US intelligence has concluded that a Russian unit offered rewards to Taliban-linked militants to kill troops of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported Friday.
The purported bounties gave incentives to the guerrillas to target US forces, just as President Donald Trump tries to withdraw troops and end America’s longest war.
The newspaper, citing anonymous officials, said that Trump was briefed on the findings in March, but has not decided how to respond.
It said that militants were believed to have collected bounty money, but that it was unclear whether specific killings of US troops were under suspicion.
The newspaper quoted a Kremlin spokesman saying only that Russia was unaware of the accusations.
Russia has a tortured history in Afghanistan, where the former Soviet Union in its final years was bogged down in a devastating fight against Islamic guerrillas, then backed by Washington.
But Russia has more recently been accused by the United States of quietly providing small arms to the Taliban.
The New York Times said there were different theories on why Russia would support Taliban attacks, including a desire to keep the United States bogged down in war.
It said that the Russian unit may also be seeking revenge over the US killing of Russian mercenaries in Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the newspaper, the Taliban operation was led by a unit known as the G.R.U., which has been blamed in numerous international incidents including a 2018 chemical weapons attack in Britain that nearly killed Russian-born double agent Sergei Skripal.
US intelligence concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election in a bid to assist Trump, including through manipulation of social media.
Trump has scoffed at the findings and sought a warmer relationship with President Vladimir Putin, even as his administration keeps imposing sanctions over Russia over its actions on Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin paid homage to Russia’s World War II dead on Monday as he visited an enormous new Orthodox cathedral built to honour the military.
Nearly 100 metres (330 feet) high and crowned by six golden domes, the Cathedral of the Armed Forces in a military theme park outside Moscow is now Russia’s third-largest Orthodox Christian church.
It sparked controversy earlier this year when it was revealed that it would include mosaics featuring Putin and Soviet-era dictator Joseph Stalin. The mosaics were eventually removed at Putin’s request.
“For us Russians, the memory of all those who fought, those who died, who with their strength brought us closer to victory in the Great Patriotic War, is sacred,” Putin said in a televised ceremony, using the Russian name for the war.
“We are improving the armed forces, we are equipping them with new material, their combat capacity is increasing,” Putin said alongside the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
The ceremony was held on the 79th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and ahead of a huge military parade planned on Wednesday to mark 75 years since victory in the war.
Putin was forced to reschedule the parade from May 9 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen Russia record the world’s third-highest number of cases.
He has also rescheduled a public vote on constitutional reforms, initially planned for April, for July 1. Among other changes, the reforms will reset presidential term limits, allowing Putin to potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036.
In power for 20 years, Putin often vaunts the country’s military power and Orthodox Christian values to boost his support among Russians.
A Russian court on Monday will deliver a verdict in the trial of former US marine Paul Whelan who risks up to 20 years in prison on an espionage charge.
The hearing at Moscow City Court is due to start at 0800 GMT.
The trial has been held behind closed doors because Whelan is accused of seeking to obtain state secrets.
The 50-year-old has been held in a Moscow prison since he was arrested in December 2018.
He has maintained his innocence, saying he was framed and comparing himself to the hapless comedy character Mr Bean.
“Russia thought they caught James Bond on a spy mission, in reality, they abducted Mr Bean on holiday,” he said.
Whelan says he was detained on a visit to Moscow to attend a wedding when he took a USB drive from an acquaintance thinking it contained holiday photographs.
The prosecution has asked the judge to sentence Whelan to 18 years in a strict-regime penal colony, just short of the 20 years maximum term for the charge.
– ‘Mr Bean on holiday’ –
The trial comes during an exceptional chill in US and Russia relations and has further exacerbated tensions.
The United States Ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan has condemned the trial as unfair and lacking transparency.
“It was secret, no evidence was produced, no allowances were made for defense witnesses,” he was quoted as saying in a tweet by the embassy spokeswoman.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted last month: “We demand Paul’s release.”
The prosecutor summed up last month by saying Whelan tried to receive secret information that is a state secret and could harm Russia’s security, the American’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov told reporters.
The prosecutor claimed that Whelan has the rank of an officer — “at least a colonel” — at the US defence intelligence agency, the lawyer said.
Whelan’s family said they see a guilty verdict as a “foregone conclusion” while insisting this would “not be based on facts or justice”.
Whelan was dishonourably discharged as a marine before working as head of global security at a US auto parts company.
There have been suggestions that if convicted, Whelan, who also has British, Canadian, and Irish passports, could be returned to the US in a prisoner swap.
His twin brother David said in a statement that the family hopes that a conviction will allow Russia and the United States to “begin discussing Paul’s release immediately”.
Whelan has complained of being mistreated in prison and late last month underwent an operation in a Moscow hospital that his family said was emergency hernia surgery.
The US embassy criticised the Russian authorities for waiting till his condition was “life-threatening to provide him medical attention”, while the Russian foreign ministry described the procedure as “simple”.
Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s pandemic with around half of the country’s total cases, on Monday eased a nine-week lockdown allowing shops to reopen and residents to leave their homes for short walks.
Putin was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on Tuesday to discuss proposals to restart an economy badly hit by lockdown measures and a sharp fall in oil prices.
Russian authorities on Thursday sentenced prominent reporter and activist Ilya Azar to 15 days in prison and detained several journalists who rallied in his support.
Azar’s arrest sparked outrage among his allies and rights activists who said it was dangerous to keep the journalist in jail for two weeks during the coronavirus epidemic.
Azar, a 35-year-old municipal deputy and journalist at the award-winning independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was jailed for repeat violations of a protest law.
Eight journalists who gathered to picket the Moscow police headquarters in solidarity with Azar were also detained. Most were later released.
Among them were TV reporter Mikhail Fishman and journalists from Echo of Moscow radio station.
Several of the detained journalists posted pictures of themselves sitting inside police vehicles and wearing masks.
A similar number of protesters were detained in the second city of Saint Petersburg.
Azar was arrested this week during a demonstration in support of activist Vladimir Vorontsov, who has worked to expose violations within Russia’s law enforcement agencies.
Vorontsov, a former policeman, was arrested in early May on extortion charges. He was later accused of also illegally distributing pornography.
Vorontsov has denied the charges, saying police are seeking to punish him for his activism.
Police said the journalists had been detained for violating a ban on rallies during Moscow’s city-wide quarantine to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Amnesty International said Russia should stop using the coronavirus epidemic as a pretext to muzzle activists.
“Not only has Ilya Azar been arrested simply for exercising his right to peaceful assembly, but he has been thrown into a crowded cell where he, and others like him, are at risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Natalia Zviagina, the watchdog’s Russia director.
“#COVID19 cannot be an excuse to clamp down on #FreedomOfExpression,” tweeted Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner.
Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Echo of Moscow radio, said the arrests of Azar’s supporters were an attempt to intimidate the media.
Russia has the world’s third-largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases at 379,051, after the United States and Brazil.
Russia has cracked down hard on opposition demonstrations, and the single-person protest is the only kind allowed without prior permission from the authorities.
Last summer Azar helped organise a series of anti-government rallies in Moscow demanding fair elections which drew tens of thousands of people.
Russia said Monday under 9,000 new coronavirus cases had been recorded for the first time since early May as anti-virus restrictions ease and officials say the situation is stabilising.
Health officials reported 8,926 new infections in the last 24 hours, bringing the country’s total to 290,678, the second-highest in the world after the United States.
It was the lowest number of new virus cases since May 1, when Russia announced 7,933 cases.
Russia’s consumer health watchdog chief Anna Popova said this weekend that the growth in new cases was slowing and the country has “moved towards the level of stability that we’ve all been waiting for”.
Russia began easing nation-wide lockdown restrictions last week and announced the national football league would restart in late June.
Health officials also announced 91 new deaths, down from Saturday’s figure of 119 that was the highest daily toll yet.
Russia’s total fatalities now stand at 2,722, a rate considerably lower than in many other countries hit hard by the pandemic.
Critics have cast doubt on Russia’s low official mortality rate, accusing authorities of under-reporting in order to play down the scale of the crisis.
