People in dozens of Russian cities joined protests in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, responding to calls from Navalny's allies who have said he is dangerously ill in prison while on a hunger strike.
Protests took place in most cities in Russia, from Vladivostok in the far east to Moscow and St. Petersburg, with crowds ranging from a few dozen to thousands and people turning out despite warnings from authorities that they would face arrest. People gathered in central squares or marched, chanting "Freedom to Navalny." In many places, they were confronted by police, who arrested several hundred people but generally did not move to aggressively disperse the protests.
Navalny's team called for the protests over the weekend, saying it was an "emergency" and painting it as a "final battle" to save life of the Kremlin's fiercest opponent and rescue his movement from destruction.
His allies and doctors have warned Navalny's health has sharply deteriorated after three weeks of a hunger strike, perhaps exacerbated by lingering effects of his nerve agent poisoning last year, and that he could die in "a matter of days." They said Navalny's life depended on how many people came out onto the streets.
The biggest crowd was in Moscow, where thousands of people gathered a few hundred yards from the Kremlin, chanting "Putin is a thief." It was difficult to estimate the crowd's size, but ABC News reporters on the ground, as well as several other observers, estimated it was over 10,000. In the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, local authorities estimated around 5,000 people took part, and other large cities saw crowds of a few thousand, unusual for places that rarely see protests.
The street demonstrations were the first called for by Navalny's team since he was arrested when he returned to Russia in January. Authorities succeeded in quashing those demonstrations with a tough crackdown.
Police were noticeably more hands-off during these protests than they were in January, when battalions of riot police closed down city centers and aggressively detained thousands, beating people with clubs and electro-shockers.
This time, there were fewer riot police, and officers often stood watching, without moving to disperse the crowds. Police still detained over 1,200 across Russia on Wednesday, according to OVD-Info, a group that tracks arrests, but that's far fewer than in January, when over 5,000 were detained in a single day. Almost half of the detentions happened in St. Petersburg, where police appeared to be more aggressive, moving against a crowd of several thousand.
The turnout seems likely to do little to persuade the Kremlin, which has appeared determined to crush Navalny's movement, that it cannot control the protest movement inspired by him.
Last week, prosecutors moved to have Navalny's key organizations, the Anti-Corruption Fund and his regional campaign offices, declared "extremist groups," a step that would equate them to terrorist organizations. Under the legislation, Navalny's movement would be effectively outlawed, and anyone participating in it or even voicing public support for it could face a lengthy prison sentence.
"Very many people are afraid. A lot of people are afraid to lose their jobs," said Daria, 32, a protester in Moscow who did not want to give her last name for fear of reprisal. "But we need more people to come out."
The protest was timed to coincide with a major speech from President Vladimir Putin, who gave his annual state-of-the-nation address Wednesday. The address was closely watched this year because of tensions over Russia's military buildup close to Ukraine that has sparked a war scare.
Putin has previously used the speech to make major announcements -- such as unveiling constitutional changes that could extend his rule to 2036 -- and there had been speculation he might again announce new actions relating to Ukraine or neighboring Belarus. But in the end, though Putin made threatening warnings to the West, he did not make any major foreign policy announcements.
Instead, Putin focused on domestic issues, urging people to get vaccinated against coronavirus and announcing new social spending, aimed at reassuring Russians hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Putin did warn the West against crossing Russia's "red lines" and focused in particular on Belarus, where he accused Western countries of backing a supposed coup attempt against its leader Alexander Lukashenko, that Russian and Belarusian security services claimed to uncover over the weekend, which many observers believe is a fabrication.
"The practice of organizing state coups, plans for political killings,” Putin said, “That is already too much. They’ve already crossed all boundaries.”
To applause, Putin said Russia doesn't want to "burn bridges" but warned that if other countries did so, Russia's response would be "asymmetric, quick and harsh."
Western countries, including the United States, have warned Russia that there will be consequences if Navalny dies in prison.
Navalny began his hunger strike three weeks ago to demand that his doctors be allowed to treat him for severe back pain caused by two herniated discs. Over the weekend, his team began sounding the alarm that his condition was deteriorating rapidly and accused the Kremlin of killing Navalny in slow motion.
Doctors helping Navalny's family have said his blood tests show he has dangerously high levels of potassium that could cause his heart to stop at "any minute" and that his kidneys may also be failing. In such a state, his doctors say he should be in intensive care.
Russia's prison service has insisted his condition is "satisfactory" and on Sunday moved Navalny to a hospital at a different nearby prison, where he has been given a glucose drip, according to his lawyers.
Navalny himself in a message Tuesday appeared to resist his doctors' prognoses that he was at risk of imminent death and said he is determined to continue his hunger strike. In the message posted on Instagram by his team, Navalny wrote that he "laughed" when he saw the warnings about his potassium levels, writing "you won't take me that easily."
"After Novichok, potassium isn't frightening," Navalny wrote, referring to the nerve agent that nearly killed him.
Russia's human rights ombudswoman Tatiana Moskalkova on Wednesday said that four doctors not from the prison service had visited Navalny and found that for now there was "no serious risks" to him. Moskalkova told Russian reporters that the doctors for now considered his treatment with the drip to be sufficient.