Putin Warns the West as Protests Emerge at Home

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President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said in an address on Wednesday that the country’s response would be “asymmetrical, quick and tough” against nations that threatened its security interests.CreditCredit…Photo by Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday delivered an annual address replete with threats against the West but, despite intense tensions with Ukraine, stopped short of announcing new military or foreign policy moves.

Russia’s response will be “asymmetric, fast and tough” if it is forced to defend its interests, Mr. Putin said, pointing to what he claimed were Western efforts at regime change in neighboring Belarus as another threat to Russia’s security.

He pledged that Russia “wants to have good relations with all participants of international society,” even as he noted that Russia’s modernized nuclear weapons systems were at the ready.

“The organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” Mr. Putin told a hall of governors and members of Parliament. “I hope no one gets the idea to cross the so-called red line with Russia — and we will be the ones to decide where it runs in every concrete case.”

Mr. Putin’s speech had been widely anticipated, with about 100,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border and Ukraine’s president warning openly of the possibility of war. Some analysts had speculated that Mr. Putin might use his annual state of the nation address to announce a pretext for sending troops into Ukraine.

But that possible outcome did not come to pass, even as Russia’s enormous military presence near Ukraine’s borders showed no sign of receding. Mr. Putin also made no reference to the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, whose supporters were holding protests across the country on Wednesday.

Instead, Mr. Putin spent most of his speech on domestic issues, acknowledging Russians’ discontent with the hardships of the pandemic. He outlined programs to subsidize summer camp for children, smooth the system for child-support payments to single mothers and move more social services online.

Still, it was too early to tell whether Mr. Putin, 68, was pulling back from the brink. Now in his third decade in power, he appears more convinced than ever of his special, historic role as the father of a reborn Russian nation, fighting at home and abroad against a craven, hypocritical, morally decaying West.

“This sense of superiority mixed with arrogance gives him a feeling of power, and this is dangerous,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst who has studied Mr. Putin for years. “When you think you are more powerful and more wise than everyone else around you, you think you have a certain historical mandate for more wide-ranging action.”

Mr. Putin has made moves in recent weeks that, even by his standards, signal an escalation in his conflict with those he perceives as enemies, foreign and domestic. Russian prosecutors last week filed suit to outlaw Mr. Navalny’s organization, a step that could result in the most intense wave of political repression in post-Soviet Russia. And in Russia’s southwest, Mr. Putin has built up a military force, the Kremlin has indicated, that could be prepared to move into neighboring Ukraine.

In Washington, the Biden administration reacted mildly to Mr. Putin’s tough words.

“We don’t take anything President Putin says personally,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said when asked for a response. “We have tough skin.”

Asked if the sharpened rhetoric from Mr. Putin would affect the prospects for a possible meeting with President Biden later this year, Ms. Psaki said discussions were ongoing. “Obviously,” she said, “it requires all parties having an agreement that we’re going to have a meeting and we issued that invitation.”

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President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine warned of a possible war with Russia in an address to citizens on Tuesday evening. He directed comments to President Vladimir V. Putin and called for international support.CreditCredit…Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed his nation on Tuesday evening, warning citizens of the possibility of war. He addressed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia directly, urging him to step back from the brink and proposing that the two meet.

The unusual videotaped appearance by Mr. Zelensky — a former comedian elected in 2019 on a promise to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine — was the clearest signal yet that Ukraine is girding for the possibility of a full-fledged war with Russia. Moscow’s buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border, he said, had created “all the preconditions for escalation.”

“Does Ukraine want war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last man.”

It appeared to be no coincidence that Mr. Zelensky’s address came on the eve of Mr. Putin’s annual state of the nation address on Wednesday. At the end of his video, Mr. Zelensky switched from Ukrainian to Russian, speaking to Mr. Putin directly. He pushed back at Mr. Putin’s contention that Russian forces would be used in Ukraine only if the Russian-speaking population in the east was threatened, and proposed a summit in the war-torn eastern region known as Donbas.

“It is impossible to bring peace on a tank,” Mr. Zelensky said.

“I am ready,” he continued, “to invite you to meet anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbas where there is war.”

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin to Mr. Zelensky’s invitation.

