By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin said on Friday it regretted Russia was unable to avoid doping sanctions but some officials declared a small victory after sport's highest court halved a ban on athletes competing at the Olympics under the Russian flag to two years.
The decision, announced by the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Thursday, softened sanctions issued by global anti-doping authorities in response to Moscow intentionally providing it with doctored laboratory data that could have identified drug cheats, something it denies.
The Kremlin said it was good that the ruling, which some foreign sports officials have said was not tough enough given Russia's doping offences, allows some Russian athletes to compete at the world's most prestigious sporting events.
CAS said the decision means Russians who are not suspended have a chance to compete in the Olympics and world championships as neutrals – without the Russian flag on their uniform and without the country’s anthem sung at official venues.
"Of course we regret this (overall ruling), we view it negatively," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "But at the same time, the main thing is that athletes are getting the right to take part in competitions" as neutral competitors.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said the measures were "the strongest set of consequences ever imposed on any country for doping-related offences."
Russian officials, despite their disappointment at more sanctions, focused on the fact that the decision was not worse.
"The outcome today is a victory for Russia," Mikhail Bukhanov, acting director of Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA, said on Thursday.
"CAS did not restrict clean athletes' right to compete at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as at world championships."
Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin said it was "positive" that the sanctions would only last until December 2022, instead of four years.
The ruling leaves Russian athletes without their flag and national anthem at next year's Tokyo Olympics, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and at the 2022 soccer World Cup in Qatar.
'SLAP ON THE WRIST'
Russian officials fumed that the sanctions bar them from attending the Olympics and other major events for two years.
They cannot be appointed to or sit on committees or serve as board members at organisations that must abide by the WADA code during that period.
"It's not right to say the least to extend the sanctions action to cover civil servants," RIA news agency quoted Matytsin as saying.
The sanctions do not apply to a government official invited to attend a major sporting event by a foreign head of state.
"This is just one other dark outcome in a long 10-plus year effort for the Russians to corrupt sport, to cover it up and essentially get away with it," Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), told Reuters.
"And let's not forget this slap on the wrist, a light slap on the wrist, was exactly what happened (at the 2018 Winter Olympics) in Pyeongchang."
Many Russian athletes were sidelined at the past two Olympics and the country was deprived of its flag for the Pyeongchang Games as punishment for state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games in southern Russia.
Russia, which has in the past acknowledged some shortcomings in its implementation of anti-doping policies, denies running a state-sponsored doping programme.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Iain Axon in London; Editing by Alison Williams/Mark Potter/Ken Ferris)