Putin Gives State-of-the-Nation Address Amid Navalny Protests in Russia

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    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.”

    The Russian president didn’t single out any countries for criticism, saying Russia would decide where its red lines lie on a case-by-case basis. Touting Russia’s new nuclear weapons, he renewed an offer for talks with other world powers to increase strategic stability.

    The ruble gained against the dollar at the end of the speech, 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.

    With parliamentary elections due in September, Putin devoted most of the address 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.”

    He spoke as a crackdown took place on opposition protests demanding the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. The opposition leader’s failing health 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 Russian leader remains broadly popular and 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.

    The authorities have warned they’ll crush the unsanctioned rallies, the first called by the opposition since Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in February. Police rounded up key activists in several Russian cities, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group, ahead of the demonstrations that began in the Russian Far East as Putin started his speech at noon in Moscow.

    Police detained more than 100 people nationwide as of 4 p.m. Moscow time, OVD-Info reported.

    Navalny’s camp called the protest after warning that he was close to death in prison following three weeks on hunger strike to demand access to outside doctors. On Monday, 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.

    More than 465,000 people have pledged anonymously to take part in demonstrations calling for Navalny’s release, which are scheduled for 7 p.m. local time in all of Russia’s 11 time zones.

    The U.S. and the European Union warned ahead of Putin’s speech that 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.

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