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Protests in support of the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny stretched throughout Russia on Wednesday, including a crowd of thousands near the Kremlin.CreditCredit…Pavel Korolyov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Protesters in Vladivostok, a major port on the eastern tip of Russia, had no need to hear President Vladimir V. Putin’s annual keynote address on Wednesday, filled with promises of a better future for Russians. They knew what they see as the main issues facing the country would not get mentioned.

“Freedom to political prisoners,” they chanted as they marched through the city center, according to videos posted on social media. “Freedom to Navalny!” they screamed, referring to Aleksei A. Navalny, the Kremlin critic, who is now on a hunger strike in a Russian prison. “Down with the Czar!” they chanted. The police warned protesters through loudspeakers that they could be arrested. “We will not stay silent,” was their response.

Mr. Putin was still speaking when people started gathering on main squares in the country’s Far East — where protests started before rallies extended across the vast nation of 11 time zones.

By the time Mr. Putin had finished, eight people were already detained in the remote city of Magadan, according to Vesma, a local news website. About 40 people came out to protest in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the Kamchatka region, with no arrests reported.

In Irkutsk, a major city further west toward Moscow, hundreds of people marched through the city chanting “Freedom to Navalny!” and “Irkutsk, come out!” The police in Irkutsk detained 11 people.

By later in the day, at least 1,496 people had been detained across the country, according to OVD-Info, a rights group that tracks arrests.

About 10,000 people were arrested nationwide in two days of pro-Navalny rallies in January, according to the same group, suggesting that Wednesday’s turnout was lighter.

In Moscow near the Kremlin, several thousand protesters turned out in the gathering dusk. They included Mr. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who was greeted with chants of “Yulia!”

The Moscow police used loudspeakers warning the protesters to disperse, but there was no sign of heavy-handed tactics to crush the demonstrations. By the end of the day the OVD-Info group said only 23 arrests had been reported in Russia’s capital.

The last wave of protests were sparked by Mr. Navalny’s return to Russia in January from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. Since Mr. Navalny’s return, the Russian government has undertaken an aggressive crackdown on dissent, raising the risks for anyone sympathetic to the protest movement.

Dozens of opposition activists were arrested in 20 cities across Russia ahead of the Wednesday rallies. Some of the activists were beaten and sentenced to administrative arrests, according to OVD Info. Many were members of Mr. Navalny’s political organization, but some were arrested simply for having shared social media posts about the rallies.

Among those detained were two prominent associates of Mr. Navalny: his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh; and Lyubov Sobol.

In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have conducted raids on Mr. Navalny’s offices across the country, looking for leaflets and other materials calling for protests. Those items would presumably be used in the Kremlin’s drive to have his organization labeled “extremist,” which would expose its members to potentially lengthy prison terms.

In Kurgan, a city in central Russia, an unidentified person sneaked into Mr. Navalny’s office on Monday morning and destroyed a radiator, flooding the premises.

Under various pretexts, the authorities in cities across Russia blocked central squares and streets. In Yekaterinburg, they rescheduled a Victory Day parade rehearsal to ensure that it overlapped with a scheduled protest. In Kostroma, the central square was closed down, ostensibly for pest control measures.

In universities across the country, students were ordered to sit for unscheduled tests and other gatherings with mandatory attendance, TV Rain, an independent news station reported on Tuesday.

The authorities in Moscow denied Mr. Navalny’s allies a permit for the rally they have planned for Wednesday evening, citing coronavirus concerns. The Prosecutor General’s office warned parents that they would be subject to fines and arrest if their underage children are detained at a rally.

More than 450,000 people nationwide registered online to declare their intent to take part in demonstrations against Mr. Navalny’s incarceration and treatment in prison. More than 100,000 people did so in Moscow, and more than 50,000 in St. Petersburg.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this item misstated Irkutsk’s location relative to the Kamchatka region of Russia. It is further west toward Moscow, not further east. 

Aleksei A. Navalny, left, at a court hearing in February. 
Credit…Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

Russia is moving ahead with efforts to outlaw the organization led by the opposition figure Aleksei A. Navalny, a step that could result in the most intense wave of political repression in the post-Soviet era. But supporters of the jailed opposition leader say they are determined to take to the streets.

Opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin have called for protests across Russia on Wednesday in support of Mr. Navalny, whose allies say he is on a hunger strike and near death in a Russian prison. The police were expected to intervene forcefully to break up the protests, which started in the country’s Far East even before Mr. Putin had finished delivering his state of the nation speech.

Mr. Putin has rarely mentioned Mr. Navalny by name and did not do so in his speech. He did not refer to him in any way.

Mr. Navalny is insisting that he be allowed to be seen by doctors of his choosing. A lawyer who visited him, Vadim Kobzev, said on Tuesday that Mr. Navalny’s arms were punctured and bruised after three nurses had unsuccessfully tried six times to hook him up to an intravenous drip.

“If you saw me now, you would laugh,” Mr. Navalny said in a letter that his team posted to social media. “A skeleton walking, swaying, in its cell.”

United Nations human rights investigators added their voices Wednesday to the demand that Mr. Navalny receive better medical treatment. Independent experts appointed by the world body’s Human Rights Council in Geneva said in a statement that they believed “Mr. Navalny’s life is in serious danger,” and called on the Russian authorities to allow his “urgent medical evacuation from Russia.”

The Kremlin depicts Mr. Navalny as an agent of American influence, and Russian prosecutors filed a lawsuit on Friday to declare his organization “extremist” and illegal.

The extremism designation, which a Moscow court will consider in a secret trial starting next week, would effectively force Russia’s most potent opposition movement underground and could result in yearslong prison terms for pro-Navalny activists.

The White House has warned the Russian government that it “will be held accountable” if Mr. Navalny dies in prison. Western officials — and Mr. Navalny’s supporters and allies — reject the idea that he is acting on another country’s behalf.

But in the Kremlin’s logic, Mr. Navalny is a threat to Russian statehood, doing the West’s bidding by undermining Mr. Putin. It is Mr. Putin who is keeping Russia stable by maintaining a balance between competing factions in Russia’s ruling elite, said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“If Putin leaves, a battle between different groups breaks out, and Russia withdraws into itself, has no time for the rest of the world and no longer gets in anyone’s way,” Mr. Trenin said. “The West is, of course, using Navalny, and will use him to create problems for Putin and, in the longer term, help Putin become history in one way or another.”

Protesters in Moscow on Wednesday.
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Several thousand protesters crowded the broad sidewalks near the Kremlin on Wednesday, at one point holding up their cellphones in a symbol of antigovernment defiance.

They called for the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny to be freed, but it was a sense of widespread injustice that brought many of them out into the streets despite the threat of arrest.

“I didn’t come out concretely because of Aleksei Navalny — I came out more for myself,” said Svetlana Kosatkina, a 64-year-old real estate agent. “I can’t stand this whole situation of lawlessness and just total humiliation.”

Protesters took up the sidewalks across the street from the exhibition hall next to the Kremlin where President Vladimir V. Putin had given his annual state of the nation speech earlier in the day. They chanted “Go away!” — referring to Mr. Putin; and “Release him!” — referring to Mr. Navalny.

Yulia Navalnaya, Mr. Navalny’s wife, joined the protesters on the boulevard ring in Central Moscow, and was greeted with chants of “Yulia!”

Riot police officers were out in force and blared warnings to disperse through loudspeakers, but they avoided scenes of brutality that could have cast a shadow over Mr. Putin’s speech.

They also effectively kept parts of the city blocked off so that sporadic groups of protesters could never unite into a large crowd.

The outcome, in Moscow at least: The authorities managed to weaken the overall impression the protest made without arresting hundreds of people, as had been done in previous demonstrations.

Only 23 people were arrested in Moscow, according to OVD Info, an independent monitoring group. In earlier demonstrations, the police would typically detain more than 1,000 people.

A 33-year-old advertising professional among the protesters on Wednesday — who gave only his first name, Denis, fearing retribution — blamed Mr. Putin for his current unemployment. It was Mr. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, he said, that drove away foreign investment and limited young Russians’ hopes for the future.

He had come to the protest with a book, in case he had to spend the night at a police station.

“We are isolated now,” he said. “I don’t see a future for this system. I don’t want to be an enemy to the outside world.”

President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus in Sochi, Russia, in February.
Credit…Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a speech filled with bluster and bromides against the West, President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday lingered on a grievance that has not gained much traction outside the Russian state news media: an unfounded accusation that the C.I.A. has been plotting to assassinate the leader of Belarus.

