MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin warned the West on Wednesday against “crossing the red line” with Russia, in a major annual speech that the opposition hoped to tarnish with mass protests.
Thousands of supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets of Moscow and other cities after Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address, with police detaining more than a thousand protesters, according to a monitoring group.
The protesters demanded that Navalny, who launched a hunger strike three weeks ago, be freed or at least given proper medical treatment after his doctors said his health was failing and he could die “at any minute”.
Large crowds gathered in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, though not on the scale of pro-Navalny demonstrations seen earlier this year, when tens of thousands rallied and thousands were arrested.
The West has backed the calls for Navalny to be freed and provided with medical care, one of a litany of disputes that have raised tensions with Moscow to new highs.
In the speech, Putin said Moscow would respond swiftly and harshly to moves against its interests.
“The organisers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds, more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” Putin said.
Putin unsurprisingly made no mention of Navalny in his speech _ he has always refused to use the name of his most prominent opponent.
He did however hit out at rivals abroad, with Moscow and Western capitals at loggerheads over a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.
Putin said it had become “a new kind of sport” in western capitals to blame Russia “for anything”.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2021