Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has threatened the West with a “swift and tough” response for crossing unspecified “red lines” as supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny take to the streets to demand his release.
Mr Putin’s speech comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West and a massive Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine, which has sparked fears of a new war in eastern Ukraine.
He was expected to make a major foreign policy announcement but instead issued a stark warning to the West against encroaching on its interests.
“Anyone who threatens the core interests of our security will come to regret it like they never regretted anything,” President Putin said at the end of his 90-minute speech in Moscow.
“I hope no one decides to cross the red lines in relations with Russia – and we will decide what these red lines are in each case.”
President Putin sought to portray Russia as a victim, arguing that Russia-bashing “has become a sport of sorts” in the West, adding that the Kremlin “has behaved with restraint and moderation.”
He warned the West against further sanctions or against other hostile actions, saying that “Russia’s response will always be swift, asymmetrical and tough.”
Mr Putin devoted most of this speech to domestic issues, promising payouts for Russian families to support them during the coronavirus pandemic.
He also called on Russians to take the Covid-19 vaccine. “Do get vaccinated. This is the only way to stop the deadly pandemic,” he said.
The uptake of Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine, which has been recognised as an efficient vaccine, has been staggeringly slow, damaged by distrust in the government.
Just 8m out of Russia’s 144m population have received both doses of the vaccine, according to government data.
President Putin also took a jab at the US for allegedly supporting a violent overthrow of the Belarusian regime, a claim that President Alexander Lukashenko, known for spreading conspiracy theories, made over the weekend.
“You can have a different opinion about Belarusian President Lukashenko’s policies but staging a coup, plans of political assassinations – this is too much!” he said.
Mr Lukashenko is expected to meet for talks with President Putin on Thursday as analysts predict that the Kremlin might be announcing a closer union with Minsk.
Unlike in some of his previous speeches, the Russian leader this time decided not to target the country’s embattled opposition and its leader Alexei Navalny, who has been in jail since January, in an apparent effort not to stir up the discontent even further.
Crowds already rallied in Russia’s Far East, Siberia and the Urals.
Protesters marched across Vladivostok, chanting “Free Navalny!” In Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, about 4,000 opposition supporters rallied on the main square and held posters saying “Putin is scared of Navalny.”
More 150 arrests have been reported across Russia but the police largely stood on the sidelines unlike during the last wave of major protests when thousands were detained.
Mr Navalny’s friends and family raised the alarm about his health last week after his most recent blood tests showed dangerously high levels of potassium, prompting independent doctors to voice fears about his life.
Mr Navalny went on hunger strike three weeks ago after the prison administration refused to let him see a civilian doctor as he began to feel high levels of pain in his back and numbness in his legs.
The politician on Sunday was moved to a hospital at another prison where lawyers were finally able to see him on Tuesday.
Russia’s ombudswoman for human rights told reporters on Wednesday that Mr Navalny was recently examined by four civilian doctors from the area where he is serving his sentence.
She insisted that there was no threat to his life.
Mr Navalny’s lawyers said on Wednesday they had no information about that.
In a message passed by his lawyers, Mr Navalny did not go into detail about his condition but said that he felt “pretty bad” over the weekend when he was moved to the medical ward.
He thanked his supporters for reminding him he was not alone in his struggle:
“It’s really important to feel your support and solidarity: There’s no better weapon against injustice and lawlessness.”
A Moscow court is expected to rule in the coming weeks to designate Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his regional network as an extremist organisation that would put it among the likes of al-Qaeda, exposing Mr Navalny’s staff to prison sentences and stiff fines.
Some of Mr Navalny’s regional offices in recent days went to the ground, deleting accounts on Russian social media networks vulnerable to security services’ requests for information.
Mr Navalny’s allies described Wednesday’s protests as a “final battle” with the Kremlin as Mr Navalny’s life hangs in balance and his network is on the brink of decimation.
Russian media on Wednesday morning reported at least a dozen associates of Mr Navalny in several Russian regions detained and their homes raided a few hours before the rally.