Russian health officials say one of the reasons the count is lower is that only deaths directly caused by the virus are being included.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova over the weekend denied manipulation of numbers, saying hospitals had a financial interest in identifying infections because they are allocated more money to treat coronavirus patients.
Authorities also say that since the virus came later to Russia, there was more time to prepare hospital beds and launch wide-scale testing to slow the spread.
Russia celebrated a rare bit of good news on Wednesday as a 100-year-old woman left a Moscow hospital after fully recovering from the coronavirus.
In the country’s first reported case of a survivor that old, the woman, Pelageya Poyarkova, was discharged on her 100th birthday, the Moscow clinic treating her said.
Russian television showed the elderly woman wearing a face mask and clutching a bouquet of red roses as she exited in a wheelchair, surrounded by doctors and journalists.
Poyarkova had contracted the virus from a fellow patient at another hospital where she had been receiving routine treatment.
After testing positive and developing several symptoms she was transferred to the Moscow Brain Centre, which normally specialises in stroke victims but has been repurposed to treat coronavirus patients.
The hospital said Poyarkova was the first Russian centenarian to have fully recovered from the virus.
“She turned out to be a tough old lady,” the hospital’s acting director Vsevolod Belousov said on Russian television.
She did not require intensive care and had standard treatment with blood-thinning drugs, he said.
Born in Moscow, the elderly woman now lives with her daughter and son-in-law. Her husband was killed in World War II, leaving her to care for her young child alone, the hospital said.
Russia has now reported 242,271 cases of coronavirus and is the world’s second worst-affected country after the United States in terms of number of infections.
The coronavirus is especially dangerous for older people and those with chronic conditions.
President Vladimir Putin on Monday said Russia’s non-working period imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus will be lifted from Tuesday.
“Starting from tomorrow, May 12, the national period of non-working days will be over for all sectors of the economy,” Putin said, adding that Russia’s regions will be able to keep in place any necessary anti-virus measures.
The president’s announcement comes after Russia registered a record number of daily cases Monday, with more than 11,000 people testing positive over the last 24 hours.
Health officials have recorded a total of 221,344 coronavirus infections and 2009 deaths.
Putin said that Russia had used the self-isolation period to prepare its healthcare system, increasing the amount of hospital beds and saving “many thousands of lives.”
This “allows us to begin a gradual lifting of restrictions,” he said.
Fourth-year medical student Alexandra says she wants to become an infection specialist, but when her school said students must do their required training in a coronavirus ward, she balked.
“This is not volunteering by choice. Coronavirus is dangerous, and they should give people a choice,” said Alexandra, who studies at Moscow’s top Sechenov medical university.
Daunted by the prospects of contracting the virus and infecting family members, or face expulsion, aspiring medics have protested the decision to send students in their fourth, fifth and sixth year — who can be as young as 21 — to complete their medical training in coronavirus clinics.
The ministry of health announced on April 27 that the measure would go into effect starting May 1, and only students with “medical contraindications” can refuse.
Students of all medical fields, including dentistry and pediatrics, are affected, according to the decree.
“Those who refuse to go will not get their qualification and can face expulsion,” said Svetlana, a sixth-year student.
Confronted with a relentless daily increase of confirmed cases, which on Sunday pushed its total number over 200,000, Russia is taking measures to staff its hospitals as it expands the number of beds by 100,000 across the country.
But many students say they don’t want to be put in such conditions without allocated housing and assurances that full protection will be issued. – ‘We’re not doctors yet’ –
Svetlana, Alexandra and other students spoke to AFP on conditions of anonymity due to fears of being expelled or other reprisals.
“We’re not doctors yet, our task is to get an education,” said Alexandra. “There are fears that we will be of no use and spread the infection instead.”
She said students are offered training in regular hospitals, or coronavirus hospitals, including “red zones” where patients are treated for COVID-19.
“There is no adequate protection, and it’s difficult to believe that if the doctors don’t have enough, they would find it for us,” she said.
