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Putin Warns of a Russian ‘Red Line’ the West Will Regret Crossing

MOSCOW — He warned ominously of “red lines” in Russia’s security that, if crossed, would bring a powerful “asymmetric” response. He reminded Western leaders once again of the fearsomeness of his country’s modernized nuclear arsenal. And he boasted of Russia’s moral superiority over the West.

Yet even as President Vladimir V. Putin lashed out at foreign enemies real or perceived in a state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday, tens of thousands of Russians defied a heavy police presence to pour into the streets to challenge his rule. In Moscow, some gathered across the street from the Kremlin to chant, “Go Away!”

It was a snapshot of Russia in the third decade of Mr. Putin’s rule: a leader facing an increasingly angry and desperate opposition but firmly in power with his country’s vast resources and huge security apparatus at his disposal.

an enormous troop buildup on Russia’s border with Ukraine and has gone toe to toe with President Biden, who issued a new round of sanctions last week, undeterred by Mr. Putin’s saber rattling in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin portrayed Russia as harried by Western nations for years with hypocritical criticism and sanctions. Punishing Russia, he said, has become a “new sport” in the West, and he was running thin on patience.

While he pledged on Wednesday that he still wanted “good relations with all participants of international society,” he said that if Russia is forced to defend its interests from any security threats its response would be “fast and tough.”

the prison treatment of the prominent opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny seemed to be mushrooming into something more.

Thousands were arrested at those protests this winter, which came after Mr. Navalny’s return to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for a poisoning with a chemical weapon.

Riot police officers were out in force on Wednesday. While it appeared that they sought to avoid scenes of brutality that could cast a shadow over Mr. Putin’s speech, the police did detain nearly 1,500 demonstrators nationwide.

Protesters stood on the sidewalks across the street from the exhibition hall next to the Kremlin where Mr. Putin had spoken a few hours earlier. They chanted “Go away!” — referring to Mr. Putin; and “Release him!” — referring to Mr. Navalny.

“I didn’t come out concretely because of Aleksei Navalny, I came out more for myself,” said Svetlana Kosatkina, a 64-year-old real estate agent. “I can’t stand this whole situation of lawlessness and just total humiliation.”

a hunger strike and said by his lawyer to be near death, Mr. Navalny this week wrote in a letter to his allies that he had grown so thin he resembled a “skeleton walking, swaying in his cell.”

Police detained dozens of opposition activists earlier on Wednesday, including Mr. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, and a top lieutenant in his political organization, Lyubov Sobol. To curb turnout at protests, universities compelled students to sit for unscheduled exams, TV Rain, an independent news station, reported on Tuesday.

Mr. Putin’s speech was closely watched for hints of his intentions in Ukraine, after massing the largest military force on the border since the outset of Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists seven years ago.

highest per capita in the world.

“Solar Winds” hacking of government agencies and corporations, various disinformation efforts and earlier military interventions in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s allies had also erupted in fury when President Biden in an interview last month agreed with a characterization of Mr. Putin as a “killer.” In Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Putin lingered on a grievance that has not gained much traction outside Russian state news media: an accusation that the C.I.A. had been plotting an assassination of its own, targeting President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, a Russian ally.

Over the weekend, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, arrested two men who it said had coordinated with American and Polish intelligence agencies to plot the murder of Mr. Lukashenko. This, Mr. Putin said, “crossed all the boundaries.”

In Mr. Putin’s telling, Russia, far from pursuing a militaristic policy, has been the victim of a Western scheme to contain and hobble the country. “They attack Russia here and there without any reason,” Mr. Putin said. He cited Rudyard Kipling’s novel “Jungle Book” with a comparison of the United States to Shere Khan, a villainous tiger, nipping at Russia.

And Mr. Putin lingered on descriptions of Russia’s modernized arsenal of atomic weapons. These include a hypersonic cruise missile, called the Dagger, and a nuclear torpedo, called the Poseidon. The torpedo, Russian officials have said, is designed to set off a radioactive tsunami.

The foreign policy message was a stark warning, said Andrei A. Klimov, deputy chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Russian Senate.

“We aren’t joking any longer,” Mr. Klimov said. ““We won’t every day tell our opponents they will be punished. But when it comes, they will understand.”

Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine and Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow.

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Putin, Addressing Russia, Warns West Not to Cross Red Line: Live Updates

that could be prepared to move into neighboring Ukraine.

President Volodymyr Zelensky on the front line in Ukraine’s Mariupol region this month.
Credit…Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed his nation on Tuesday evening, warning citizens of the possibility of war. He addressed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia directly, urging him to step back from the brink and proposing that the two meet.

The unusual videotaped appearance by Mr. Zelensky — a former comedian elected in 2019 on a promise to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine — was the clearest signal yet that Ukraine is girding for the possibility of a full-fledged war with Russia. Moscow’s buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border, he said, had created “all the preconditions for escalation.”

“Does Ukraine want war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last man.”

It appeared to be no coincidence that Mr. Zelensky’s address came on the eve of Mr. Putin’s annual state of the nation address on Wednesday. At the end of his video, Mr. Zelensky switched from Ukrainian to Russian, speaking to Mr. Putin directly. He pushed back at Mr. Putin’s contention that Russian forces would be used in Ukraine only if the Russian-speaking population in the east was threatened, and proposed a summit in the war-torn eastern region known as Donbas.

“It is impossible to bring peace on a tank,” Mr. Zelensky said.

“I am ready,” he continued, “to invite you to meet anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbas where there is war.”

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin to Mr. Zelensky’s invitation.

Aleksei A. Navalny, left, at a court hearing in February. 
Credit…Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

Russia is moving ahead with efforts to outlaw the organization led by the opposition figure Aleksei A. Navalny, a step that could result in the most intense wave of political repression in the post-Soviet era. But supporters of the jailed opposition leader say they are determined to take to the streets.

Opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin have called for protests across Russia on Wednesday in support of Mr. Navalny, whose allies say he is on a hunger strike and near death in a Russian prison. The police are expected to intervene forcefully to break up the protests, which started in the country’s Far East immediately after Mr. Putin delivered his state of the nation speech.

Mr. Putin has rarely mentioned Mr. Navalny by name and did not do so in his speech. He did not refer to him in any way.

Mr. Navalny is insisting that he be allowed to be seen by doctors of his choosing. A lawyer who visited him, Vadim Kobzev, said on Tuesday that Mr. Navalny’s arms were punctured and bruised after three nurses had unsuccessfully tried six times to hook him up to an intravenous drip.

“If you saw me now, you would laugh,” Mr. Navalny said in a letter that his team posted to social media. “A skeleton walking, swaying, in its cell.”

The Kremlin depicts Mr. Navalny as an agent of American influence, and Russian prosecutors filed a lawsuit on Friday to declare his organization “extremist” and illegal.

The extremism designation, which a Moscow court will consider in a secret trial starting next week, would effectively force Russia’s most potent opposition movement underground and could result in yearslong prison terms for pro-Navalny activists.

The White House has warned the Russian government that it “will be held accountable” if Mr. Navalny dies in prison. Western officials — and Mr. Navalny’s supporters and allies — reject the idea that he is acting on another country’s behalf.

But in the Kremlin’s logic, Mr. Navalny is a threat to Russian statehood, doing the West’s bidding by undermining Mr. Putin. It is Mr. Putin, Mr. Trenin said, who is keeping Russia stable by maintaining a balance between competing factions in Russia’s ruling elite.

“If Putin leaves, a battle between different groups breaks out, and Russia withdraws into itself, has no time for the rest of the world and no longer gets in anyone’s way,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The West is, of course, using Navalny, and will use him to create problems for Putin and, in the longer term, help Putin become history in one way or another.”

Lyubov Sobol, center, was among the close allies of Aleksei A. Navalny to be detained before the planned rallies. 
Credit…Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

MOSCOW — Dozens of opposition activists were arrested in 20 cities across Russia before a rally scheduled for Wednesday night in Moscow in support of the imprisoned Kremlin critic Aleksei A. Navalny.

Some of the activists were beaten and sentenced to administrative arrests, according to OVD Info, an independent rights group that tracks arrests. Many were members of Mr. Navalny’s political organization, but some were arrested simply for sharing social media posts about the rally.

Among those detained were two prominent associates of Mr. Navalny: his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh; and Lyubov Sobol.

In Russia’s Far East — where protests started before rallies were expected to sweep across the vast nation with 11 time zones — the police detained eight people in the city of Magadan, according to Vesma, a local news website. About 40 people came out to protest in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the Kamchatka region, with no arrests reported.

In Vladivostok, a major port on the eastern tip of Russia, about 100 people marched through the city with no arrests reported so far, Vl.ru, a local news website reported.

“Freedom to political prisoners,” people chanted. The police warned protesters through loudspeakers that they could be arrested. “We will not stay silent,” was the response.

In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have conducted raids on Mr. Navalny’s offices across the country, looking for leaflets and other materials calling for protests. Those items would presumably be used in the Kremlin’s drive to have his organization labeled “extremist,” which would expose its members to potentially lengthy prison terms.

In Kurgan, a city in central Russia, an unknown person sneaked into Mr. Navalny’s office on Monday morning and destroyed a radiator, flooding the premises.

Under various pretexts, the authorities in cities across Russia blocked central squares and streets. In Yekaterinburg, they rescheduled a Victory Day parade rehearsal to ensure that it overlapped with a scheduled protest. In Kostroma, the central square was closed down, ostensibly for pest control measures.

In universities across the country, students were ordered to sit for unscheduled tests and other gatherings with mandatory attendance, TV Rain, an independent news station reported on Tuesday.

The authorities in Moscow denied Mr. Navalny’s allies a permit for the rally they have planned for Wednesday evening, citing coronavirus concerns. The Prosecutor General’s office warned parents that they would be subject to fines and arrest if their underage children are detained at a rally.

More than 450,000 people nationwide registered online to declare their intent to take part in demonstrations against Mr. Navalny’s incarceration and treatment in prison. More than 100,000 people did so in Moscow, and more than 50,000 in St. Petersburg.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus in Sochi, Russia, in February.
Credit…Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a speech filled with bluster and bromides against the West, President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday lingered on a grievance that has not gained much traction outside the Russian state news media: an unfounded accusation that the C.I.A. has been plotting to assassinate the leader of Belarus.

Even as he raised the subject, Mr. Putin acknowledged that it was not being taken seriously outside Russia.

“Characteristically, even such lamentable actions are not discussed in the so-called collective West,” Mr. Putin said. “They pretend nothing happened.”

Over the weekend, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, arrested two men whom it said were plotting to murder President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and to seize television and radio stations.

It said the men had coordinated with U.S. and Polish intelligence agencies and come to Russia to meet Belarusian generals sympathetic to the opposition. The Russian authorities released video that showed the men casually discussing their improbable plot over a meal at a Moscow restaurant.

One of the men, Aleksandr Feduta, is a former spokesman for Mr. Lukashenko. The other, Yuras Zyankovich, has dual U.S. and Belarusian citizenship. The United States and Polish governments denied any role in a murder and coup plot in Belarus.

The arrests aligned with Mr. Putin’s casting of Russia in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday as victimized and pressured by a hypocritical and aggressive Western world that poses imminent threats.

The encroaching West, Mr. Putin said, has “crossed all the boundaries.”

Policies to pressure Russia that were previously limited to economic sanctions “have been reborn as something more dangerous,” he said. “I have in mind the recent facts that came to light of a direct attempt to organize a coup in Belarus and the murder of the leader of that country.”

In an interview in March, President Biden assented when asked whether Vladimir V. Putin was a “killer.”
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as president of the United States, despite his promise to be tough on Russia, initially gave the Kremlin hope, analysts say.

He was seen as more professional, reliable and pragmatic than President Donald J. Trump, with a worldview shaped by a Cold War era of diplomacy in which Washington and Moscow engaged as equal superpowers with a responsibility for global security. In their first phone call in January, Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin agreed to extend the New Start arms-control treaty, a Russian foreign policy goal that the Kremlin had not been able to achieve with Mr. Trump.

Then came the television interview in March in which Mr. Biden assented when asked whether Mr. Putin was a “killer.” A month later, that moment — to which Russian officials and commentators responded with a squall of prime-time-televised, anti-American fury — looks like a turning point. It was followed by last week’s raft of American sanctions against Russia, combined with Mr. Biden’s call for a summit meeting with Mr. Putin, which to many Russians looked like a crude American attempt to negotiate from a position of strength.

“This is seen as an unacceptable situation — you won’t chase us into the stall with sanctions,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

How far Mr. Putin will go in striking back against the West’s real or imagined hostility is an open question. In the state news media, the mood music is dire. On the flagship weekly news show on the Rossiya 1 channel on Sunday, the host Dmitri Kiselyov closed a segment on Mr. Putin’s showdown with Mr. Biden by reminding viewers of Poseidon — a weapon in Russia’s nuclear arsenal that Mr. Putin revealed three years ago.

“Russia’s armed forces are ready to test-fire a nuclear torpedo that would cause radioactive tsunamis capable of flooding enemy cities and making them uninhabitable for decades,” a translation of a Danish newspaper report intoned.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Putin does not want tensions with the West to spiral out of control.

As Europe and the United States scrambled to assess the Russian troop buildup in late March, Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, spoke on the phone with his American counterpart, Gen. Mark A. Milley. On Monday, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Mr. Putin’s Security Council, discussed the prospect of a presidential summit with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser. And the Kremlin said this week that Mr. Putin would speak at Mr. Biden’s online climate change meeting on Thursday.

Ms. Stanovaya, the analyst, says she was convinced that Mr. Putin is more interested than his hawkish advisers in looking for ways to work with the United States. She pointed to Mr. Putin’s determination to return Russia to the ranks of great powers.

“Putin very much believes in his mission as a great historic figure with responsibility not only for Russia, but also for global security,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “He doesn’t understand how it is that the American president doesn’t feel the same way.”

