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Russia responsible for Litvinenko killing, European rights court rules

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A copy of The Litvinenko Inquiry Report is seen during a news conference in London, Britain, January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Files

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday (21 September) that Russia was responsible for the 2006 killing of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko who died an agonizing death after he was poisoned in London with Polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope, write Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden.

Kremlin critic Litvinenko, 43, died weeks after drinking green tea laced with polonium-210 at London’s plush Millennium hotel in an attack Britain has long blamed on Moscow.

In its ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concluded Russia was responsible for the killing.

"It found that Mr Litvinenko’s assassination was imputable to Russia," its statement said.

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Russia has always denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death which plunged Anglo-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low.

A lengthy British inquiry concluded in 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved a Russian intelligence operation to murder Litvinenko.

It also found that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy and another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, carried out the killing as part of an operation probably directed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

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The ECHR agreed. Both men have always denied involvement.

"The court found it established, beyond reasonable doubt, that the assassination had been carried out by Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun," the ruling said.

"The planned and complex operation involving the procurement of a rare deadly poison, the travel arrangements for the pair, and repeated and sustained attempts to administer the poison indicated that Mr Litvinenko had been the target of the operation."

It too concluded that the Russian state was to blame and that had the men been carrying out a "rogue operation", Moscow would have the information to prove that theory.

"However, the government had made no serious attempt to provide such information or to counter the findings of the UK authorities," the ruling said.

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Crimea

A Clear Red Line in Crimea

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The Thin Red Line of the 93rd Highland Regiment of Foot from the battle of Sevastopol withstanding the charge of the Russian Heavy Cavalry

The Kremlin scored a propaganda triumph last month when Rumen Radev the President of Bulgaria, a NATO member and EU Member State, stated on television that Crimea is “currently Russian.” The USA, the EU and Ukraine all roundly condemned his remarks, which were at best an elementary schoolboy howler, and at worst a deliberately false statement delivered with malevolent intent. 

The plain truth is that under international law Crimea is Ukrainian sovereign territory that was annexed by Russia in 2014, and has been under forced military occupation ever since. It has become heavily militarised during the illegal Russian occupation and now hosts Russian Army land forces, armoured divisions, naval units, air, artillery and missile capabilities, out of all proportion to the defence needs of the peninsula.

The newswire Bloomberg warned last week that Russia was building up troops on the border with Ukraine, and in a security alert posted on its website on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv warned American citizens of “unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea,” adding that “security conditions along the border may change with little or no notice.”

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This week in central Kyiv several large demonstrations are taking place in Kyiv at Maidan, at the Verkhovna Rada and at the Presidential Palace at Bankova, indicating that the political temperature is rising. A standard soviet playbook in these circumstances is to take advantage of public protests to execute a “provocation” which is then used as a specious pretext to organise military intervention.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington is "very concerned about the movements we’ve seen along Ukraine’s border. We know that Russia often combines those efforts with internal efforts to destabilise a country. That’s part of the playbook, and we’re looking at it very closely.”

Rolling the clock back, Crimea was originally annexed by Russia in 1783 following a war between Russia and Turkey, which was decisively won by Russia following naval battles in the Black Sea. (At that time Bulgaria was still part of the Ottoman Empire, which was in a state of decline). It was a Scottish Admiral, Sir Thomas Mackenzie, who then played a significant part in the defeat of the Turkish navy. He subsequently established the port of Sevastopol which went on to become the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet. At that time, the bay of Sevastopol was a quiet rural backwater, but its development helped to deliver an important strategic objective for the Russian Navy, namely to have a “warm water port” which gave access to the Mediterranean. Admiral Mackenzie was rewarded by Empress Catherine the Great for his efforts by having the hills behind Sevastopol named after him “The Mackenzie Hills”. This was the beginning of the “militarisation” of Crimea.

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As modern techniques of warfare developed, Sevastopol later became a “closed city” and an important submarine base during the cold war era where nuclear submarines could be concealed in secret sea tunnels. This naval advantage has been reduced significantly due to the limitations imposed on shipping from the Black Sea to enter the Mediterranean via the Bosphorus. But Crimea still retains a strategic significance today by virtue of its geographical location and proximity to EU and Turkish capitals as an aerial and missile base.

The Crimean Peninsula was included for administrative purposes in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At that time, this decision made good administrative sense, as the peninsula relied on the mainland in neighbouring Kherson province for its water supply, and it had no electric power generation of its own. Also, the only rail and land transport at that time was via mainland Ukraine. Of course Krushchev could never have foreseen the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. 

But the city of Sevastopol has always evoked powerful emotions concerning its status as the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It is also remembered in military history as a “City of Heroes” for its heroic defence under siege during the Crimean War against the French the British, the Turks and Italians, in 1942 against the invading German Army, and its subsequent recapture by the Red Army in 1945.

Under Ukrainian sovereignty from 1991 onwards, following the independence of Ukraine, Crimea was recognised as an Autonomous Republic with its own Parliament, and Sevastopol was accorded special status placing it in administrative terms on a par with Kyiv.

But the illegal occupation of the territory has now placed Russia at loggerheads with the EU, and is one of the principle reasons for ongoing EU sanctions against Russia. In order to unblock this impasse, a solution is needed to determine the future of this region in a peaceful and democratic manner. Mischevious comments from Balkan political leaders like Radev with dubious motives do not help us forward with thi

s process.