Even as he raised the subject, Mr. Putin acknowledged that it was not being taken seriously outside Russia.

“Characteristically, even such lamentable actions are not discussed in the so-called collective West,” Mr. Putin said. “They pretend nothing happened.”

Over the weekend, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, arrested two men who it said were plotting to murder President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and to seize television and radio stations.

It said the men had coordinated with U.S. and Polish intelligence agencies and come to Russia to meet Belarusian generals sympathetic to the opposition. The Russian authorities released video that showed the men casually discussing their improbable plot over a meal at a Moscow restaurant.

One of the men, Aleksandr Feduta, is a former spokesman for Mr. Lukashenko. The other, Yuras Zyankovich, has dual U.S. and Belarusian citizenship. The United States and Polish governments denied any role in a murder and coup plot in Belarus.

The arrests aligned with Mr. Putin’s casting of Russia in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday as victimized and pressured by a hypocritical and aggressive Western world that poses imminent threats.

The encroaching West, Mr. Putin said, has “crossed all the boundaries.”

Policies to pressure Russia that were previously limited to economic sanctions “have been reborn as something more dangerous,” he said. “I have in mind the recent facts that came to light of a direct attempt to organize a coup in Belarus and the murder of the leader of that country.”

In an interview in March, President Biden assented when asked whether Vladimir V. Putin was a “killer.”
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as president of the United States, despite his promise to be tough on Russia, initially gave the Kremlin hope, analysts say.

He was seen as more professional, reliable and pragmatic than President Donald J. Trump, with a worldview shaped by a Cold War era of diplomacy in which Washington and Moscow engaged as equal superpowers with a responsibility for global security. In their first phone call in January, Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin agreed to extend the New Start arms-control treaty, a Russian foreign policy goal that the Kremlin had not been able to achieve with Mr. Trump.

Then came the television interview in March in which Mr. Biden assented when asked whether Mr. Putin was a “killer.” A month later, that moment — to which Russian officials and commentators responded with a squall of prime-time-televised, anti-American fury — looks like a turning point. It was followed by last week’s raft of American sanctions against Russia, combined with Mr. Biden’s call for a summit meeting with Mr. Putin, which to many Russians looked like a crude American attempt to negotiate from a position of strength.

“This is seen as an unacceptable situation — you won’t chase us into the stall with sanctions,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

How far Mr. Putin will go in striking back against the West’s real or imagined hostility is an open question. In the state news media, the mood music is dire. On the flagship weekly news show on the Rossiya 1 channel on Sunday, the host Dmitri Kiselyov closed a segment on Mr. Putin’s showdown with Mr. Biden by reminding viewers of Poseidon — a weapon in Russia’s nuclear arsenal that Mr. Putin revealed three years ago.

“Russia’s armed forces are ready to test-fire a nuclear torpedo that would cause radioactive tsunamis capable of flooding enemy cities and making them uninhabitable for decades,” a translation of a Danish newspaper report intoned.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Putin does not want tensions with the West to spiral out of control.

As Europe and the United States scrambled to assess the Russian troop buildup in late March, Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, spoke on the phone with his American counterpart, Gen. Mark A. Milley. On Monday, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Mr. Putin’s Security Council, discussed the prospect of a presidential summit with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser. And the Kremlin said this week that Mr. Putin would speak at Mr. Biden’s online climate change meeting on Thursday.

Ms. Stanovaya, the analyst, says she was convinced that Mr. Putin is more interested than his hawkish advisers in looking for ways to work with the United States. She pointed to Mr. Putin’s determination to return Russia to the ranks of great powers.

“Putin very much believes in his mission as a great historic figure with responsibility not only for Russia, but also for global security,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “He doesn’t understand how it is that the American president doesn’t feel the same way.”

A satellite image of Russian military equipment at the Opuk training area on Crimea’s Black Sea coast.
Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Associated Press

The Russian authorities closed airspace to commercial traffic near the Ukrainian border starting on Tuesday in another sign of rising military tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

The warning to commercial pilots covers parts of the Crimean Peninsula — annexed by Russia seven years ago — and international airspace over the Black Sea. It formalized what had already become obvious: The region is in the grips of an increasingly ominous military crisis.

