Russia Fires Back After Antony Blinken Condemns Treatment of Pro-Navalny Protesters

Russia's Foreign Ministry has responded to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's supportive statement on this weekend's pro-Navalny protests by calling it "more evidence of Washington's backstage role."

On Sunday, Blinken criticised Russia's "harsh tactics" in dealing with protesters demanding the release of Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

"The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight," he tweeted. "We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksey Navalny."

The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight. We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksey Navalny.

— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 31, 2021

Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by criticising the U.S.' "gross intervention" in Russian affairs.

"Gross intervention by #US in #Russia's affairs is as evident as their "pushing" fake news & calls for unauthorised actions by US-controlled internet platforms," the tweet read. "@SecBlinken's support for unlawful actions is yet more evidence of Washington's backstage role."

Several thousand people turned out to protest in cities across Russia on Sunday in what was the second weekend of demonstrations calling for Navalny's release after he was arrested on his return to Moscow, following treatment for poisoning in Germany. He claims Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to take his life, though the Kremlin strongly denies such allegations.

Gross intervention by #US in #Russia’s affairs is as evident as their “pushing” fake news & calls for unauthorised actions by US-controlled internet platforms. @SecBlinken's support for unlawful actions is yet more evidence of Washington’s backstage role. https://t.co/SWBeo0t6Cb https://t.co/mr1wyhb3ks

— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) January 31, 2021

Police in Moscow estimate 2,000 people were present at protests in the capital, however international reporters place the number as higher than that.

Definitive figures are hard to arrive at, however more than 5,100 people were detained across the country over the weekend for their part in the riots, including 1,608 in Moscow alone, according to OVD-Info, a protest monitoring group.

Commentators say Secretary Blinken's statement reflects a shift in tone to a more proactive approach to dealing with Russia, after four years of a "hands-off" approach under President Trump.

In a Facebook post, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said the U.S. State Department's moves to "encourage" protests were evidence it had adopted a "Russia containment strategy," pointing to a report released by U.S. think tank RAND Corporation in 2019.

The post read: "Obviously, actions aimed at encouraging protests are part of their Russia containment strategy.

"The State Department has apparently embraced the RAND Corporation's 'programme,' which the latter proposed in 2019," it went on to say, linking to a report entitled "Overextending and Unbalancing Russia."

"Regrettably, they skipped over the warning about 'the high costs and risks' of pursuing such a programme. We demand that all interventions in the domestic affairs of foreign states be stopped and remind others of their responsibilities," it said.

The post links to a statement from a Russian government agency, named the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, which reminds social media administrators that it is their legal duty to block access to "false information."

The statement makes particular mention of "inflated figures on the number of participants in illegal rallies, on alleged acts of violence and clashes, and the death of protesters."

The MFA's Facebook post echoes the point, condemning the protests as "unauthorised" and accusing the U.S. of "hypocrisy."

"The 'rallies' that you as professional diplomats so unseemly care about are not 'scheduled,' but are unauthorised," it read. "Everyone knows what happens in the US in such cases – they open fire and shoot to kill. Double standards and hypocrisy, is this your motto?"

U.S. security agencies and NATO have repeatedly raised concerns about the Kremlin's use of disinformation as a means to mask abuses of power within Russia and in its attempts to distort democratic processes abroad.

Moscow pro-Navalny anti-Kremlin Protesters at Protests
Participants of an unauthorized protest rally against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on January 23, 2021 in Moscow, Russia. The Kremlin hit out at Secretary of State Anthony Blinken for criticizing Russia's handling of the protests. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty