Putin Brands Navalny Protests ‘Dangerous’ as More Rallies Called

President Vladimir Putin branded protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny “dangerous” for Russia, defending a widening crackdown after tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the nation.

Saturday’s demonstrations were the biggest since 2018, with one pollster estimating protesters in Moscow numbered as many as 35,000, the largest unauthorized rally in the capital of Putin’s 21-year rule. Police detained more than 3,500 people in 125 cities, including almost 1,500 in Moscow, according to monitoring group OVD-Info, though most were released within hours.

Protests “must be conducted within the limits of the law,” Putin told students Monday at a televised videoconference in which he compared organizers who appealed to minors to participate to “terrorists.” Without mentioning Navalny by name, he said it was “irresponsible” to use protests in service of political ambitions, and pointed to U.S. prosecutions of those who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6 as evidence that other countries also react harshly to opponents who break the law.

Navalny ally Leonid Volkov called for new protests Jan. 31. The showdown marks a serious challenge for Putin, 68, who pushed to change the constitution last year to allow him to continue as president until 2036. His support fell to a record last year as the economy buckled under the strain of the Covid-19 epidemic. Putin has yet to say if he’ll run for a fifth term in 2024.

Navalny, 44, was imprisoned just over a week ago after he returned to Moscow from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and Western governments blame on Putin’s security service. The Kremlin denies responsibility.

The opposition leader faces a prison term of as long as 3 1/2 years at a Feb. 2 hearing for allegedly violating his probation under a suspended sentence during his treatment in Germany, while potential new charges also carry a maximum 10 years in jail. Officials close to the leadership warn that the Kremlin is determined to lock up Putin’s most prominent opponent for years.

The court hearing will take place just before European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell travels to Moscow next week to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Borrell said he’ll raise Navalny’s jailing during his visit.

A top Russian Foreign Ministry official reprimanded U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan on Monday after Moscow accused the American Embassy of encouraging the demonstrations. The diplomatic mission ahead of the rallies urged U.S. citizens not to attend them, providing details of the planned venues. The State Department later condemned what it termed “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists.”

Black Sea Palace

In his first public comments on a video Navalny released alleging Putin has a gigantic palace on the Black Sea coast, the president said he hadn’t watched the whole 2-hour film, which has gained more than 85 million views on YouTube since its release Jan. 19. Putin denied that he or any of his close relatives owned the luxurious villa, calling the video “boring” before asking the students to focus questions on other topics.

The wave of protests is a test for the opposition, which has seen previous surges in anti-government activity fade as the authorities have taken a hard line against participants. The Kremlin in recent years has imposed steadily tighter restrictions on public protests.

“The current demonstrations are not an immediate threat to the Kremlin, but in the long-term this is important and more dangerous because this is serious and conscious protest,” said Denis Volkov, an analyst at the Levada independent pollster.

“People understand what they are facing and understand the consequences. Therefore, the tactic of more brutality from the authorities won’t be successful,” he said.

For the moment, the Kremlin’s crackdown didn’t appear as sweeping as some seen in the past, although investigators could yet widen their probes.

With Navalny’s spokeswoman and activists already in detention for several days, the government brandished the threat of prison terms for the organizers and participants of the rallies.

In Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, the Interior Ministry opened criminal cases for blocking roads under newly-amended legislation. In Moscow, authorities charged six people with offenses ranging from damaging public property to attacking officials, punishable by up to five years in jail, the Interfax news service reported. There are 14 criminal cases over the protests so far, according to the Agora legal advice center.

Kremlin Concern

A senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker, Andrei Klimov, accused Western intelligence services of helping to stage the demonstrations, the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported. State television coverage of the unrest branded Navalny as an agent of the U.S. and its allies.

A political consultant to the Kremlin, Sergei Markov, sounded the alarm, describing the demonstrations as a success for the opposition and Navalny as the undisputed leader of anti-Putin forces in a Facebook post.

The mass protests also risk deepening Russia’s isolation after U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The EU, which has a new tool for blacklisting foreign officials over human rights abuses, is likely to weigh asset freezes and travel bans against authorities implicated in Navalny’s detention in March.

(An earlier version of this article was corrected to reflect the right day for the next protests and Denis Volkov’s first name.)

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