Ukraine objected last week to Russia’s closing of areas in the Black Sea to shipping, a ban that the U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, on Monday called an “unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine.”

Over the past month, Russia has massed the largest military force along Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea since the outset of war in 2014, according to Western governments. Analysts say that the deliberately high visibility of the buildup indicates that its purpose is more a warning to the West than a prelude to invasion.

“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a policy research group in Arlington, Va. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”

The Russian military says it is conducting exercises in response to Ukrainian threats to two Russian-backed separatist regions and to what it calls heightened NATO military activity in the Black Sea area.

Military tensions have also risen elsewhere. On Tuesday, Russia’s Air Force flew two nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea for eight hours. In the Arctic Ocean, the Northern Fleet has been conducting a huge naval drill, the Defense Ministry said.

A photograph of Mr. Putin on the outskirts of Moscow during his address on Wednesday. He hailed Russians’ “singular cohesion, their spiritual and moral values that in a number of countries are forgotten.”
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has often sought to bolster domestic support through rally-around-the-flag, aggressive foreign policy moves. But on Wednesday he opened his annual address to the nation by focusing on the bread-and-butter economic issues that polls show most worry Russians.

He rattled off a laundry list of social subsidies that he said his government would begin to provide to new mothers, single parents and low-income families.

“For our entire history, our people triumphed, overcoming challenges thanks to their singular cohesion, their spiritual and moral values that in a number of countries are forgotten, but we on the contrary have strengthened,” Mr. Putin said.

He outlined programs to subsidize summer camp for children, smooth the system for child-support payments to single mothers and move more social services online.

While Russia is still in the throes of a coronavirus wave, Mr. Putin minimized the threat and said Russia would swivel to “healing the wounds” and shoring up the economy. He also laid out a requirement that Russian laboratories be ready to prepare tests for potential new infectious diseases within four days of their discovery.

Mr. Putin traditionally starts his yearly address with a focus on economic issues, and despite rising tensions with the West, this year was no different.

The Russian leader is aware that empty wallets can add fuel to protest movements and that the stagnating economy is taking a toll on support for his government. Russians’ average take-home wages adjusted for inflation have been declining since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, dropping 10 percent since then.

Analysts say it is no coincidence that protests have seeped out of the wealthy cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg to Russia’s far-flung provinces, which are feeling the economic pain more acutely.

The Russian budget fell into deficit during the pandemic last year, but in the first quarter of 2021 was again in surplus, buoyed by rising oil prices. This has provided Mr. Putin room for maneuver on populist policies before parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall.

Over the years, he has padded his speeches with populist announcements that are often repetitions or minor updates on long-running policies.

Russia, for example, has for years paid a bonus of around $10,000 to women for the birth of a child, a policy intended to help reverse Russia’s long demographic decline.

A penal colony in Vladimir, where Mr. Navalny has been moved.
Credit…Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

United Nations human rights experts, expressing fears for the life of the opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny, called on Russia to allow his urgent evacuation for medical treatment abroad.

“We believe Mr. Navalny’s life is in serious danger,” the group of four U.N. experts said in a statement on Wednesday. They cited the attack with a nerve agent last year that nearly killed him, which Western governments believe was ordered by the Kremlin, and his incarceration in conditions that in their view could amount to torture.

These “are all part of a deliberate pattern of retaliation against him for his criticism of the Russian government and a gross violation of his human rights,” according to the experts, including specialists on freedom of speech, torture, extrajudicial killings and the right to health.

“There is no valid legal basis for Mr. Navalny’s arrest, trial and imprisonment,” the experts said. Mr. Navalny has been detained since last month after being convicted of breaching bail conditions while receiving medical treatment in Germany for the Novichok nerve agent attack on him.

Their statement called for his “urgent medical evacuation from Russia.”

Although Mr. Navalny had been transferred to a prison hospital, authorities have not allowed him access to doctors of his own choosing, the rights experts noted.

The Russian authorities’ “apparent violations of the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment, his right to counsel, and most notably his right to prompt and effective medical care while in detention only deepen our already profound concerns about Mr. Navalny’s life and safety,” the experts said.

Under international law, they said, the Russian government “must take all necessary measures to protect Mr. Navalny’s physical and mental health and well-being.”





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