Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Western powers Sunday of using jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny to try to “contain” Russia, saying Russia’s recent “numerous successes,” including the development of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, were “starting to irritate” Moscow's opponents.
His remarks came amid word that a series of videos of pro-Putin flash mobs, broadcast by state-controlled media and posted online, were staged, as people featured said they were tricked into participating.
Others told local reporters they were given little option by factory bosses but to cooperate.
Independent media outlets in Russia reported the Kremlin and the governing United Russia party issued instructions for the videos to be recorded. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the claim, saying the Kremlin had nothing to do with the videos.
One pro-Putin video was shot at a chemical factory in the Siberian town of Barnaul, which saw a large pro-Navalny rally last month. The chemical workers are seen on the factory floor singing patriotic songs and chanting, “Russia, Russia, there’s so much strength and power in this word!”
Another was shot in Moscow at the Kutafin Moscow State Law University. Students featured in the video said they had been invited along to praise the development of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, but on arrival were instructed to chant pro-Putin slogans.
In a lengthy interview on state channel Rossiya 24, Putin acknowledged that living standards in Russia had fallen, as in other parts of the world, because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was normal for people to be frustrated, he said, but that Russia’s enemies have been stirring up protests in support of Navalny, the Kremlin critic who survived a near-fatal poisoning and was arrested last month in Moscow on his return following life-saving treatment in Germany.
Putin said it was only normal for people to blame authorities for the problems they encounter during a crisis, but that Moscow’s opponents were trying to weaponize “exhaustion, frustration and dissatisfaction,” and seeking to exploit it. “That’s what they did! Of course, they would. That’s what they had counted on,” Putin added. “The stronger we become, the stronger this containment policy,” he said in the interview recorded Wednesday but broadcast Sunday.
Putin’s comments echo the broad thrust of the Kremlin media campaign since Navalny returned to Russia after recuperating from a poisoning he blames on Russian authorities. The Kremlin denies involvement. The 44-year-old blogger-turned-campaigner was jailed for nearly three years, sparking nationwide protests that saw more than 10,000 people detained and led to international condemnation by Europe and the United States for a paramilitary-style crackdown on protesters.
The Kremlin and state-controlled media have been relentless in portraying Navalny and his supporters as agents of Western powers, say analysts, exploiting similar media management techniques used before in Ukraine by Kremlin-sponsored outlets in a bid to discredit protesters agitating for the ouster of Putin ally President Viktor Yanukovych.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN that the Kremlin was making a mistake trying to blame the current political turmoil in Russia on outside powers. “Russians are looking for ways to make sure that their voice is heard. And the system as it’s currently constituted doesn’t — it doesn’t exactly favor that,” he said.
Blinken added, “This is fundamentally about Russia, the Russian people, their future. It’s not about us. And I think the Russian government would make a mistake in attributing to outside actors — whether it’s the United States, European partners, and others – responsibility for what’s happening. This is fundamentally about Russia, about Russia’s future, and hopefully about a more democratic system going forward.”
Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, last month compared the Navalny protests to the popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine of 2013-2014, which he and other Kremlin officials also accused Western countries of fomenting.
He told the state-owned weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakti the West needs Navalny, “to destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheavals, strikes and new Maidans.” “What this can lead to we see in the example of Ukraine, which in essence, has lost its independence,” he added.
Likewise, in Ukraine, Russian media also broadcast videos of organized “spontaneous” rallies in support of Yanukovych, notably in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Russian political activists say the broadcasting and online posting of staged pro-Putin videos appear to be a preemptive tactic designed to compete with the neighborhood, courtyard anti-Kremlin gatherings Navalny’s allies have urged supporters to start mounting from Sunday.
Navalny’s team last week said it was shifting its agitation strategy from holding mass rallies to encouraging neighborhood flash mobs from this Sunday. Mass rallies, they said, risked more police detentions and would give the security services an easy target to hit.
Pro-democracy activists have also been using neighborhood flash mobs in recent weeks in neighboring Belarus, where protesters have been mounting rallies against President Alexander Lukashenko following elections last August that were widely seen as rigged.
Navalny’s key aides have urged supporters to shine torches and light candles in heart shapes during the courtyard gatherings. Navalny made multiple heart gestures to his wife Yulia in the courtroom when he was sentenced on February 2.
“The Kremlin is awfully scared of the flashlight action,” Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, said in a YouTube video Friday. He suggested the lightheartedness of flash mobs could help attract new supporters and the authorities would find it hard to suppress them. Some Navalny supporters were at first skeptical of the change in tactics, but the sharp Kremlin response has started to dispel doubts about the change.
State media outlets have focused a considerable amount of coverage the past three days on the planned flashlights-in-courtyards protests. They have accused Volkov and other Navalny allies of acting on instructions from Western handlers. The influential political talk show “60 Minutes” devoted half of a show to arguing flashlight flash mobs are straight out the West’s handbook on revolutions, airing footage showing Maidan protesters also waving flashlights during their agitation.
On Thursday, the prosecutor general’s office and Russia’s Interior Ministry issued warnings against “unauthorized public events…planned for the nearest time.”
Amid signs that the European Union is hardening its stance towards Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Friday warned the Kremlin was prepared to break off relations with the EU if sanctions were imposed.