Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday ordered law enforcement officers and army staff receive $200, as he seeks support for his unpopular United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections next month.
The cash handouts follow earlier one-time payments for pensioners of $135 ahead of lower house State Duma polls in September, with United Russia’s ratings hit by rising prices coupled with falling wages.
Russia’s legal information portal showed Putin had signed decrees ordering one-time cash payments of 15,000 rubles ($200) for members of the military and law enforcement bodies to be handed out in September for their “social protection”.
The payments come as Russian authorities have struggled to curb soaring inflation, with Putin ordering his government several times since late 2020 to take measures to bring prices under control.
Annual inflation has reached 6.5 percent, according to the central bank, which in June hiked its key interest rate to the same figure — its biggest increase since a currency crisis in 2014.
United Russia has seen its ratings fall in recent years after the government passed a controversial pension plan in 2018 and as the country’s economy has stagnated.
The ruling party is polling around 30 percent, according to state-run pollster VTsIOM — a 10-point drop from the last lower house elections in 2016.
It currently controls 75 percent of seats in the State Duma, with the rest held by parties widely seen as doing the Kremlin’s bidding.
Ahead of the September vote, Russian authorities have pursued a crackdown on the opposition and independent media.
Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has seen his organisations declared “extremist” and banned in the country, while all of his top allies have fled.
Meanwhile, leading independent media outlets including the Meduza news website and the Dozhd TV channel have been designated “foreign agents”, while investigative outlet Proekt was declared an “undesirable organisation”.
President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday Russia would not interfere in Afghanistan and that Moscow had learned from the Soviet occupation of the country, a week after the Taliban swept back into power.
“We’re not going to meddle in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs or involve our military in a conflict where everyone is against each other,” Putin said at a gathering of officials from the ruling United Russia party.
“The Soviet Union had its own experience in this country. We have learned the lessons we needed,” he said.
Moscow invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support an Afghan communist government in conflict with Muslim guerrilla fighters.
The decade-long war there left up to two million Afghans dead, forced seven million more from their homes and led to the deaths of more than 14,000 Soviet troops.
Putin’s comments came after Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said US forces were “pawning off” Afghans fleeing the Taliban to neighbouring Moscow-allied Central Asia.
On a visit to Hungary, Lavrov said the United States was trying to convince “several Central Asian countries” to take in Afghans who previously worked with US forces in the now Taliban-controlled country.
He alleged that Washington tells the countries the Afghans will only be there temporarily.
“They say it’s for a few months because they need time to make them visas,” Lavrov said at a press conference with his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest.
“Afghans who worked with US forces were probably security checked inside out. Why do you need two more months to give these people a visa?” he asked, accusing the United States of a lack of respect for Central Asian nations.
Around 1,500 Afghans have crossed into neighbouring Uzbekistan after the Taliban takeover and are living in tents near the border, according to the Afghan embassy in Tashkent.
Putin complained last week about Western countries trying to place Afghan refugees in Central Asian countries “before obtaining visas to the United States or other countries.”
Putin has warned against an influx of refugees from Afghanistan, saying militants could enter Russia under the guise of seeking asylum.
Several former Soviet republics in Central Asia share a border both with Afghanistan and Russia, he told officials on Sunday.
Moscow has been cautiously optimistic about the new leadership in Kabul.
The Kremlin said Tuesday it was “attentively watching” the “disagreements” on whether to extend an August 31 deadline for the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Putin added that he wished Biden, 78, good health. “I’m saying this without irony, not as a joke.”
In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, when asked if he thought Putin, who has been accused of ordering the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, is “a killer”, Biden said: “I do.”
The US president’s remarks sparked the biggest crisis in bilateral relations in years, and later Wednesday Russia ordered its Washington ambassador back to Moscow for urgent consultations in an unprecedented move in recent diplomatic history.
Putin said the United States was “the only country in the world that used nuclear weapons”.
Russia, he added, knows how to “defend its interests” and will work with Washington on terms that are “beneficial” for Moscow.
Aides of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said they have pushed the EU to sanction prominent members of President Vladimir Putin’s circle including business tycoons to ramp up pressure on Russia.
The move comes after the tit-for-tat expulsion of several European and Russian diplomats as tensions run high over the Navalny affair.
The head of Navalny’s regional network Leonid Volkov and another associate, Vladimir Ashurkov, made the calls on Monday during a video conference with EU states dedicated to the bloc’s “next steps” on Russia.
The call was hosted by Poland and included envoys from the United States, Canada, Britain and Ukraine, Poland’s mission in the EU wrote on Twitter.
Volkov wrote on the Telegram messenger late Monday that he and Ashurkov had discussed “personal sanctions” against billionaires Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, and Alisher Usmanov.
He said they also named the head of Russian state bank VTB Andrey Kostin and television executive Konstantin Ernst, among others.
Any new sanctions on Russia imposed by the West would add to a wave of penalties slapped on Moscow by Washington and Brussels following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Navalny and his team say that for the Kremlin to change its course, the West should introduce targeted sanctions against oligarchs close to Putin.
Volkov did not disclose whether the meeting resulted in concrete agreements, but said Navalny’s team will promote personal sanctions “in the coming weeks and months”.
