As a rift between Russia and the West widens, President Vladimir Putin has used his annual state-of-the-nation speech to warn that Moscow is prepared to respond harshly to any foreign provocations.
Addressing top officials and legislators from both houses of the Russian parliament in the capital, Putin said his government strived to have good relations with other countries and hoped no foreign state would cross the Kremlin’s “red lines”.
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“We want good relations … and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Putin said.
“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”
His comments came as Russia-West relations plunge to post-Cold War lows, with fractures over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny and a continuing standoff over the simmering conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
Moscow has come under intense criticism from Western powers, including the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union, since the beginning of the year over its handling of Navalny’s case.
In recent weeks, relations soured further over concerns in Kyiv and allied capitals over Moscow’s role in an uptick in hostilities in the conflict-stricken Donbas region.
Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over increasing clashes in the area, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed separatist forces since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
Ukraine, its Western allies and NATO have accused Russia of engineering a “provocative” buildup of tens of thousands of troops along its shared border in the region as well as in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
The Kremlin has denied playing any role in the conflict in Donbas and has described its troop movements along its western border with Ukraine and in Crimea as defensive, adding the military units will remain in position as long as Moscow sees fit.
Though Putin briefly touched upon foreign affairs in his speech, he mainly focused his 78-minute address on domestic issues including Russia’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, proposed economic initiatives, and possible environmental reforms.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow, said Putin had set out a “very ambitious target” to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19 in Russia by the end of autumn.
“Even though Russia has a very reliable vaccine and well-regarded vaccine, there is a high degree of vaccine scepticism here,” Smith said, referring to the country’s Sputnik V shot.
Russia has vaccinated more than eight million citizens out of about 144 million, a senior official said last week.
It is not clear how many have received both shots of the two-dose Sputnik V vaccine.
The Kremlin has acknowledged that the demand to get vaccinated in Russia is disappointing.
Putin, who himself received a second dose last week, urged more Russians to follow suit.
“Everyone must have the opportunity to be vaccinated, as this will allow for so-called collective immunity to be developed in the autumn,” he said.
“A solution to this problem lies in our and your hands, in the hands of all citizens. I once again address all Russian citizens with the call: get vaccinated.”
In addition to Sputnik V, Moscow has also given approval to two other COVID-19 vaccines for public use – EpiVacCorona and CoviVac.
No mention of Navalny
Putin, however, made no mention of Navalny despite his speech coming before planned protests across Russia by supporters of the jailed opposition politician.
Allies of the 44-year-old, who is three weeks into a hunger strike, had called for mass demonstrations on Wednesday against his imprisonment and treatment by prison authorities.
The Kremlin has denounced the rallies as illegal, setting the stage for a confrontation between police and demonstrators and raising the possibility of another bout of extensive arrests.
Nationwide pro-Navalny protests earlier this year resulted in thousands being detained.
In an apparent bid to crack down on the planned demonstrations, police on Wednesday arrested two of the Kremlin critic’s closest allies.
Lyubov Sobol, one of the faces of Navalny’s popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, were detained in Moscow, their lawyers said.
Police also detained eight people in Russia’s far eastern city of Magadan on Wednesday, the Open Russia opposition group said on social media.
“As usual, they think that if they isolate the ‘leaders’, there won’t be any protest,” said Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny associate. “Of course that’s wrong.”
Another Navalny aide, Ruslan Shaveddinov, tweeted: “Right now across the whole of Russia they are detaining potential protesters. This is repression. This cannot be accepted. We need to fight this darkness.”
Navalny himself is reportedly gravely ill in prison following his decision to launch a hunger strike in protest against what he calls inadequate medical treatment for leg and back pain.