The Kremlin has broken its silence on Russia’s biggest opposition protest in years, claiming the size of the demonstrations against Vladimir Putin were overstated and accusing the US of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.
A record 3,500 people were arrested as police tried to shut down unsanctioned rallies in 10 time zones across the country in support of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who was jailed upon returning to Russia after being treated for a suspected federal security service poisoning.
Clashes broke out in Moscow, St Petersburg, Vladivostok and other cities as some protesters threw snowballs and traded blows with riot police in body armour and helmets. Dozens of people were injured.
The level of violence was unusual for protests in Russia, where heavily armoured police usually methodically kettle protesters without resorting to open fighting in the streets. Videos on Saturday showed police beating protesters with truncheons, and one showed an officer kicking a female protester in the stomach and knocking her to the ground. She was hospitalised in a critical condition. The officer has not been identified.
Videos have also emerged of protesters attacking police and of several dozen smashing the glass of a car that appeared to belong to the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service. The driver of the car was reported by the RIA Novosti state news agency to have sustained a serious eye injury, but this has not been confirmed.
Russian investigators on Sunday were said to be interrogating underage protesters as part of a criminal investigation. Navalny’s support base has grown younger in recent years because of his use of social media and his investigations posted on YouTube into the wealth of the Kremlin elite. Authorities have required social media companies such as TikTok to delete posts from underage users supporting the protests.
“I have a clear impression that the authorities want to gin up a criminal case on attracting minors to participate in unauthorised protests,” Marina Litvinovich, a member of a government human rights oversight body, told TV Rain. “To do this, they need children who will give evidence.”
The US condemned the violence against the protesters, in a marked departure from its attitude towards Russia during the Trump administration. “The United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners in defence of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat,” said Ned Price, a spokesperson for the state department.
Those remarks sparked anger in Moscow. The Kremlin press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, said: “We’re not ready for diktat, we’re not ready for boorishness, and we’re not ready for any crossing of red lines.”
Peskov said on state television that Putin would be ready for dialogue with the Biden administration despite their disagreements, but the two countries were closer to “enemies” than “partners” at the moment.
During the interview, he also said the protests would play into the hands of those who wanted to destabilise Russia, and that far fewer people supported the protests than supported Putin.
“Lots of people are going to say that many people came out to this illegal rally,” Peskov said. “No. Few people came out, but many people vote for Putin. And a lot of people voted for constitutional reform” that will let Putin run for president until 2036, he continued. “If you compare the numbers, you’ll see how few people there were.”
Estimates of the crowd size in Moscow have varied by an order of magnitude: police estimated 4,000 protesters while the Reuters news agency estimated 40,000.
Peskov’s remarks appeared to confirm what many analysts have predicted: that the Kremlin will remain defiant despite street protests and pressure from abroad to release Navalny. A parole board could enforce a three-and-a-half year sentence against the opposition leader and send him to a penal colony by the end of the month.
Peskov accused the US embassy of interfering in Russian affairs by commenting on the protests, following accusations by the Russian foreign ministry that the US embassy had backed the protests by publishing protest routes.
“This is a professionally prepared provocation, encouraged by embassies of western countries, including US embassy in Moscow,” tweeted the Russian embassy to the UK on Sunday.
Navalny’s supporters have vowed to hold opposition protests next week, raising the possibility that Russia will see weekly protests as in neighbouring Belarus, where the embattled president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of employing torture to maintain control.
The opposition ridiculed Peskov’s claims that the crowds at the protests were small. “Peskov: Even more people should be at the meeting next week!” joked Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s few aides who has not been arrested – because he is abroad. “We’ll count everyone who doesn’t come as though he’s for Putin!”