Thousands march against Putin as he warns West of Russia’s ‘red line’

Hundreds detained at rallies in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Opposition supporters attend a rally in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Thursday evening. Photograph:  Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

Opposition supporters attend a rally in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Thursday evening. Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned the West not to cross his country’s “red line”, as thousands of people protested against his 21-year rule and called for the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Mr Putin delivered a state-of-the-nation address amid sharply deteriorating relations with the United States and European Union, and mounting western concern over a major build-up of Russian troops near eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed seven years ago.

The US imposed new sanctions on Russia last week over a host of alleged hostile actions and the countries expelled 10 of each other diplomats. The Czech Republic then sent home 18 Russian diplomats due to Moscow’s suspected role in a 2014 arms depot explosion, prompting a tit-for-tat response from Russia.

The EU and US have also sanctioned Russian officials for their state’s alleged involvement in the near-fatal poisoning last summer of Mr Navalny, who was jailed in January and is now in poor health after a three-week hunger strike.

Several thousand people marched through Moscow, St Petersburg and other major cities, chanting “Freedom for Navalny!” and “Russia without Putin!”

Smaller crowds rallied in other towns and cities, despite an official ban on the protests and major police efforts to block central squares and streets.

Monitors said more than 400 people were detained during the peaceful protests, and several close allies of Mr Navalny were arrested before they began.

‘Good relations’

“We want good relations . . . and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Mr Putin told an assembly of officials and deputies on Wednesday.

Russian president Vladimir Putin: ‘Organisers of any provocations that threaten our core security interests will regret what they have done like they’ve never regretted anything for a long time.’ Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP via Getty
Russian president Vladimir Putin: ‘Organisers of any provocations that threaten our core security interests will regret what they have done like they’ve never regretted anything for a long time.’ Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP via Getty

“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough,” he added.

“Organisers of any provocations that threaten the core interests of our security will regret it like they’ve haven’t regretted anything in a long time...I hope it won’t enter anyone’s head to cross the so-called red line in relation to Russia.”

Moscow has warned Ukraine that it sees its pursuit of Nato membership as a threat to Russian security, and has pledged to defend Russians in the war-torn Donbas region of eastern Ukraine if it was again engulfed in major fighting.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has offered to meet Mr Putin for peace talks in Donbas, where Russia transformed a tiny and marginal separatist movement into a powerful militia in response to a pro-western revolution in Ukraine in 2014, fomenting fighting that has since killed about 14,000 people.

The US and EU say Russia now has more troops and armour near Ukraine’s borders than in 2014, but Moscow insists it is merely conducting military exercises.

Mr Putin also suggested the West was behind an alleged plot to oust and kill his ally, autocratic Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who is due to visit Moscow on Thursday having weathered huge opposition protests last year.

“You can have any point of view on the politics of Lukashenko . . . But the practice of organising state coups, of planning political murders, including of the highest officials – it’s too much,” Mr Putin said. “They’ve crossed all limits.”