Putin uses key speech to warn West as police detain protesters

Moscow, Russia: President Vladimir Putin warned Russia's foreign rivals to tread lightly on Wednesday as he gave a key speech amid deep tensions with the West and arrests of opposition protesters.

Addressing lawmakers and senior officials in his annual state of the nation address, Putin said anyone "crossing the red line" with Russia could expect a harsh response.

Hailing the country's battle against the coronavirus and development of vaccines, he said Russia needed to tackle climate change and -- with parliamentary elections due in September -- announced a raft of populist social spending measures.

As he spoke, Russian police were detaining supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny who have called for mass protests on Wednesday in support of the country's most prominent opposition figure.

Two close aides were detained by police in Moscow, while monitors reported police raids on Navalny's offices and arrests of his supporters across the country.

Putin unsurprisingly made no mention of Navalny in his speech -- he has always refused to use his critic's name -- or of any other opposition to his leadership.

He did however hit out at rivals abroad, with Moscow and Western capitals at loggerheads over Navalny, a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's borders, and a series of espionage scandals that resulted in diplomatic expulsions.

Putin said it had become "a new kind of sport" in some foreign capitals to blame Russia "for anything".

Belarus 'coup attempt'

He said Russia wanted good relations with everyone in the international community, but warned of a "harsh" response if that was seen as weakness.

"I hope that no one will think of crossing the red line in relation to Russia. And where it will be -- we will determine that ourselves," Putin said.

Putin backed claims by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that his security services had thwarted an alleged US plot to assassinate him, suggesting senior US officials were involved in a "coup attempt" and accusing the West of pretending "that nothing is happening".

Putin is due to meet Lukashenko -- who has faced down historic protests since disputed re-election last summer -- in Moscow on Thursday, amid speculation of a major announcement on Russia's policy towards its ex-Soviet neighbor and ally.

Putin began his speech by hailing the country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, describing Russia's development of three vaccines as a "real breakthrough" and saying the country was aiming for herd immunity by autumn.

He vowed that Russia, one of the world's major producers of oil and gas, would do its part to fight climate change, setting a target for the country's emissions to be "less than in the European Union".

Much of Putin's speech was devoted to new social spending, as he looked to shore up support for his deeply unpopular United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

Putin's popularity has long been based on his ability to provide stability and better living standards to Russians, but the economy has in recent years been hit by Western sanctions, stagnant oil prices, and now the coronavirus pandemic.

"The main thing is to ensure the growth of citizens' real incomes," he said, adding that increases in consumer prices were "eating away" at Russians' incomes.

He announced new lump-sum payments to families and expectant mothers, as well as a 10,000 ruble ($130) payment for all schoolchildren in mid-August.

Fears for Navalny's life

Navalny's supporters were hoping to steal Putin's thunder on Wednesday with a series of mass protests starting from 7 pm in cities across the country.

Security forces had issued a warning against taking part in "illegal gatherings" and appeared to be moving quickly to deter protesters.

Police yanked Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol out of a taxi near Navalny's main offices in Moscow on Wednesday and detained her, Sobol's lawyer said.

Spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said she was also detained at the entrance to the building, while independent monitor OVD-Info said police had conducted searches and detained at least 53 people in 27 cities.

Navalny's team called for the demonstrations after the opposition figure's doctors said his health was failing following three weeks on hunger strike.

Navalny was detained when he returned to Russia in January after months recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning he blames on the Kremlin -- an accusation it rejects.

He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years on old fraud charges his supporters say were politically motivated and has been serving time in a penal colony about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow.

His team this weekend announced the protests to coincide with Putin's speech after his doctors said Navalny was suffering from a range of ailments in prison and could die at "any minute".

The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Russia over Navalny's poisoning, and on Monday threatened Moscow with further penalties in the event of his death.

During his speech last year, Putin set out a series of constitutional reforms that were eventually approved in a referendum and reset presidential terms so he could run twice more after the end of his current six-year term.

Five key points from Putin's state of the nation speech

President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday delivered his annual state of the nation address as Russia faces a crisis in ties with the West and protests in support of his imprisoned critic Alexei Navalny.

Here are the five key points of Putin's address:

'Red line' warning to West

"I hope that no one will think of crossing the red line in relation to Russia. And where it will be -- we will determine that ourselves."

Tensions between Moscow and the West have soared in recent weeks over jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's borders, and a series of spy scandals.

But US President Joe Biden has extended Putin an olive branch by offering to hold a summit between the two leaders in a neutral country. The Kremlin has said it is "good" Biden is seeking dialogue but is still considering the offer.

Ending the pandemic

"Vaccination is now of paramount importance... to allow herd immunity to develop in the fall... Our scientists have made a real breakthrough. Now Russia has three reliable vaccines against the coronavirus."

Russia was the first country to register a coronavirus vaccine, which it dubbed Sputnik V after the world's first artificial satellite, developed by the Soviet Union. It has since developed two more vaccines: EpiVacCorona and CoviVac.

But the country has been among the hardest hit by Covid-19, with its Rosstat statistics agency recording more than 224,000 virus-related deaths -- significantly higher than some 106,000 health officials had reported as of Wednesday.

Money talks ahead of polls

"The main thing is to ensure the growth of citizens' real incomes."

Putin in his speech promised a litany of measures to fill Russians' purses, setting as the government's priority this year improved incomes and greater support for families.

Economic improvements will be key for Putin going into parliamentary polls in September. While the president remains widely popular, his United Russia party is seen as corrupt, with an independent pollster recently predicting it will win only 21 percent of the vote.

Belarus integration?

"Everyone pretends that nothing is happening at all. What would have happened if the coup d'etat attempt had been actually undertaken? How many people would have suffered?"

Putin was complaining of Western silence in response to a claim by Belarusian strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko that his security services had thwarted an alleged US plot to assassinate him.

Both leaders of the "union states" are facing down protests against their rule, and both have long accused the West of working to destabilize their countries. The two will meet in Moscow on Thursday, with some analysts predicting they may announce further integration measures.

Fighting climate change

"We must respond to the challenges of climate change."

Putin has long said that climate change can be positive for Russia, one of the world's major producers of oil and gas.

With global warming melting ice cover in the Arctic, Moscow has made the region a strategic priority and is planning to use the Northern Sea Route for exporting hydrocarbons to Asia.

But climate change is also threatening massive financial costs to Russia, which has seen devastating forest fires rip across Siberia with increasing regularity, and the permafrost that covers two-thirds of the vast country melt at an increasingly faster rate.

Putin's face-offs with the world

Russia's President Vladimir Putin's state of the union address Wednesday came at a time when tensions with the West are at an all-time high, rocked by diplomatic expulsions and spy scandals. Here are some key flashpoints:

Navalny

Putin delivered his key annual speech just hours before country-wide demonstrations called by supporters of Alexei Navalny, who fear the life of Putin's best-known critic is in grave danger as he wages a hunger strike in jail.

The affair has also sparked international concern, with the European Union and the United States imposing sanctions on Russia over Navalny's poisoning, and on Monday threatening Moscow with further penalties in the event of his death.

Navalny had been detained after he returned to Russia in January following months recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin -- an accusation the leadership roundly rejects.

Ukraine troop build-up

Moscow is locked in a dispute with Washington and Europe over a spike in tensions in eastern Ukraine.

Following clashes between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed separatists in recent weeks, Russia has built up troops along its border with Ukraine, raising fears of a major escalation in the long-running conflict.

The military presence on the border with Ukraine -- where Kiev's forces have been battling pro-Russia separatists since 2014 -- has sparked widespread alarm and warnings from NATO.

On Monday the US State Department described the plan as an "unprovoked escalation in Moscow's ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine".

US relations

In March relations between Moscow and Washington sank to a new low after US President Joe Biden agreed with a description of the Russian president as a "killer," leading Putin to say, "it takes one to know one."

This month Washington hit Moscow with new sanctions and expelled 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what it says is interference by the Kremlin in US elections, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.

Moscow retaliated by blacklisting a number of current and former senior US government security officials.

Espionage scandals

Ties with the West have also been rocked by series of spy scandals and a number of European countries have accused Moscow of increasingly aggressive espionage tactics and expelled Russian diplomats.

Previous scandals such as the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a nerve agent in England sparked a wave of expulsions between London and its Western allies and Moscow.

Russia denied involvement but some 300 diplomats were sent home while the US imposed economic sanctions.

In March this year, Bulgaria expelled two Russian diplomats after six people were arrested in the country, including several defence ministry officials, on suspicion of spying for Russia. Russia later expelled two Bulgarians in a tit-for-tat move.

And in recent days Russia's tensions have soared with the Czech Republic as Prague expelled 18 Russian diplomats who were accused by local authorities of espionage.

Russia responded by announcing 20 employees of the Czech embassy in Moscow "persona non grata".

Bringing power back to Russia at all costs

Since coming to power more than 20 years ago, Vladimir Putin has been fixated on one idea: restoring Russia's status as a global superpower. Whatever the cost.

"Nobody really wanted to talk to us, nobody wanted to listen," he said in 2018, using his annual state of the nation address to unveil "invincible" new nuclear missiles.

"Listen to us now," Putin said, a few weeks before he secured his fourth term as president.

Making sure that Russia is not just listened to, but respected and even feared, has been at the heart of Putin's presidency since he came to power in 1999 as a relatively unknown ex-spy.

A loyal servant of the Soviet Union, Putin was dismayed when it fell apart, once calling the collapse of the USSR "the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century".

As the 68-year-old delivers his latest state of the nation address on Wednesday, Putin is leading a Russia that is closer to the Soviet Union than at any time since its collapse.

Tensions with the West are at an all-time high, rocked by a series of diplomatic expulsions and espionage scandals.

The domestic opposition has been largely quashed, with Putin's most outspoken critic Alexei Navalny behind bars.

And Putin's own future is secure, with a constitutional reform approved last year giving him the possibility to stay in power until 2036.

'A man on a mission'

"He sees himself as a man on a mission," political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP. "By staying in power he is keeping Russia from falling apart."

As a teenager in Saint Petersburg, Putin had dreamed of joining the KGB, but when he was posted to East Germany in the late 1980s, he saw first-hand how his country's power had waned.

In December 1989 -- a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- Putin was confronted by demonstrators at the Dresden headquarters of the KGB.

He called to the local offices of the Red Army for help, but was told that they could not intervene without orders from Moscow, and that Moscow was silent.

Back in Russia after the Soviet collapse, Putin would eventually rise to become head of the KGB's successor, the FSB, and Boris Yeltsin's appointed successor when he suddenly resigned in 1999.

At first Putin was seen as a potential friend of the West, with former US president George W. Bush even hailing him as a "remarkable leader".

Putin developed close friendships with several leaders, especially Germany's Gerhard Schroder and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

But the West soon grew disillusioned with Putin, and the feeling was mutual.

His crackdown on opposition and dissenting voices, the increasing concentration of power in the hands of security forces and growing state control over the economy all drew condemnation from the West.

A turning point came in 2011-2012, when Putin declared he was returning to the presidency after four years as prime minister and his security forces crushed a wave of anti-government demonstrations.

Relations with the West sank to new lows over the next few years, first over Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then its 2015 military intervention to prop up Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

The United States and European Union imposed sanctions that would prove deeply damaging to Russia's economy, stalling an oil-driven economic resurgence that had won Putin widespread support.

Two more terms

Putin sought friends elsewhere, cultivating relationships with European far-right politicians, as Russia's intelligence services stepped up their efforts to undermine Western democracies with disinformation campaigns.

At home, Putin's intolerance of dissent grew, with increasing arrests of activists and opposition figures, while state media ramped up its condemnation of the "Russophobic" West.

Since his re-election in 2018, Putin has grown more bold and confrontational.

He pushed ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic with a constitutional referendum last year that reset presidential term limits, allowing him to serve two more terms in office.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who emerged from the 2011-12 protests as Putin's most vocal opponent, was jailed earlier this year after he returned from months of treatment in Germany for a poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.

And in recent weeks Putin has defied Western warnings and ramped up tensions with Ukraine, sending thousands of troops to its borders.

Despite agreeing earlier this year to a description of Putin as a "killer", US President Joe Biden has now invited Putin to hold a summit in a third country.

With its echoes of Cold War-era meetings, the invitation was hailed in Moscow as a sign of respect, and Putin's restoration of Russia's status as a country that cannot be ignored.

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