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Putin Warns of Retaliation for Crossing Russia’s Red Line

Ilya Arkhipov and Henry Meyer
·3-min read
Putin Warns of Retaliation for Crossing Russia’s Red Line

(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin warned rival nations not to cross Russia’s “red line” in their actions or face a tough response, while holding out an offer of strategic talks amid spiraling tensions with the West.

“Those who stage any provocations that threaten key elements of our security will regret it more than they’ve regretted anything in a long time,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday. “Russia’s response will be asymmetric, quick and harsh.”

In the hours following the speech, thousands of protesters fanned out in cities across the country to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, who has been on a hunger strike for three weeks in a Russian prison. Hundreds were detained, but the scale of the rallies appeared smaller than ones the activist’s supporters held earlier in the year and well short of their goal of bringing out half a million people.

The ruble gained against the dollar at the end of Putin’s address, which some observers had feared might include major new confrontational foreign-policy moves. President Joe Biden and Putin are discussing a U.S. offer for a summit even after the American leader imposed a raft of new sanctions on Russia including measures targeting sovereign debt last week.

Given parliamentary elections due in September, Putin devoted most of the speech to domestic issues, promising expanded government benefits and more spending on infrastructure to boost flagging living standards.

Putin, who said pressure on Russia had become “a new form of sport,” harshly criticized an alleged coup attempt in Belarus involving a plot to kill Kremlin ally President Alexander Lukashenko that Russia says was hatched in consultation with the U.S. Washington denies involvement.

“The practice of organizing coups, political assassinations including of top officials, that’s going too far,” Putin said. “They’ve overstepped all the boundaries.”

Moscow and St. Petersburg fielded a heavy police presence for the unsanctioned protests, forcing the opposition to change the planned routes of their marches on the fly. Navalny’s treatment has become the latest flashpoint with the West amid U.S. and European alarm at an unprecedented Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

The rallies were the first called by the opposition since a crackdown earlier this year left many of its leaders under arrest or in exile. The police detained over 400 people around Russia by 8 p.m., Moscow time, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group.

Kremlin efforts to discredit and pressure the opposition have succeeded in blunting Navalny’s appeal, with polls showing nearly half of Russians say he was rightly imprisoned. The 44-year-old Putin critic survived a chemical poisoning last year that he and Western governments blamed on the Kremlin, accusations rejected by Russian officials.

Navalny’s camp called the protest after warning that he was close to death in prison following his hunger strike to demand access to outside doctors. On Monday, nearly three weeks into his refusal to eat, authorities announced they’d transfered him to a prison hospital. The Kremlin’s human rights ombudsman, Tatiana Moskalkova, said Wednesday that Navalny’s life isn’t at risk and that he’s getting all necessary care including an intravenous drip. His lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. and the European Union have warned Russia will be held responsible if Navalny dies.

Russian prosecutors this month asked a Moscow court to declare Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his campaign offices to be extremist organizations, which could subject staff and volunteers to criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

(Updates with Moscow protest starting in third paragraph)

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