A satellite image of Russian military equipment at the Opuk training area on Crimea’s Black Sea coast.
Credit…Maxar Technologies, via Associated Press

The Russian authorities closed airspace to commercial traffic near the Ukrainian border starting on Tuesday in another sign of rising military tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

The warning to commercial pilots covers parts of the Crimean Peninsula — annexed by Russia seven years ago — and international airspace over the Black Sea. It formalized what had already become obvious: The region is in the grips of an increasingly ominous military crisis.

Ukraine objected last week to Russia’s closing of areas in the Black Sea to shipping, a ban that the U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, on Monday called an “unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine.”

Over the past month, Russia has massed the largest military force along Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea since the outset of war in 2014, according to Western governments. Analysts say that the deliberately high visibility of the buildup indicates that its purpose is more a warning to the West than a prelude to invasion.

“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a policy research group in Arlington, Va. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”

The Russian military says it is conducting exercises in response to Ukrainian threats to two Russian-backed separatist regions and to what it calls heightened NATO military activity in the Black Sea area.

Military tensions have also risen elsewhere. On Tuesday, Russia’s Air Force flew two nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea for eight hours. In the Arctic Ocean, the Northern Fleet has been conducting a huge naval drill, the Defense Ministry said.

President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday hailed Russians’ “singular cohesion, their spiritual and moral values that in a number of countries are forgotten.”
Credit…Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has often sought to bolster domestic support through rally-around-the-flag, aggressive foreign policy moves. But on Wednesday he opened his annual address to the nation by focusing on the bread-and-butter economic issues that polls show most worry Russians.

He rattled off a laundry list of social subsidies that he said his government would begin to provide to new mothers, single parents and low-income families.

“For our entire history, our people triumphed, overcoming challenges thanks to their singular cohesion, their spiritual and moral values that in a number of countries are forgotten, but we on the contrary have strengthened,” Mr. Putin said.

He outlined programs to subsidize summer camp for children, smooth the system for child-support payments to single mothers and move more social services online.

While Russia is still in the throes of a coronavirus wave, Mr. Putin minimized the threat and said Russia would swivel to “healing the wounds” and shoring up the economy. He also laid out a requirement that Russian laboratories be ready to prepare tests for potential new infectious diseases within four days of their discovery.

Mr. Putin traditionally starts his yearly address with a focus on economic issues, and despite rising tensions with the West, this year was no different.

The Russian leader is aware that empty wallets can add fuel to protest movements and that the stagnating economy is taking a toll on support for his government. Russians’ average take-home wages adjusted for inflation have been declining since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, dropping 10 percent since then.

Analysts say it is no coincidence that protests have seeped out of the wealthy cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg to Russia’s far-flung provinces, which are feeling the economic pain more acutely.

The Russian budget fell into deficit during the pandemic last year, but in the first quarter of 2021 was again in surplus, buoyed by rising oil prices. This has provided Mr. Putin room for maneuver on populist policies before parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall.

Over the years, he has padded his speeches with populist announcements that are often repetitions or minor updates on long-running policies.

Russia, for example, has for years paid a bonus of around $10,000 to women for the birth of a child, a policy intended to help reverse Russia’s long demographic decline.

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In Russia, a Military Buildup That Can’t be Missed

MASLOVKA, Russia — Deep in a pine forest in southern Russia, military trucks, their silhouettes blurred by camouflage netting, appear through the trees. Soldiers in four-wheel-drive vehicles creep along rutted dirt roads. And outside a newly pitched tent camp, sentries, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, pace back and forth.

Over the past month or so, Russia has deployed what analysts are calling the largest military buildup along the border with Ukraine since the outset of Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists seven years ago.

It is far from a clandestine operation: During a trip to southern Russia by a New York Times journalist, evidence of the buildup was everywhere to be seen.

The mobilization is setting off alarms in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European capitals and Washington, and is increasingly seen as an early foreign policy test for the Biden administration, which just hit Moscow with a new round of sanctions. Russia responded almost immediately, announcing on Friday that it would expel 10 U.S. diplomats.

“Solar Winds” hacking of government agencies and corporations, various disinformation efforts and the annexation of Crimea.

told European lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia is now garrisoning about 110,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border. In Washington, the director of the C.I.A. told Congress that it remains unclear whether the buildup is a show of force or preparation for something more ominous.

Even if the goal of the buildup remains unclear, military analysts say it was most certainly meant to be seen. A show of force is hardly a good show if nobody watches.

“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., who has been monitoring the military activity. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”

foreign reporters have been showing up daily to watch the buzz of activity.

Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent Russian military analysts.

Gigantic military trucks are parked within sight of the roads, which have, strangely, remained open to public traffic.

news release to announce the redeployment of the naval landing craft closer to Ukraine, in case anybody was curious. The vessels sailed along rivers and canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. The ministry posted pictures.

forces for a possible incursion.

But Mr. Burns said U.S. officials were still trying to determine if the Kremlin was preparing for military action or merely sending a signal.

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