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Putin calls US ransomware allegations an attempt to stir pre-summit trouble

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President Vladimir Putin (pictured) said on Friday (4 June) that suggestions the Russian state was linked to high profile ransomware attacks in the United States were absurd and an attempt to stir trouble ahead of his summit this month with US President Joe Biden, Reuters.

A hack of Brazilian meatpacker JBS's facilities in the United States, reported this week, is the third such ransomware hack in the country since Biden took office in January.

JBS told the White House it originated from a criminal organisation likely based in Russia.

The White House said on Wednesday that Biden, who is due to hold talks with Putin in Geneva on June 16, was expected to discuss the hacking attacks with the Russian leader to see what Moscow could do to prevent such cyber assaults.

U.S. officials have spoken of criminal gangs based in eastern Europe or Russia as the probable culprits. But Kremlin critics have pointed the finger at the Russian state itself, saying it must have had knowledge of the attacks and possibly even be directing them.

Putin, speaking on the sidelines of the St Petersburg Economic Forum, told Russia's state TV Channel One that the idea of Russian state involvement was absurd.

"It's just nonsense, it's funny," said Putin. "It's absurd to accuse Russia of this."

He said he was encouraged however, by what he said were efforts by some people in the United States to question the substance of such allegations and try to work out what is really going on.

"Thank goodness there are people with common sense who are asking (themselves) this question and are putting the question to those who are trying to provoke a new conflict before our meeting with Biden," said Putin.

Praising Biden as an experienced politician, Putin said he expected the Geneva summit to be held in a positive atmosphere, but did not anticipate any breakthroughs.

The meeting would be more about trying to chart a path to restore battered U.S.-Russia ties which are strained by everything from Russia's jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to Ukraine to Syria, he said.

Earlier on Friday, Putin told the same economic forum that the United States was openly trying to hold back Russia's development and accused Washington of wielding the dollar as a tool of economic and political competition.

"We have no disagreement with the United States. They only have one point of disagreement - they want to hold back our development, they talk about this publicly," Putin told the forum.

"Everything else stems from this position," he said.

Putin also questioned what he said was the harsh way U.S. authorities had dealt with some people detained during the storming of the Capitol in January by supporters of Donald Trump.

Russia

Biden to hold solo news conference after Putin summit

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US President Joe Biden will hold a solo news conference after meeting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin this week, denying the former KGB spy an elevated international platform to castigate the West and sow discord, writes Steve Holland.

Putin's bravura performance at a 2018 news conference with Donald Trump led to shock when the then U.S. president cast doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and flattered the Russian leader.

Talking about the summit alone will also spare Biden, 78, from open jousting with Putin, 68, before the world's media after what is certain to be a combative encounter.

"We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward," a White House official said.

"A solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting — both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns."

Biden will meet Putin on June 16 in Geneva for a summit that will cover strategic nuclear stability and the deteriorating relationship between the Kremlin and the West.

Putin, who has served as Russia's paramount leader since Boris Yeltsin resigned on the last day of 1999, said ahead of the meeting that relations with the United States were at their lowest point in years. Read more.

Asked about Biden calling him a killer in an interview in March, Putin said he had heard dozens of such accusations.

"This is not something I worry about in the least," Putin said, according to an NBC translation of excerpts of an interview broadcast on Friday.

The White House has said Biden will bring up ransomware attacks emanating from Russia, Moscow's aggression against Ukraine, the jailing of dissidents and other issues that have irritated the relationship.

Biden has said that the United States is not seeking a conflict with Russia, but that Washington will respond in a robust way if Moscow engages in harmful activities.

Russia says the West is gripped by anti-Russian hysteria and that it will defend its interests in any way it see fit.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting G7 leaders including Biden at a summit in southwestern England, told CNN that Biden would be giving Putin some "pretty tough messages, and that's something I'd only approve of".

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Court outlaws Kremlin critic Navalny’s network in pre-election knockout

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A Russian court on Wednesday (9 June) outlawed groups linked to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny after declaring them “extremist”, a move that bans his allies from elections and will further strain US-Russia ties before a closely watched summit, write Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn.

President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden are due to hold talks in Geneva next week with the fate of Navalny and the crackdown on his movement certain to be on the agenda.

Washington, which has asked Moscow to free Navalny, condemned the court decision, with the State Department calling it "particularly disturbing". The Kremlin says the matter is a purely domestic one and not Biden's business. It has portrayed Navalny as a US-backed trouble maker, something Navalny has denied.

Wednesday's ruling, the latest chapter in a long-running crackdown on Putin's fiercest domestic opponent, delivers a final hammer blow to a vast political network that Navalny built up over many years to try to challenge the veteran Russian leader's grip on power.

Putin, 68, has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999. Navalny, in jail for parole violations related to an embezzlement case he says was trumped up, had mounted a bold challenge to Putin via street protests and graft investigations which he had hoped would bring about a change of leadership.

The legal case against Navalny's network was brought by the office of Moscow's top prosecutor who had accused Navalny and his allies of trying to foment a revolution by seeking to destabilise the socio-political situation inside Russia with their activity.