He said that the proposed sanctions were in the interests of ordinary Russians.
– Valentine’s Day protest –
“It is hard to come up with something more patriotic; something that would be even more in the interests of Russia,” Volkov added.
The video call took place at a time of heightened tensions between the European Union and Russia, exacerbated by the arrest and jailing of Navalny.
Moscow on Friday expelled three European diplomats during a visit to Russia by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, accusing them of taking part in protests in support of Navalny.
On Monday Germany, Sweden and Poland each ordered the removal of a Russian diplomat in retaliation.
EU foreign ministers have said they will debate punitive measures and possible sanctions against the Kremlin when they meet on February 22.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday called Navalny’s team “traitors” for holding talks with people “who see Russia either an adversary or an enemy or an aggressor”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of parliament’s lower house, has said that Moscow may introduce legislation holding criminally liable those calling for new sanctions against Russia.
Navalny was arrested on his arrival in Moscow in mid-January after recovering in Germany from a Novichok poisoning attack the West believes was ordered by the Kremlin.
He was jailed for nearly three years last week for violating parole conditions while in Germany.
Volkov on Tuesday called on Navalny’s sympathisers to show support Sunday evening by lighting phone flashlights outside their homes for 15 minutes.
“Love is stronger than fear,” he said on Facebook.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday dismissed claims by opposition leader Alexei Navalny that he owns a lavish property on the Black Sea, as the opposition urged fresh nationwide demonstrations.
Fresh from protests last weekend, Navalny’s aides called again for Russians to take to the streets on Sunday ahead of a court case that could see Russia’s most prominent Kremlin critic put behind bars for more than three years.
The 44-year-old campaigner was detained earlier this month when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recuperating from exposure to a Soviet-designed toxin.
He called on his supporters in dozens of cities to rally last weekend and released a two-hour investigation into the palatial seaside property to spur allies to demonstrate.
The rallies saw a record number of arrests, and Putin on Monday denied having anything to do with the property in Navalny’s video, which has now been watched 86 million times.
“Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” Putin said during a video call with Russian students.
Navalny’s report — his most-watched anti-corruption probe by far — claims the property is worth $1.35 billion and features everything from an underground ice rink to a casino.
– ‘Terrorists’ jibe – One of his key aides, Leonid Volkov, on Monday urged Russians to take to the streets again on January 31 “for Navalny’s freedom, for freedom for all, and for justice”.
Saturday’s rallies saw clashes between police and protesters, 3,700 of whom were detained according to a monitoring group.
Putin said on Monday that Russian citizens have the right to express themselves but that they must do so “within the framework of the law”.
A Moscow court on Monday handed down the first jail term following the protests, sentencing one demonstrator to 10 days in detention.
Putin also said minors should not be encouraged to join the unsanctioned rallies, referring to a claim repeated by authorities that the opposition had encouraged young people to protest.
“That’s what terrorists do. They put women and children in front of themselves,” the Russian leader said.
– Tech firms take flak – The Russian foreign ministry on Monday repeated claims that US diplomats had encouraged Russians to participate in the rallies and said it had lodged a “strong protest” with the American ambassador.
That allegation followed earlier claims by the Kremlin that the US embassy was interfering in Russian affairs by publishing protest routes ahead of the rallies.
An embassy spokeswoman told AFP that it was “routine practice” for diplomatic missions to issue safety messages to their citizens abroad.
The foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Monday also said Russia would probe American tech companies over “interference” related to the demonstrations.
Ahead of the rallies, Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered social media platforms including YouTube and Instagram to delete calls for demonstrations posted on their platforms.
Navalny’s arrest was met with widespread condemnation in the West with the European Union saying it was considering new sanctions on Russia.
European diplomats said on Monday that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell would visit Moscow early next month to press the Kremlin on Navalny’s arrest.
“Thank God our vaccine does not require extreme conditions during transportation,” Putin said.
“This is much simpler and more effective,” he added, referring to Western-made jabs.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova told Putin during the meeting that Russia was ready to launch the mass vaccination from Monday.
“We will have to pretty seriously ramp up the vaccination campaign,” Golikova said, adding that more than 2 million doses will be made available by the end of January.
Many experts are sceptical, saying the country is not ready to mass produce coronavirus vaccines.
Russia began vaccinations with Sputnik in early December even though it was still in its third phase of clinical trials, inoculating workers at high risk of becoming infected.
The Sputnik V vaccine uses two different human adenovirus vectors and is administered in two doses with a 21-day gap.
It can be stored at between two and eight degrees Celsius (between 35.6 and 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) instead of the temperatures far below freezing required for some other vaccines.
Russia has also registered a second coronavirus vaccine, EpiVacCorona.
The country has in recent months been battered by a second wave of coronavirus infections but the Kremlin has held back from introducing sweeping restrictions like in the beginning of the pandemic.
Recorded new daily cases have been decreasing in recent days.
As of Wednesday, authorities had reported more than 3.47 million infections and more than 63,000 deaths, though experts say that Russian health authorities have been under-reporting the country’s fatalities.
