‘We didn’t meddle in your election, only in the weather’ – Russia’s Lavrov to Japanese FM

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a ready answer when his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, jokingly suggested that the Russian diplomat was responsible for snowy weather in Tokyo during the visit.

“Mister Lavrov, you brought snow to Tokyo,” Kono said during an official lunch, with the Russian FM being quick to reply: “Since we didn’t meddle in your election, we decided to meddle with the weather.”

The remark was followed by a burst of laughter from both Russian and Japanese officials, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote, relaying the anecdote on her Facebook page. After mocking the unsubstantiated US accusations of Russian interference in the American election of 2016, the Russian FM took out his phone and a took a picture of the snowflakes falling outside the window – a rare sight in the Japanese capital, especially in spring.

It was also Lavrov’s birthday on Wednesday, with Kono congratulating his colleague and presenting him with a cake in the shape a of a soccer ball, a reference to the FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Russia this summer.

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Russia's Blackjack strategic bomber to get 1000km range-boost & 'special coatings'

All Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers are scheduled to undergo “deep modernization,” the Russian Defense Ministry says. The upgrade will involve installation of new engines that will significantly boost their flight range.

The new engines are expected to be 10 percent more energy efficient. This would ultimately allow the bombers to fly 1,000 kilometers further, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov told journalists while visiting the engine manufacturing company located in Samara, Russian.

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© Aleksey Nikolskyi

Nowadays, the long-range aircraft can already cover a distance of more than 12,000 kilometers without refueling. Its record distance without refueling has reached 18,000 kilometers.

The first bombers are expected to be equipped with new engines in 2021, the deputy defense minister said. The modernization of the Tu-160 airplanes is not, however, limited to the engines.

“We are going to… carry out deep modernization of the planes [that are currently] in service when only the fuselage would remain while all the avionics equipment and engines would be replaced,” Borisov said. He added that the Russian strategic bomber aircraft park is expected to be fully upgraded by 2030.

The modernized Tu-160 will be stealthier thanks to “special coatings.” It is also set to include new weapons that will outmatch their predecessors.

“One cannot even compare the Tu-160 aircraft equipped with the X-55, X-555 and X-101 missiles and a plane that we are hoping to get by 2030 equipped with new air-delivered ordnance that would have completely different effective distance,” Borisov said, commenting on the ministry’s plans. The overall effectiveness of the strategic bombers is expected to increase by 60 percent due to the modernization, Russian media reports, citing the military.

READ MORE: Boost to nuclear triad: Putin hails upgraded Russian strategic bomber

The Tu-160, which is nicknamed the ‘White Swan’ in Russia, and designated as ‘Blackjack’ by NATO, is the largest combat aircraft in the world, with maximum takeoff weight of around 275 tons. Russia’s military announced the decision to resume production of the bombers back in 2015 after it was stalled for more than a decade.

The first modernized version of the Tu-160 with new engine and digital onboard equipment was rolled out of the hangar in November of last year. In January 2018, it underwent its first flight trials, witnessed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia currently has a fleet of 11 regular Tu-160s and five upgraded Tu-160s. The bombers are expected to hit the production line in the early 2020s. The defense ministry plans to purchase at least 50 bombers of the kind.

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ICYMI Asks: What do you think about Russia? (VIDEO)

As speculation around the Sergei Skripal poisoning feeds a British press pumping out hysterical anti-Russian headlines, we ask Londoners what they actually think about the country.

MPs and the press would you have believe that a new Cold War is dawning; barely a day has gone by since the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia without a reference to an impending UK-Russia conflict being splashed across front pages. Despite this feverish atmosphere, ICYMI found a set of relatively optimistic Londoners who offered their pearls of wisdom.

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'Scary' that Boris Johnson represents a nuclear power – Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman

British foreign minister Boris Johnson is poisoned with hatred and anger so it is scary that he represents a nuclear power, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Maria Zakharova was commenting on Johnson’s earlier statement that compared Russia’s hosting of this year’s World Cup to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.

