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Navalny was recently arrested upon his arrival in Russia from Germany.
Massive protests took place across Russia on Saturday in support of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was arrested last Sunday after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poisoning allegedly linked to the Kremlin five months earlier.
According to Reuters, about 40,000 people took part in the Moscow demonstrations, although police called that number incorrect, estimating the crowd at 4,000. Several thousands more participated in cities across the country, from Yakutsk in the northeast to St. Petersburg in the west, and about 3,000 demonstrators have been arrested in all.
People are now spreading around the city center, being pushed off Pushkinskaya, the main site of the rally. pic.twitter.com/I3dgZ4f4wV— Ivan Nechepurenko (@INechepurenko) January 23, 2021
Protesters were met by a strong police presence — and government officials had urged citizens to stay home, arguing that the rallies did not have proper authorization.
“Respected citizens, the current event is illegal,” police reportedly announced during the demonstration in Moscow. “We are doing everything to ensure your safety.”
Few protesters heeded these warnings, and the number of those arrested in protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and about 70 other towns and cities swelled to at least 3,000, according to reports from the human rights monitoring group OVD-Info. That includes about 1,100 people in Moscow alone, as of 11:30 pm Moscow time on Saturday.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was among those arrested at this weekend’s protests. Heads of his party’s regional offices have also been detained in advance of the protests, as well as members of Navalny’s team, including his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh.
Navalny’s arrest — and the detentions of his team — have galvanized a tremendous mass movement. The size of the Moscow protests is reminiscent of the summer of 2019, when at least 60,000 people demonstrated in that city to demand fair elections. (Navalny was arrested in advance of that movement, too.)
While many of the protesters were Navalny’s supporters, others said they came out more because they want to see a sweeping end to Putin’s authoritarian rule.
“I was never a big supporter of Navalny, and yet I understand perfectly well that this is a very serious situation,” Vitaliy Blazhevich — who, at 57, was one of the demonstration’s more senior participants — told the New York Times.
“Unless we keep coming out [to protest], the problem in this country will never go away,” Natalya Krainova, a former teacher, told the Guardian. “And that problem is Putin.”
Regardless of their motivation, in many places, protesters were met with swift and aggressive police force.
Video out of Moscow, for example, shows police dressed in riot gear beating protesters with batons. Dozens of protesters in that city were arrested outside of the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center, where Navalny is being held.
As night fell, police unleashed smoke grenades on downtown Moscow, and protesters responded with snowballs, according to reporter Alec Luhn.
"Fascists!" Snowballs vs batons in Moscow pic.twitter.com/RNp4AOg3eM— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) January 23, 2021
The demonstrations were also striking for their enormous geographic diversity. On Twitter, the Atlantic reporter Anne Applebaum collected scenes of large protests — composed largely of young people, many waving Russian flags — in the cities of Irkutsk, Novosirbirsk, Vladivostok, Tomsk, and Yakutsk.
Irkutsk has come out for Navalny. One of many such scenes across Russia today https://t.co/3OHzHJnDqf— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) January 23, 2021
Yakutsk is in the east of Siberia, while Vladivostok abuts the Sea of Japan. In a Siberian winter, these protesters were also braving brutally cold temperatures, with temperatures approaching -60°F in some places.
As clashes continues in Moscow, more ludicrous footage of the small pro-Navalny protest in Yakutsk earlier, where it was -48 pic.twitter.com/Ne4TvYl51g— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) January 23, 2021
That the protests were so widespread, and that they involved Russians of all ages, is indicative of Navalny’s appeal and ability to mobilize supporters — especially young people — according to the Washington Post.
In recent years, Putin has moved to crack down more aggressively on dissent, with new laws making it more difficult to organize protests. Russians who demonstrated Saturday face jail as well as other consequences.
Artyom, a college student who protested, told the Guardian he and his classmates had been threatened with serious academic consequences, which he said many believed meant expulsion, if they participated.
Putin seems likely to remain in power, despite the public opposition seen Saturday. A recent change to the Russian constitution would allow Putin to hold power for an additional 15 years.
Navalny is the leader of Russia’s opposition movement
In August, Navalny fell ill at a Siberian airport before boarding a flight to Moscow. His team, concerned he wasn’t receiving proper care in Russia, partnered with a humanitarian group that transported him to Germany for treatment. There, doctors traced the cause of his illness, which was found to be novichok, a deadly nerve agent that the Russian government has been known to use.
As Vox’s Alex Ward has written, Navalny always pledged he would return to Russia, even as he continued his criticism of Putin from Germany — including directly accusing the Kremlin of trying to kill him in YouTube videos viewed over 40 million times.
When Navalny arrived at the Berlin airport on January 17 for his return trip home, he said that he was not afraid, even though Russian officials had threatened to arrest him upon his return. Hundreds of supporters violated anti-protest laws to greet his plane at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Instead, the plane was diverted to the Sheremetyevo airport, whereupon Navalny was arrested at passport control.
The official charge he faces is failure to appear at a parole hearing, tied to a 2014 embezzlement case. Navalny has claimed those charges are politically motivated. Nevertheless, if the charges stick, he could face years in prison.
His newest arrest follows years of attempts by the Kremlin to stifle his opposition, and to dissuade Navalny from coming home, including by placing him on its federal wanted list, and claiming he avoided inspectors while abroad, as Ward has written:
This kind of thing isn’t new for Navalny. As mentioned, he’s been arrested before — and even poisoned before — so it’s possible he’ll eventually be released and go back to leading Russia’s anti-Putin movement. Sometimes the Kremlin just wants to remind Navalny who’s in charge, and slow down his work, in a manner that attempts to maintain the illusion of Russian democracy.
But it’s also possible Putin has had it, especially as he seeks to stay in power for life. Removing his top political nemesis would surely make such a ploy easier, though it may invite condemnation from other nations, including the United States newly led by President-elect Joe Biden.
Navalny has received support from US officials. Hours after Navalny’s detainment, incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted a statement condemning the Putin critic’s detainment. “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” he wrote.
And Rebecca Ross, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Moscow, tweeted on Saturday that “The U.S. supports the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression. Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights.”
We're watching reports of protests in 38 Russian cities, arrests of 350+ peaceful protesters and journalists. The U.S. supports the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression. Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights.— Rebecca Ross (@USEmbRuPress) January 23, 2021
It is unclear how effective a US response will be, however. Relations between Washington and Moscow — already cool — have deteriorated further since a hack of American federal agencies was linked to Russia in late 2020. Moreover, operations have shuttered at the last two remaining US consulates — one in Vladivostok and one in Yekaterinburg — leaving the US embassy in Moscow as the only US outpost in the entire country.
Biden’s team members have already signaled they intend to continue several of Trump’s policies from Venezuela to Ukraine to Israel and even China.
President Joe Biden promised a clean break from the Trump years on US foreign policy. But according to recent statements from Biden’s incoming secretary of state and other top officials, there will likely be more continuity than change, at least for a while.
It’s only three days into the new administration, but Biden’s team members have already signaled they intend to continue several of the policies President Donald Trump pursued during his presidency, from Venezuela to Ukraine to Israel and even China.
Many of these details about Biden’s foreign policy plans emerged during Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, one day before Biden was sworn in as president.
Blinken said the US would continue to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, a decision the Trump administration made in January 2019 as part of its effort to depose the country’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro. Blinken added that the new team would also continue to sanction Maduro and his government, only “more effectively.”
Blinken also said the Biden administration will continue training and sending lethal weapons to Ukraine’s military as it tries to fend off Russian forces in the country’s east. Trump approved the sale of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in 2017, a move the Obama administration had refused to make and that some feared would escalate the seven-year conflict.
The incoming top diplomat said Biden will oppose the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia. The Trump administration sanctioned Russia over the plan in 2019, claiming the $11 billion oil-delivery system would make the heart of Europe more dependent on Moscow. Biden, who officials say isn’t planning any kind of “reset” of relations with Russia anytime soon, seems to agree.
Biden’s pipeline opposition could set up a conflict with Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has already said she wants to discuss the issue with the new American president. “My basic attitude has not changed yet to the point where I say that the project should not exist,” she said during a Thursday press conference, noting how critically many in the US and in Europe view Nord Stream 2.
Blinken told lawmakers that he and the Biden administration consider Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and committed to keeping the US embassy there. Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the embassy there from its previous location in Tel Aviv in 2018, a move that upended decades of US diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that some worried would spark widespread violence in the region. That violence didn’t materialize, and now it seems the status quo is just that — the status quo.
Blinken also commended Trump for being “right in taking a tougher approach to China” and said the Trump administration’s decision to label Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang a “genocide” was correct. The Biden aide was clear that the new team’s tactics toward China would differ from the Trump team’s, but the general thrust of US policy toward the country — confrontation — would stay the same.
Finally, Biden promised on the campaign trail to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal as long as Tehran came back into compliance by reducing its uranium enrichment levels. But Blinken, along with Biden’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and White House press secretary Jen Psaki, have made it clear in recent days that any return to the accord could take a while, and may not even happen at all.
“I think, frankly, we’re a long ways from that,” Haines said during her own Tuesday confirmation hearing.
This isn’t the foreign policy sea change many expected, considering how often Biden blasted Trump’s handling of foreign affairs during the campaign. But some critics, including progressives, aren’t surprised.
“Joe Biden never promised to be a revolutionary or to enact radical change, so what we’ve seen so far both in terms of personnel and policy shouldn’t exactly be surprising,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of the advocacy group Win Without War. “Given how broken our current foreign policy is, any transition is thus going to start far from where progressives want to be.”
Is Biden’s foreign policy Trump 2.0? Not exactly.
None of this is to say Biden plans to run America’s foreign policy the same way Trump did.
Biden has been in the White House for less than a week, and it’s common for new presidents to continue many of their predecessors’ foreign policies even if they may not completely agree with them because they can’t find a way to reverse them quickly or easily. Presidents Obama and Trump both wanted out of the Afghanistan War, for example, but neither ended it despite 12 combined years of trying.
Plus, Trump did some good things on the world stage, so Biden wouldn’t want to scrap every one of his moves.
“Biden is right to also maintain continuity on some foreign policy issues,” said American University’s Jordan Tama, an expert on US foreign policy. “Not every foreign policy action by the Trump administration was wrong, and rash moves to reverse every Trump decision would generate a kind of whiplash that makes the US look like an unreliable partner.”
But it’s exceedingly clear that Biden’s time in office won’t mirror Trump’s. There will clearly be major differences, and we’ve already seen some.
Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization after Trump withdrew the US from them. He repealed the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and vowed America would participate in Covax, the global initiative to develop and equitably distribute vaccine doses worldwide. More than 170 countries are members of the initiative, though the Trump administration had declined to join — an outlier, along with Russia.
“These early foreign policy steps demonstrate a commitment to international cooperation, equity, and basic rights — as well as a willingness to stand up to adversaries — that was sorely lacking in Trump’s foreign policy,” Tama told me.
And perhaps the biggest change so far is Blinken’s confirmation that Biden will quickly end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. “This is one of the highest human rights and progressive priorities,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a leading proponent for a more left-wing foreign policy, told me.
Those are significant breaks, and it’s clear US foreign policy will shift quite a bit during Biden’s four years in charge. But those hoping that Biden would completely leave Trump’s legacy behind right away may be disappointed by some of the administration’s early signals.