The unauthorized marches fell short of the 500,000 demonstrators Navalny’s team sought to attract, but large crowds in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities have shown the commitment of its supporters to demand the release of the hunger-striking Kremlin critic and be allowed to receive independent medical care.
In a statement to Telegram, the Navalny team said they were confident their “requirements will be met with certainty. After all, truth and good are on our side.”
Navalny Chief of Staff Leonid Volkov spoke live on Telegram, calling the turnout “unprecedented” and saying in Moscow “based on what we’ve seen at least 60,000 – a lot more than we saw in January.”
The state media and the Home Office had lower voter turnout estimates. RIA Novosti reported that around 14,400 people took part in “unauthorized protests in 29 cities in Russia”.
The Ministry put the number of demonstrators in Moscow at 6,000.
The nationwide protests took place on the same day that President Vladimir Putin made his annual address to the nation, warning foreign powers not to cross Moscow’s “red lines” without mentioning Navalny.
“Anyone who organizes provocations that threaten our nuclear security will regret it as if they had never regretted anything,” warned Putin in a far-reaching address to lawmakers in the Russian capital.
He said that “unkind actions against Russia will not stop” and claimed that it has “become customary to seek out Russia at every possible opportunity”, even though it is “a welcoming country open to genuine friendship”.
“We behave with the utmost restraint and modesty, often reacting not only to unkind acts, but even to complete rudeness. We want to have good relationships with everyone, but we see what happens,” said Putin.
“We really don’t want to burn bridges. But if someone perceives our intentions as indifference or weakness and is ready to burn or even blow bridges, Russia’s reaction will be asymmetrical, quick and harsh.”
His words come at a time of increasing tension between Russia and the Western powers. The US last week imposed extensive sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2020 US elections, its massive cyberattack on SolarWinds and its ongoing occupation and “serious human rights abuses” in Crimea. The US and the European Union have also condemned the treatment of the Russian authorities in Navalny, who has been on hunger strike since March 31. Navalny’s team called for nationwide protests on Wednesday to demand the release of the opposition leader, who this week was transferred from a penal colony to a regional prison hospital east of Moscow amid growing health concerns.
Two close allies of Navalny, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and activist Lyubov Sobol, were arrested in Moscow on Wednesday morning, according to their lawyers.
On Monday, the Russian Interior Ministry warned people “not to take part in unauthorized actions”, citing coronavirus restrictions.
For months, opposition activists have been faced with a harsh demonstration of violence, most clearly demonstrated on January 31, when more than 5,000 people were arrested in nationwide protests in 85 cities in support of Navalny.
Putin did not mention Navalny in his speech, but discussed an alleged coup and murder plan against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and asked why “such blatant actions do not find condemnation from the so-called collective West”.
Address domestic concerns, Putin urged all citizens to get vaccinated against Covid-19, saying “maximum coverage” of the population through vaccination was a priority. “This is the only way to stop the deadly pandemic,” he said.
“I urge all regional governments and the Department of Health to keep working on this. The opportunity to get vaccinated should be widely available so we can develop herd immunity by the fall.”
Putin also vowed to fight climate change, saying, “We have to respond to climate change and adapt agriculture and industry.”
He said a carbon recycling industry should be created while emissions should be tightly controlled and monitored. “In the next 30 years, the amount of emissions should be less than in [the] European Union, “he urged.” Given the geography of our country, its size and the structure of the economy, this is a difficult task. But I am absolutely certain that it is achievable. ”
Navalny has been on hunger strike for three weeks, demanding “adequate medical care” and being examined by an independent doctor – something his team claims he cannot get to the Pokrov penal colony.
The Russian Federal Prison Service (FSIN) said in a statement Monday that he had been transferred to a prison hospital in the Vladimir region that specializes in “dynamic” patient observation.
The statement said Navalny was in “satisfactory” condition and was examined by a doctor every day. With Navalny’s approval, he was prescribed “vitamin therapy,” the correctional service added.
In an Instagram post his team shared Tuesday, Navalny joked about his current condition, saying he looked like a “walking skeleton” that could scare children who refused to eat.
“If you saw me now, you’d laugh. A walking skeleton staggering through the cell,” said Navalny.
Commenting on doctors’ concern about dangerously high levels of potassium in his blood, he said, “You can’t just take me so lightly. Even potassium isn’t that terrible after ‘Novichok’.”
Navalny blames the Russian security service for his poisoning last year with the nerve agent Novichok. The US and EU largely agree and have sanctioned Russian officials for their involvement. Russia denies any involvement in the poisoning.
Navalny was jailed after a Moscow court replaced his suspended sentence with prison on February 2 for violating his parole. He was arrested on returning to Moscow from Germany, where he was recovering from poisoning.
US words “not strong enough”
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, the Navalny Chief of Staff said the Russian authorities did not want the Kremlin critic “to die in custody, but they want him to suffer”.
Volkov said Navalny was fed glucose but returned on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. “He is very weak but can still walk … and during the transport from his colony to his prison hospital he felt very sick, got glucose, but now he is on hunger strike again and will continue.”
According to Volkov, the Russian authorities refused to have Navalny treated by his own medical team when they arrived at the facility where he is being held in solitary confinement the previous Tuesday.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that if Navalny died, Russia would be held accountable and there would be “consequences”.
Volkov told CNN that Sullivan’s words were “strong but not strong enough”.
“He is being illegally held in prison, he is being tortured … he has to be released immediately and the European Court of Human Rights is part of the Russian legal system, he has to abide by it,” he said. “I prefer Putin to be held accountable for what is happening now before he dies.”
CNN’s Anna Chernova and Zahra Ullah reported from Moscow and Laura Smith-Spark from London. CNN’s Katharina Krebs and Emmet Lyons contributed to this report.