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March 20, 2018 - London, London, UK - London, UK. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Downing Street for the Cabinet meeting. © Rob Pinney

“Any such parallels and comparisons between our country, that lost millions of lives in the fight against Nazism, fought with an enemy on its own territory, and then liberated Europe [and Nazi Germany] are absolutely unacceptable,” she said, in a statement published on Facebook.

The Russian ministry spokeswoman then added that such statements are “unworthy of a head of a European state’s diplomatic service … It is clear that [Boris Johnson] is poisoned with hatred and anger,” she said, also denouncing his words as “unprofessional” and “rude.”

It is “scary” that “this man is a representative of a nuclear power that bears a special responsibility for its actions in the international arena as well as for the preservation of international peace,” Zakharova said.

Now “it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that all London’s actions … were aimed at setting up a spectre of an enemy out of Russia, using any, even the most absurd reasons,” Zakharova said. She then added that British politicians are now apparently seeking to fully boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Earlier on Wednesday, Johnson once again blatantly accused Russia of being behind the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, as he was being quizzed by the Commons foreign affairs committee. He also said he believes the comparison between the World Cup and the 1936 Olympics “is certainly right” just because the sporting event would somehow “glorify” Putin, from his point of view.

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© Hannah McKay

Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia have been in critical condition in hospital since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury. The UK police later said that the two were poisoned by a nerve agent, which was called “Novichok.” No other tangible results of the investigation into this case have been made public yet.

However, this reality apparently did not stop London and its western allies from immediately putting all the blame for the incident on Russia. Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May confronted Moscow with an ultimatum to reveal the details of the alleged Skripal plot. Other Western countries expressed their “solidarity” with the UK on what they called the results of the British investigation, implying that Russia was culpable in this case.

Moscow repeatedly denied its involvement in the incident and called for an inclusive joint investigation, expressing its readiness to take part in it. It also rejected the British ultimatum. The UK then imposed sanctions on Moscow, which included expelling 23 diplomats, limiting diplomatic ties and freezing Russian state assets in the UK.

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Samara World Cup stadium faces race to be ready for Russia 2018 – FIFA

The World Cup 2018 stadium in Samara – also known as Cosmos Arena – that will host a group game between hosts Russia and Uruguay is still behind schedule, according to world football governing body FIFA.

Home nation Russia will meet the South Americans on June 25, but FIFA is adamant that huge work is still required on Samara Arena, one of 12 host venues for this summer’s tournament, where the pitch has yet to be laid.

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© Lena Klimkeit

The first match at the 45,000-seat venue will be the Group A match between Costa Rica and Serbia, which is one of four group-stage matches, a last-16 tie and a quarter-final scheduled for the stadium.

Reuters reports that construction work has been hit by a number of setbacks in recent months, putting authorities under additional pressure to deliver a proper venue for the tournament.

“Over the course of this project, we have spoken about delays in Samara,” FIFA Chief Competitions and Events Officer Colin Smith told reporters at the venue on Wednesday.

“Those delays are still evident now even though… a lot of progress has been made. There is a huge amount of work to be done. We would expect further progress than this,” Smith said.

“But what’s important to us is that the stadium is commissioned on time, then we have the use of the stadium and we can install all our temporary overlay and equipment that we need for the World Cup.”

Russia will open the tournament on June 14 against Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s newly-renovated Luzhniki Stadium. That venue will also host the final of the tournament on July 15, where the new world champions will be crowned.

READ MORE: Going Underground: Russia 2018 World Cup City Guide Part 2 – Moscow Metro (VIDEO)

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EU approves Bayer’s $62.5bn takeover of GMO & pesticide giant Monsanto

Germany’s Bayer won EU antitrust approval on Wednesday for its multi-billion-dollar purchase of Monsanto. The mega-merger is expected to reshape the agrochemicals industry.

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A Greenpeace activist displays signs symbolizing genetically modified maize crops during a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels © Thierry Roge

The deal will create a giant company with control of more than a quarter of the world’s seed and pesticides market.

The European Commission said Bayer had addressed its concerns with an offer to sell a swathe of assets to boost rival BASF. Bayer pledged to sell certain seed and herbicide assets for €5.9 billion ($ 7.2 billion) to BASF and to give it a license to its digital farming data.

