Russia braces for pro-Navalny protests as Putin to give key speech
Speculation swirls over Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and Belarus amid tensions with West
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko File/AP
Russians will be presented with starkly different visions for their country’s future on Wednesday, when president Vladimir Putin delivers a major speech and supporters of his jailed opponent Alexei Navalny hold street protests, amid growing western concern over the Kremlin’s hard-line policies at home and abroad.
Mr Putin will give a state-of the-nation speech to officials in Moscow, as Mr Navalny’s supporters rally across Russia to demand his release from jail – where he is in poor health after a three-week hunger strike – and call for democratic reforms and the resignation of the country’s leader of 21 years.
Mr Navalny’s team have dubbed the protests “the final battle between good and neutrality” but many potential demonstrators could be cowed by the police violence and mass arrests that crushed opposition rallies in January, and a bid by prosecutors to have the campaigner’s anti-corruption group designated as an “extremist” organisation.
Allies of Mr Navalny say he is in a critical condition after going on hunger strike in protest at being denied visits by a doctor of his choice, but the Kremlin has ignored domestic and international calls to allow him to receive the medical care that he requests.
The United States warned of “consequences” for Moscow if Mr Navalny (44) died in prison, and with the European Union imposed sanctions on Russian officials for the state’s alleged role in the poisoning that nearly killed him in Siberia last August.
The White House slapped more sanctions on Russia last week over election interference, cyberattacks and aggression against Ukraine, and Washington and Moscow expelled 10 of each other’s diplomats.
After the Kremlin “suggested” that he return home for consultations, US envoy to Moscow John Sullivan said on Tuesday he would fly to Washington this week, leaving both nuclear powers without an ambassador in the other’s capital at a time of rising tension around Ukraine and Belarus.
The US and EU say Russia now has more troops and armour massed near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea than in 2014, when the Kremlin annexed the Black Sea peninsula and fomented fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has since killed 14,000 people.
Russia insists it is conducting drills that do not threaten Ukraine, and on Tuesday warned pilots to avoid airspace near Crimea until Saturday, having earlier announced the closure of parts of the Black Sea to non-Russian naval and state-operated ships until October.
“This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine,” US state department spokesman Ned Price said of Russia’s restrictions on Black Sea shipping.
The surge in military activity around Ukraine has fuelled speculation that Mr Putin may use Wednesday’s speech to announce a significant deepening of ties between Russia and separatist-run parts of Donbas.
Some analysts believe he could unveil plans for closer integration with Belarus, days after its Kremlin-backed leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have smashed a US-led plot to topple his regime and kill him and his family, and two alleged conspirators were arrested in Moscow.