A spokesperson for the Moscow prosecutor's office told reporters on Wednesday that he was pleased with the ruling which had recognised that Navalny's allies had organised illegal street rallies that had ended in mass unrest.

After a 12.5 hour legal hearing behind closed doors, Navalny's lawyers said in a statement they would appeal and that the evidence presented by prosecutors had not been satisfactory.

The legal offensive mirrors ones waged in the past against far-right groups, Islamist organisations and the Jehovah's Witnesses which were also declared "extremist" by courts and banned.

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally to mark the 5th anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder and to protest against proposed amendments to the country's constitution, in Moscow, Russia February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally to mark the 5th anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder and to protest against proposed amendments to the country's constitution, in Moscow, Russia February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

Navalny and his allies denied the prosecutor's allegations, casting them as an attempt to try to crush their political opposition to the ruling United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

In a message posted on Navalny's Instagram account apparently drafted in anticipation of what was a widely expected ruling, Navalny was cited as urging his supporters to not be disheartened.

"We're not going anywhere," the message read.

"We'll digest this, sort things out, change, and evolve. We'll adapt. We won't step back from our aims and ideas. This is our country and we do not have another one."

The prosecutor's request formally ends the activity of a network of groups set up by Navalny, 45, who is serving a 2-1/2 year jail term, something many Western countries have portrayed as politically-motivated revenge for his anti-Kremlin political activities.

Specifically, the ruling targets Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation which has produced high-profile investigations into alleged official corruption, and Navalny's regional campaign headquarters which have mobilised in the past to organise anti-Kremlin protests.

The authorities now have the formal power to jail activists and freeze their bank accounts if they continue their activities. The case had already prompted Navalny's allies to suspend the groups even before the ruling.

In the run-up to the verdict, Putin last week signed legislation that barred members of “extremist” organizations from running for office.

Combined with Wednesday's ruling, the new legislation ends hopes by some Navalny allies to run for parliament.

They say they will try to use a smart or tactical voting strategy instead to seek to undermine support for the pro-Kremlin ruling party, a strategy Kremlin sources have belittled.

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Kremlin insider arrested in Switzerland following US request

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Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin was arrested during a stay in Valais last March at the request of the American authorities. Klyushin is a close associate of Alexeï Gromov, a senior official in the Russian presidential administration. Gromov is widely considered to be "the person in charge of the Kremlin's control of the Russian media" and was placed under American sanctions two months ago. Klyushin is said to be the creator of a powerful media monitoring system used by Russian services. Currently detained in Sion, he opposes his extradition to the United States. The information emerges from a judgment of the Federal Tribunal (TF) made public just days before the meeting of Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin which is scheduled for 16 June in Geneva.

It only took 24 hours for the US authorities to obtain the arrest of Vladislav Klyushin on 21 March 21, while he was in Valais. This is revealed by a judgment of the Federal Supreme Court released on June 3.

The facts with which he is accused in the United States have not been disclosed. According to the Swiss TF ruling Vladislav Klyushin is the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the Massachusetts District Court on 19 March, 2021, but no indictment has yet been made public on the US side .

Vladislav Klyushin's name appeared in 2018 as part of a Proekt media investigation into how the Kremlin managed to infiltrate and then turn anonymous Telegram messaging channels into a propaganda weapon. It included Nezygar, one of the most prominent anonymous channels in the country.

According to journalists, this infiltration operation was supervised by Alexei Gromov, deputy director of the presidential administration of Vladimir Putin, with the help of Vladislav Klyushin.

The latter would have created the Katyusha media monitoring system, sold to the Russian authorities by his company OOO M13.

Also according to the Russian media, Alexeï Gromov regularly encouraged the Russian services and ministries to use the Katuysha system, whose name is inspired by the famous Soviet rocket launchers which were notorious for their powerful but imprecise shots.

Last January, the Kremlin signed a 3.6 million SF contract with M13 for the use of its surveillance software for “analysing messages on electoral processes, political parties and the non-systemic opposition” .

Former press secretary to President Vladimir Putin, Alexeï Gromov is described as “a discreet man (…) but who is nonetheless a key manager of the control exercised by the Putin government over what is said - or not - in the main Russian print and audiovisual media. ”

Already under European sanctions since 2014 in connection with the invasion of Crimea, Gromov was the first target of a new round of sanctions pronounced on 15 April by the US Department of the Treasury.

Alexei Gromov is accused of having "directed the use by the Kremlin of its media apparatus" and of having "sought to exacerbate tensions in the United States by discrediting the American electoral process in 2020".

On the day the sanctions were announced, US President Joe Biden called for a de-escalation of tensions with Russia. “The United States is not seeking to start a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable and predictable relationship,” he said. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet in Geneva on June 16.

Held in pre-trial detention since his arrest on 21 March, Vladislav Klyushin told Swiss authorities he opposed his extradition to the United States.

Represented by lawyers Oliver Ciric, Dragan Zeljic and Darya Gasskov, he filed a first appeal before the Federal Criminal Court (TPF), on 6 April, to request the lifting of his pre-trial detention.

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