In an anonymous appeal circulated on social networking sites, students at the Pirogov medical university in Moscow have asked rector Sergei Lukyanov to make the coronavirus mobilisation “voluntary.”
The Pirogov university and the department of health in the Moscow government did not respond to a request for comment.
At the Sechenov university, vice-rector Tatyana Litvinova said that working with coronavirus patients would not be obligatory and the school would not punish anyone who declines.
“If a student does not want to do it, they can do their practice in a different establishment, nobody is going to force them,” she told AFP, contradicting the text of the health ministry decree.
She further promised that students in Moscow would be paid a salary of 100,000 rubles ($1,360 – 1,240 euros) and given personal protection.
Ivan Konovalov, spokesman for the Alliance of Doctors, a union associated with opposition politician Alexei Navalny, said that the authorities have turned to students because of medical staff shortages.
“Healthcare reforms of the past years have led to the departure of many doctors” from the profession, he said.
This problem was even flagged by some government institutions like the Audit Chamber, which stated that “optimisation” of the sector — a euphemism for cuts — has left Russian healthcare weakened during the epidemic.
– Shortage of doctors –
But Russia needs more doctors, not less: staff are required at various temporary facilities set up in the past weeks for light coronavirus cases, as the number of people testing positive has grown by over 10,000 daily for over a week.
More than 100 doctors have died treating the infection, according to a list of names kept by people in the profession.
Konovalov said that despite these difficulties, reaching out to students is not the solution.
“Even those in their last year don’t have experience to work in these conditions,” he said.
Students have also launched an online petition, demanding that the ministry decree is revoked. An Instagram campaign against “forced labour” is ongoing.
Not all Russians are sympathetic.
“Why did you choose this profession? To save lives!” one user of the VK network named Marina Goncharova commented in a group dedicated to the subject. “If war breaks out, are you also going to hide behind your mother’s skirts?”
The number of people confirmed to have the coronavirus in Russia has exceeded 200,000, data posted on an official website set up by health authorities showed on Sunday.
The total number of cases increased to 209,688 after another 11,012 tests came back positive in the last 24 hours, it showed, with the total number of people dying since the outbreak began remaining relatively low at 1,915.
The trend will likely make the number of Russia’s confirmed cases the biggest in Europe in a matter of days.
However, officials have said the daily rate — which has been over 10,000 for the past seven days — has much to do with aggressive testing.
Russia has performed 5.4 million tests, while Britain less than two million.
Most of the cases are in or around Moscow, and some regions have already begun to lift lockdown restrictions.
Russia on Friday registered more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases for the sixth day in a row, after emerging as a new hotspot of the pandemic.
A government tally showed 10,669 new cases over the last 24 hours, fewer than Thursday’s record of 11,231 bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 187,859.
The country also recorded 98 new deaths from the virus, for a total of 1,723, and while some officials are considering softening the current lockdown, the WHO warned Russia is going through a “delayed epidemic.”
Russia now ranks fourth in Europe in terms of the total number of cases, according to an AFP tally, behind countries where the epidemic hit considerably earlier: Britain, Italy and Spain.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said in a virtual briefing that “Russia is probably experiencing a delayed epidemic” and must “learn some of the lessons” which came at great cost in other parts of the world.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin appeared on television for the first time since announcing that he has been infected on April 30.
Chairing a video meeting about supporting Russia’s World War II veterans, Mishustin seemed in good health but did not comment on his condition, though Russian news agencies said he is still in hospital.
On Thursday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced an extension of a lockdown in the capital, where most cases are concentrated, to May 31.
He also brought in a rule that people must wear masks and gloves in public transport and shops and announced that lockdown will be lifted for industries and construction projects.
Residents of the capital are only allowed to leave their homes for brief trips to a shop, to walk dogs or to travel to essential jobs with a permit.
Russia has a national non-working period until May 11 that so far has not been extended.
On Saturday, when the country usually marks Soviet victory in World War II with large-scale military parades, there will only be fly-pasts and fireworks.
For the first time, President Vladimir Putin will give a speech by the Eternal Flame memorial beside the Kremlin walls instead of during a parade on Red Square.