Hundreds of protesters were arrested across Russia Wednesday after a series of demonstrations calling for the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose supporters say he is in grave health after weeks of hunger striking.
The independent OVD-Info group, which monitors political detentions, said almost 1,500 people were arrested in 82 cities on Wednesday — including nearly 600 in St. Petersburg.
The largest of the protests took place in Moscow, where thousands marched through the center city. Some of the people arrested were seized before the protests even began, including including Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and Lyubov Sobol, one of his most prominent associates.
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Navalny’s team called for the demonstrations after weekend reports that his health is deteriorating and his life was in danger.
They were also timed to coincide with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the union address, which he used to warn foreign partners not to provoke it by crossing “red lines.”
Putin did not reference Navalny or Wednesday’s protests in his speech, instead focusing on the economy, social aid and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking in front of a crowd of socially-distanced political leaders, officials and celebrities, Putin said Russia wanted good relations with the rest of the world, and is behaving with “utmost restraint” despite “unfriendly actions” toward Moscow.
“But if someone takes our good intentions as indifference or weakness and aims to fully burn or even detonate these bridges himself, he should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough,” he said.
The perpetrators of any provocations against Russia will come to regret it “in the way that they have not regretted anything for a long time,” he said, without mentioning any names.
“I hope that no one will get the idea to cross the so-called red lines with respect to Russia,” he added.
Putin’s address, the 17th of his tenure as president, comes at a time of deep crisis in Russia’s relations with the West over a major build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border and a rash of other issues – including Navalny’s detention – that led Washington to impose new sanctions on Moscow last week.
Ahead of last week’s sanctions, President Joe Biden suggested holding a face-to-face meeting with Putin in the coming months. The Russian leader is also expected to speak at Biden’s virtual climate summit this week.
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Russian prison authorities insist that Navalny’s condition is satisfactory and that he is receiving adequate medical care.
Foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have voiced concerns about Navalny’s condition, and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday there would be consequences if Navalny died in Russian custody.
He was arrested in January after returning from Germany where he was undergoing rehabilitation after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, which he blames on the Kremlin. He has since been jailed for parole violations related to an embezzlement case that he says was politically motivated.
On Sunday, Navalny’s allies Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov said the politician’s life was hanging “in the balance” after a group of independent doctors said Navalny was at risk of imminent heart or kidney failure.
Navalny, 44, has been on hunger strike since March 31 in protest against prison authorities’ refusal to allow a private doctor to see him to treat severe back pain and loss of feeling in his legs.
“The situation with Alexei is indeed critical, and so we moved up the day of the mass protests,” Vladimir Ashurkov, a close Navalny ally and executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told The Associated Press.