“Our decision ensures that there will be effective competition and innovation in seeds, pesticides and digital agriculture markets also after this merger,” said European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

“In particular, we have made sure that the number of global players actively competing in these markets stays the same,” she added.

The Bayer-Monsanto deal has been strongly criticized by environmentalists and farming groups. “This is a marriage made in hell. The Commission ignored a million people who called on them to block this deal, and caved in to lobbying to create a mega-corporation which will dominate our food supply,” Nick Flynn, legal director of online campaigns group Avaaz, told Reuters.

According to Vestager, the Commission has received more than a million petitions concerning the deal. It had been thorough by examining more than 2,000 different product markets and 2.7 million internal documents to produce a 1,285-page ruling, she said.

Pharmaceuticals giant Bayer agreed to acquire Monsanto two years ago. It vowed not to take advantage of its own reputation to forcefully introduce genetically modified crops to Europe against consumers’ will. Monsanto has a longstanding notorious reputation dating back to its production of Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the US military during the Vietnam War.

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Israeli rabbi slammed for calling African-Americans ‘monkeys’

A civil rights group dedicated to fighting anti-semitism has hit out at the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel after he reportedly labeled black people “monkeys.” Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef made the comments during a religious sermon.

Yosef allegedly used derogatory phrases when talking about African-Americans during a lesson to followers last Saturday, reported Ynet News. During the speech, the rabbi appeared to specifically suggest that prayers should only be offered to black people whose parents happen to be white.

READ MORE: Israel officially admits striking ‘Syrian nuclear reactor’ in 2007

“You go around in the streets of America, every five minutes you will see a negro. Do you bless him as an ‘exceptional creature’?” Yosef is quoted as saying. “We don’t say a blessing for every negro… He needs to be a negro whose father and mother are white… if you know, they had a monkey for a son, they had a son like that.”

The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based civil rights organization, slammed the “racially charged” comments from the rabbi as “utterly unacceptable.”

READ MORE: ‘Infiltrators’ from Africa are ‘greater threat than terrorists’ – Netanyahu

A statement issued on behalf of Rabbi Yosef said that the religious leader was referencing religious scripture when he made the remarks. “The words of the rabbi are quoted from the Babylonian Talmud in Berakhot,” the statement read.

One of Israel’s most senior religious figures, rabbi Yosef has stoked controversy in the past by stating in 2016 that non-Jewish people “are in Israel only to serve Jews.” He later retracted the statement, calling it a “theoretical” musing.

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Fired Atlanta Hawks employee sues team for discrimination against ‘whites’

Former Atlanta Hawks employee, Margo Kline, has filed a lawsuit against the basketball organization, alleging it cultivates discrimination against white people.

She also claims to have been fired after complaining about discriminative working conditions. Kline lost her job in March 2017 after spending five years with the club as the community development coordinator.

READ MORE: Sumo mired in scandal again after 2 wrestlers report physical abuse

The fired woman said the Hawks External Affairs Director David Lee, who is black, fostered a culture of discrimination against white people, and especially white women.

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© tw1tterpicasso

In her employment-discrimination lawsuit, Kline detailed that she was constantly the subject of gossip and ridicule at work, while her complaints remained unnoticed by Lee, who often made jokes about “white culture.”

She also insisted that Lee preferred to hire black employees, who in Kline’s view were less qualified than their white counterparts. The lawsuit alleges that Kline’s white colleagues were threatened with dismissal if they dared to talk to her.

Kline launched legal proceedings against the organization with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asking for punitive damages and a trial jury. The NBA team denied all allegations and said it plans to defend itself against discrimination claims.

“We take all claims of discrimination seriously and have performed a thorough review of these baseless claims. The case was quickly dismissed at the EEOC level. We deny these claims and will vigorously defend against them,” the Hawks told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Ukraine severs economic agreement with its biggest trade partner Russia

Kiev announced the cancellation of its economic cooperation agreement with Moscow on Wednesday. The deal was signed in 2011 before the Maidan revolution, and was to be implemented by 2020.

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© most.life

“It was adopted unanimously,” Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman said. Kiev explained the move by saying it was putting the “national interests of the country” first.

