Thousands of Russians have rallied in cities across the country in a last-ditch effort to secure the freedom of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The unsanctioned demonstrations have shown the determination of Navalny’s core supporters, who called for “freedom for political prisoners!” in tense standoffs with riot police in helmets and body armour, who had vowed to disperse any gatherings.
But early turnout in cities in the far east of the country and Siberia suggested the protests would not be larger than those of past months, as the Kremlin prepares to deliver a potentially lethal blow to Navalny’s political organisation nationwide by declaring it extremist.
On Wednesday morning Russian police arrested some of Navalny’s key allies and closed central squares in Moscow – where a rally was due to start at 7pm (1700 BST) – and other cities.
One of Navalny’s top aides, Lyubov Sobol, was dragged from a taxi by uniformed police, her lawyer said. A press aide, Kira Yarmysh, was also arrested outside her apartment, and Navalny’s regional headquarters were raided in cities across the country.
The day of planned action coincided with Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the nation, in which the Russian president warned western leaders they would “regret” crossing Russia’s “red lines”.
Pro-Navalny demonstrations were called in more than 100 cities, with the largest expected in Moscow and St Petersburg. There were surprisingly large crowds in some cities and even some small towns, such as Usolye-Sibirskoye in Siberia, but elsewhere there was a disparity between the number of people who had pledged to protest and the actual turnout.
Navlany’s team had called the protests for Wednesday in response to reports of his declining health during a hunger strike in prison.
UN human rights experts called on Russia to allow Navalny to be medically evacuated and treated abroad, saying they believed his life was at risk. Navalny has been kept in harsh conditions in a high-security penal colony and “denied access to adequate medical care”, conditions that may amount to torture, they said, adding: “We believe Mr. Navalny’s life is in serious danger.”
Early reports said the number of arrests was relatively low, with 300 protesters detained nationwide by early evening Moscow time. Those numbers were expected to increase as police sought to break up the rallies.
Navalny’s aides had described the rallies as the “final battle between good and neutrality” – a play on the title of the Livejournal blog on which Navalny built his political career. “It seems to us that we’ve indeed reached the point of massive repressions,” Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, told the news outlet Current Time. “If we’re recognised as an extremist organisations, it will become far harder to engage in legal, open activity.”
Police cracked down harshly on pro-Navalny protests earlier this year, detaining more than 5,000 people in a single day. Supporters on Wednesday said they were prepared for a crackdown.
“I don’t think anything can change [Putin’s] mind, but I feel a debt [to go],” said Anna Sinitsina, a designer. “In the worst case I can face an arrest, I can take some time away, and I don’t have a boss or someone who can punish me. Everyone I know knows how I feel about this, they expect me to be there.”
Tensions have grown between Moscow and western capitals over concerns about Navalny’s health in prison, as well as Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine, and accusations of aggressive Russian intelligence operations including a fatal explosion at a Czech ammunition dump in 2014.
Putin delivered his annual televised address at midday, stoking speculation that Russia could send more troops into Ukraine or move to consolidate greater control over Belarus, its neighbour and ally.
The state-of-the-nation-style address has served as a platform for president to announce key initiatives before, including the 2020 constitutional referendum that ultimately allows him to retain the presidency until 2036.
Wednesday’s speech passed mostly without incident, as Putin focused on a domestic agenda dedicated to raising life expectancy, called for Russians to vaccinate themselves against coronavirus, and delivered cash handouts to Russian families in measures that likely to please voters ahead of September’s parliamentary elections.
While he did not make specific foreign policy announcements, Putin did accuse the west of attempting to intervene in politics in Ukraine and Belarus. “The practice of organising coups, plans for political killings, including of top officials, is too much. They have crossed all boundaries,” he said.
Putin also said that those who threatened Russia’s “core interests” would “regret it”, seeking to portray protests in Ukraine, Belarus, or Navalny’s supporters in Russia as extensions of US foreign policy.
“If anyone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and plans to burn or even blow up those bridges, they should know that Russia will respond asymmetrically, swiftly, and harshly,” he said.
Before the speech, the Ukrainian president gave a televised address, saying that the country did not want war and calling on Putin in Russian to meet for talks.
Putin has blamed Ukraine for the rise in tensions in the Donbas region, while sending tens of thousands of troops, along with tanks, missile artillery and short-range ballistic missiles to the region bordering Ukraine.