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NATO

Putin warns Russia will act if NATO crosses its red lines in Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and CEO of VTB bank Andrey Kostin attend a session of the VTB Capital Investment Forum "Russia Calling!" via a video conference call in Moscow, Russia November 30, 2021. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday (30 November) that Russia would be forced to act if its "red lines" on Ukraine were crossed by NATO, saying Moscow would view the deployment of certain offensive missile capabilities on Ukrainian soil as a trigger, write Anastasia Lyrchikova, Gleb Stolyarov, Oksana Kobzeva, Andrew Osborn, Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn.

Speaking at an investment forum in Moscow, Putin said he hoped common sense would prevail on all sides, but that he wanted NATO to be aware of Russia's own security concerns around Ukraine and how it would respond if the West continued to help Kyiv expand its military infrastructure.

"If some kind of strike systems appear on the territory of Ukraine, the flight time to Moscow will be 7-10 minutes, and five minutes in the case of a hypersonic weapon being deployed. Just imagine," said Putin.

"What are we to do in such a scenario? We will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us in that way. And we can do that now."

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Putin said Russia had just successfully tested a new sea-based hypersonic missile which would be in service at the start of the new year. He said it had a flight time of five minutes at nine times the speed of sound.

The Russian leader, who questioned why NATO had ignored repeated Russian warnings and expanded its military infrastructure eastwards, singled out the deployment in Poland and Romania of the Aegis Ashore missile defence system.

He made it clear he did not want to see the same launch MK41 systems, which Russia has long complained can be used to also launch offensive Tomahawk cruise missiles, in Ukraine.

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"Creating such threats (in Ukraine) would be red lines for us. But I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope that a sense of common sense, responsibility for both our countries and the world community will prevail," said Putin.

Earlier on Tuesday, the United States and Britain warned Russia over any new military aggression against Ukraine as NATO met to discuss why Russia had moved troops closer to its southern neighbour. Read more.

The Kremlin annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed rebels fighting government troops in the east of the country. That conflict has killed 14,000 people, according to Kyiv, and is still simmering.

Two Russian troop build-ups this year on Ukraine's borders have alarmed the West. In May, Russian troops there numbered 100,000, the largest since its takeover of Crimea, Western officials say.

Moscow has dismissed as inflammatory Western suggestions that it is preparing for an attack, said it does not threaten anyone and defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it wishes.

Putin said on Tuesday that Russia was worried by what he called large-scale NATO exercises near its borders, including unplanned ones. He singled out what he has said was a recent U.S. rehearsal of a nuclear strike on Russia as an example. Read more.

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Russia

Ukraine PM says Russia 'absolutely' behind suspected coup attempt

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Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmygal (pictured) accused Russia on Tuesday (30 November) of being "absolutely" behind what he called an attempt to organise a coup to overthrow the pro-Western government in Kyiv, citing intelligence, writes Robin Emmot.

Last Friday (26 November), President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine had uncovered a plot to topple his government this week, involving individuals from Russia, but he stopped short of saying whether he believed the Kremlin was behind the plot.

The Kremlin has denied any role in any coup plot and rejected as baseless other accusations that it has sought to destabilize Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic.

"We have secret data which demonstrates the special intentions (to foment a coup)," Shmygal said. Asked if the Russian state was behind it, he said: "Absolutely."

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He also said a Russian military build-up on Ukraine's border, the second such surge since May, was part of a wider Russian effort to break Ukrainian momentum towards joining the European Union.

"They are preparing something," Shmygal said of Russia, without elaborating.

Shmygal, who is in Brussels for talks with top EU officials, said Ukrainian intelligence had picked up activities of "outside powers" trying to influence political opposition within the country to stoke a popular uprising and coup.

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Zelenskiy, a former actor who once played a fictional president in a popular sitcom, came to power with a landslide election victory in 2019 though his popularity has fallen after 2-1/2 years in power.

But Shmygal said: "In Ukrainian society, there is no revolutionary mood. We understand there was influence from outside to enforce protests in Kyiv, to make them stronger. Our secret service is making a special investigation."

Shmygal also said the sacking this week of Oleksandr Rusnak, the head of the counterintelligence department of Ukraine Security Service (SBU), was unrelated.

He said Ukraine's aspiration to join the EU was among the main reasons for what he said was Russian aggression, hybrid attacks, a military build-up on its border and Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ukraine has also been fighting a pro-Russian insurgency in the country's east since 2014.

Ukrainians ousted a Russian-backed president in February 2014 in a pro-European uprising. Along with Moldova and Georgia, it hopes for the promise of closer ties with the EU at a special "Eastern Partnership" summit next month.

EU and other Western leaders are involved in a geopolitical tug-of-war with Russia for influence in Ukraine and two other ex-Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, through trade, co-operation and protection arrangements. Ukraine is also seeking more military support from the United States, Shmygal said.

"This is one of the main reasons for the hybrid attacks from the Russian side, because we strongly would like to be integrated into Europe, to have the standard of living of European, of civilised countries," he said.

"That is why we have all these hybrid attacks, cyber attacks, physical military attacks, occupied territories, disinformation to hamper Ukraine's European aspirations."

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