Russia in December said its coronavirus death toll was more than three times higher than it had previously reported, making it the country with the third-largest number of fatalities with more than 186,000 deaths.
On Monday, Russia said 1.5 million people around the world had received Sputnik V, though it did not provide a breakdown by country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wished Donald Trump a speedy recovery in a telegram on Friday, saying he was sure the US leader’s qualities would help him fight off the coronavirus.
“I am convinced that your vitality, good spirits and optimism will help you cope with this dangerous virus,” the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying in the message.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov had earlier wished Trump “a speedy and easy recovery” on behalf of the Kremlin.
Peskov said Putin was considering whether to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, after Russia announced in August that it had developed a vaccine named “Sputnik V” after the historic Soviet-era satellite.
“When he does it, we will announce it,” Peskov said.
Russia has prided itself on registering the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, although it is still undergoing large-scale clinical trials after promising results in early trials.
Numerous high-profile figures including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin have already had the vaccine.
In a speech to the United Nations last month, Putin offered to inoculate those working at the international organisation for free.
He earlier said that one of his daughters had been vaccinated
The head of Russia’s lower house of parliament on Thursday accused “shameless” opposition leader Alexei Navalny of working for Western security services and said President Vladimir Putin had saved his life.
Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin’s remarks came after 44-year-old Navalny accused Putin of orchestrating his poisoning in the anti-corruption campaigner’s first published interview since he left the German hospital where he was treated.
“I assert that Putin is behind this act, I don’t see any other explanation,” he told the German weekly Der Spiegel.
Volodin said Putin had “saved” Navalny’s life after the opposition figure was poisoned with what Germany says was a Soviet-designed nerve agent, Novichok, and accused the Kremlin critic of working for Western security services.
“Navalny is a shameless and mean man,” Volodin said in a statement released by the lower house of parliament.
“Everyone — from pilots to doctors to the President — were sincerely saving him,” Volodin added.
“Only a dishonourable man can make such statements,” he said in an apparent reference to Navalny’s claim that Putin was behind the poisoning.
“It is absolutely obvious that Navalny is working with the security services and authorities of Western countries.”
Navalny was evacuated to Berlin for treatment after he collapsed in August on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow after a campaign trip to support opposition candidates in local elections.
The Kremlin critic was discharged just over a week ago.
Navalny also vowed to return to Russia as soon as he has fully recovered, saying he would not give Putin the pleasure of being in exile.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that neighbouring Belarus was under unprecedented external pressure, as the Kremlin’s ex-Soviet ally faces a deep political crisis over a disputed election.
Belarus is in a “difficult situation” and facing “unprecedented external pressure”, Putin said in televised remarks, after a presidential vote last month sparked ongoing protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Protesters have taken to the streets of Belarusian cities since Lukashenko claimed a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 election.
Putin has promised to provide the 66-year-old strongman with security assistance if the political crisis worsens and gave Belarus a loan of $1.5 billion.
Lukashenko has accused various Western countries and NATO of attempting to destabilise his country or support the protest movement.
Addressing a forum on the Belarusian and Russian regions, the Kremlin chief said that Moscow was ready to stand by Minsk, describing ties as “timeless and all-weather”.
Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin was strained ahead of the vote last month with Minsk accusing Russia of dispatching mercenaries to plot unrest with the opposition.
Putin has long been pushing for even closer integration between the two countries, whose “union state” alliance guarantees close military and economic ties.
European leaders have refused to recognise Lukashenko’s relection and have promised sanctions on Belarus for vote rigging and a fierce crackdown on post-election protests.
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who claimed victory over Lukashenko in the August vote has rallied Western support for demonstrators since fleeing to neighbouring Lithuania.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who the West believes was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, has been discharged from hospital after just over a month, the Berlin medical facility treating him said Wednesday.
“Based on the patient’s progress and current condition, the treating physicians believe that complete recovery is possible,” Charite hospital said in a statement, adding however that it remained too early to assess any long-term effects of his severe poisoning.
The 44-year-old Kremlin critic and anti-corruption campaigner fell ill after boarding a plane in Siberia last month and was hospitalised there before being flown to Berlin.
He spent 32 days in the Berlin hospital, including 24 days in intensive care, before his release.
Germany has said toxicology tests provide “unequivocal proof” that he had been poisoned by the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent, which was also used in a separate poisoning in 2018 on ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Britain.
France and Sweden have since said tests they ran independently corroborate with Germany’s conclusions.
European leaders have demanded explanations from Moscow, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that “only Russia can and must” provide answers on the poisoning.
Navalny’s allies say he may have been poisoned by a cup of tea he drank at Tomsk airport in Siberia.
But the Russian doctors who first treated Navalny said their tests did not find any toxic substances, and the Kremlin has rejected international calls for an investigation.
In his first blog post since emerging from a coma, Navalny said on Monday that the three European labs had found Novichok “in and on my body”.
He noted that Russia had still not opened an investigation but that he “did not expect anything else.”
Navalny aides said Thursday that German experts found Novichok nerve agent on a water bottle taken from the hotel room where he stayed before being taken ill.
The bottle appears to have been key evidence for Germany’s conclusion that the 44-year-old lawyer and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin was poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent.