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Putin warns West not to cross Russia's "red line" amid standoff over Ukraine and Alexey Navalny

Russia sends message via military buildup
Report: Analysts say Russian military buildup likely intended as a warning to the West 04:32

Moscow — President Vladimir Putin warned the West not to cross "a red line with Russia" on Wednesday as he gave his annual state of the nation address. It was one of Putin's few references to the standoff between Russia and the West over the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine, and his government's treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

As he spoke, people were being detained across the country as mass protests called by Navalny's allies slowly ramped up.

Russia ordered 10 U.S. Embassy staffers in Moscow to pack their bags to leave the country, meanwhile, as relations between Putin's government and the U.S. and Europe continued to sour. The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the senior U.S. embassy official on Wednesday and handed him a note saying the 10 employees "were ordered to leave the territory of our country by the end of the day on May 21." The expulsions were announced a day after the American ambassador in Russia said he was returning to Washington for "consultations," days after the Kremlin suggested he do so.

Navalny, the Putin's highest-profile domestic critic, remained hospitalized on Wednesday after more than two weeks on hunger strike appeared to have taken a toll on his health. 

Kremlin critic Navalny transferred to prison hospital with serious illness 02:58

The Russian government's Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, said Navalny was visited by four doctors on Tuesday who were not part of the state prison system, according to state-run news agency RIA Novosti. She said the doctors reported no serious concerns regarding his health.

Navalny began his hunger strike weeks ago to demand that his own independent doctors be given access to treat him for numbness in his limbs and back pain. His physician said on Saturday that test results provided by the prison health service showed Navalny's potassium levels were "catastrophically high," which, the doctor said, indicated a real and possibly imminent danger of kidney failure and possible cardiac arrest.

Protesters and Navalny allies detained

Ahead of Putin's speech, some of Navalny's closest allies were detained and taken to police stations, ostensibly over their roles in organizing the unsanctioned mass demonstrations that took place later on Wednesday.

Police said that at least 6,000 people protested in Moscow, while hundreds of people were detained across the country for participating in the demonstrations, according to the Reuters news agency. Authorities had warned for days that the rallies were illegal and that participants would face arrest.

Rally in support of Alexei Navalny in Omsk
Law enforcement officers stand guard during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny in Omsk, Russia, April 21, 2021. ALEXEY MALGAVKO/REUTERS

The United States has warned Moscow of unspecified "consequences" if Navalny should die in custody. He was sentenced earlier this year to two and a half years in prison for violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence.

Navalny was arrested in January soon after his return to Moscow from Berlin, where he spent five months recovering from severe poisoning with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.

His arrest led to a series of nationwide anti-Putin protests in January, with thousands of people being arrested.  

"The so-called red line"  

Addressing his country on Wednesday, Putin said Russia wanted good relations with all countries, but complained that some counties keep picking on Russia. 

"We do not want to burn bridges, but Russia's response to provocations will be asymmetrical, rapid and harsh," he said. "But I hope that no one will think of crossing the so-called red line in relations with Russia. And where it will lie, we will determine ourselves in each specific case."

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows tanks and other military equipment at the Russian military's Pogorovo training area, near Voronezh, Russia on April 10, 2021. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

The president made no reference to what European officials say is a military buildup amounting to about 100,000 Russian troops gathered around Crimea and Ukraine's eastern border, and he also made virtually no mention of the opposition movement that has geared up following Navalny's arrest earlier this year.

He did say that Russia already had its latest weapons systems on alert, and planned to have even more advanced missiles and aircraft in the near future. By 2024, the share of modern weapons and equipment in Russia's armed forces would reach almost 76%, including hypersonic systems, according to the president. 

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