Police in Russia arrested nearly 1,400 people at anti-war protests staged in cities across the country after President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine, an independent monitor said.
“More than 1,391 people have already been detained in 51 cities,” said OVD-Info on Thursday, which tracks arrests at opposition rallies.
More than 700 people were arrested in Moscow and about 340 people in the second largest city Saint Petersburg, the monitor said.
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The invasion of Ukraine is taking place during an unprecedented crackdown on the Russian opposition, with most protest leaders assassinated, jailed or forced out of the country.
Jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who used to mobilise Russia’s largest protests against Putin, is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a penal colony outside Moscow.
A number of Russian activists called on social media for people to take to the streets after Putin launched the offensive on Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday.
One petition, started by a prominent human rights advocate, Lev Ponomavyov, garnered over 150,000 signatures within several hours and 289,000 by the end of the day.
More than 250 journalists put their names on an open letter decrying the aggression. Another one was signed by some 250 scientists, while by 194 municipal council members in Moscow and other cities signed a third.
In Moscow, protesters were seen massing around Pushkin Square chanting “No to war!”
“I am in shock. My relatives and loved ones live in Ukraine,” Anastasia Nestulya, 23, said in Moscow.
“What can I tell them over the phone? You hang in there?”
She said many were afraid to protest.
In Saint Petersburg, many struck a similar note.
“I have a feeling that the authorities have gone mad,” said Svetlana Volkova, 27. She also said few people were willing to protest in Russia.
“People have been fooled by propaganda.”
As he was dragged away by three police officers, a young man shouted: “Who are you fighting with? Arrest Putin.”
‘Divert their attention’
In recent years Russia has toughened protest laws, and demonstrations often end in mass arrests.
Earlier Thursday, Navalny said he was against the invasion of Ukraine.
“I am against this war,” Navalny was heard saying in a video published by the independent television channel Dozhd.
“This war between Russia and Ukraine was unleashed to cover up the theft from Russian citizens and divert their attention from problems that exist inside the country,” the 45-year-old said.
Earlier Thursday, Russian authorities warned anti-war sympathisers against gathering for protests.
The Investigative Committee, a government body that investigates major crimes, warned Russians of legal repercussions for joining unsanctioned protests related to “the tense foreign political situation”.
“One should be aware of the negative legal consequences of these actions in the form of prosecution up to criminal liability,” the committee said.
Several Russian celebrities and public figures, including some working for state TV, spoke out against the attack. Yelena Kovalskaya, director of a state-funded Moscow theater, announced on Facebook she was quitting her job, saying “it’s impossible to work for a killer and get paid by him”.
“I know that right now many of you feel desperation, helplessness, shame over Vladimir Putin’s attack on the friendly nation of Ukraine. But I urge you not to despair,” human rights activist Marina Litvinovich said in a video statement on Facebook, calling for mass protests.
“We, the Russian people, are against the war Putin has unleashed. We don’t support this war, it is being waged not on our behalf,” Litvinovich said.