Earlier, Groisman told the local Channel 112 that Ukraine “will do everything to ensure that the aggressor country (meaning Russia) pays a high price for aggression in Ukraine.”

Russia and Ukraine signed a program of economic cooperation in 2011. The document, which was planned for implementation by 2020, provides for enlarging free trade and mutual protection of investments, creating a system of payment and settlement operations, and ensuring free movement of citizens.

Despite calling Russia an aggressor and signing a free-trade agreement with Europe, Moscow remains Ukraine’s largest trading partner. According to data quoted by RIA Novosti, the volume of trade between the two countries grew significantly last year. Ukraine sold 140 percent more goods to Russia, and imported 110 percent more compared to the year before.

Russia has a 9.4 percent share of Ukrainian trade, second only to the European Union as a whole. After relations between the countries deteriorated, Ukraine gradually lost half of its Gross Domestic Product, which shrank from $ 183 billion in 2013 to $ 93 billion in 2016. The Ukrainian hryvnia has depreciated more than three times against the dollar and more than two times against the Russian ruble over the period.

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Putin’s World Cup is like Hitler’s 1936 Olympics – Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has agreed that Russia hosting the World Cup is like Hitler hosting the Olympics in 1936. As he was quizzed by the Foreign Affairs Committee, Johnson called the thought of Putin basking in Sochi glory “emetic.”

“I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right. It is an emetic prospect to think of Putin glorifying in this sporting event,” he told the committee. The UK foreign minister was then questioned as to why England’s World Cup team has not been pulled from the tournament. “It would be wrong to punish the team,” Johnson replied.

Johnson pointed the finger unequivocally at Russia over the spy poisoning, telling the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) that the attack on Skripal was a message for Russian defectors: “No one can escape the long arm of Russian revenge.”

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© Peter Nicholls

Continuing, Johnson also said that the A-234 nerve agent (also known as Novichok) was used: “to put a Russian signature on the deed and by using a specific type of nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, in Russia. It was a sign that no former Russian agent was immune.”

Johnson told the committee of lawmakers that the timing of the attack was likely linked to the weekend’s Russian presidential election, which incumbent Vladimir Putin won by a landslide. “The timing (of the Salisbury attack) is probably more closely connected with the recent election in Russia,” Johnson said. “And as many non-democratic figures do when facing an election or facing some critical political moment, it is often attractive to conjure up in the public imagination the notion of an enemy.”

The alleged Russian attack on UK soil was not muscle flexing aimed at the UK, or even Europe. According to Johnson, it’s a show of strength for his audience at home. “I think Vladimir Putin… wants to cause trouble wherever he can,” Johnson said. “His principle audience for this is not us, it’s his domestic audience who want, after what they see as all these humiliations, who want to feel that Russia is strong again.”

The foreign secretary went on to tell the committee that the UK Government is not trying to kick off a modern day cold war. “I want to be very clear – we do not wish to engage in a new Cold War… I remember the old Cold War and it was a pretty miserable time,” he said.

READ MORE: Johnson says UK to hand Skripal evidence to OPCW as he points finger at Moscow

“I grew up genuinely worrying that our country was going to be evaporated in a thermonuclear strike. I don’t think we face that kind of existential threat but it is a threat nonetheless and we have to be very tough and very resolute.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Johnson said experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would arrive in the UK on Monday to test samples of the substance. He then accused Russia of creating and storing the ‘Novichok’ nerve agent, claiming that the UK has “evidence… collected over the past 10 years” that Moscow has been developing nerve agents “for the purpose of committing murder.”

Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May confronted Moscow with an ultimatum to reveal the details of the alleged Skripal plot. After her demand was rejected, the UK imposed sanctions on Moscow, which included expelling 23 diplomats, limiting diplomatic ties and freezing Russian state assets in the UK.

Russia has firmly dismissed all the allegations and urged the UK to provide samples of the nerve agent or some other evidence, instead of simply producing accusations.

“The fact, that they [UK officials] categorically reject to file an official request and deliberately and arrogantly fan anti-Russian rhetoric in the public sphere bordering on hysteria, indicates that they clearly understand they have no formal pretext to go down a legal road,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

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