram.
Ahead of the demonstrations several key Navalny aides were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences to keep them away from the rallies.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Friday it launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.
A hastily organised court on Monday jailed Navalny for 30 days, and his supporters fear that authorities are preparing to sentence him to a long prison term to silence him.
Navalny’s team this week released an investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin.
The “Putin’s palace” report alleges the Russian leader owns a 17,691 square metre mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino along with a theatre and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.
The two-hour video report had been viewed more than 65 million times since Tuesday, becoming the Kremlin critic’s most-watched YouTube investigation.
The Kremlin has denied the property belongs to Putin.
Many Russians took to social media — including video sharing app TikTok hugely popular with teens — to voice support and urge a large turnout on Saturday.
A hashtag demanding freedom for Navalny was trending on TikTok as Russians flooded the Chinese app with thousands of videos.
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
The watchdog said on Friday that media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, removed content at its request.
Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte blocked groups created to coordinate the protests in different cities.
But a number of public figures — including those who usually steer clear of politics — have spoken out in Navalny’s support.
Navalny, 44, rose to prominence a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia’s opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.
His arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all calling for his release.