Jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny called on Russians to overcome fear and free the country from "a bunch of thieves in power" as an aide promised major protests ahead of national parliamentary elections in September.
In his first major comments since a court this week ordered him to serve a prison sentence, Navalny said in a February 4 Instagram post that “iron doors slammed behind my back with a deafening sound, but I feel like a free man because I feel confident I'm right and thanks to support from you and my family."
U.S. President Joe Biden expressed his support for Navalny later in the day, calling the jailing of the Putin critic a “matter of deep concern to us and the international community” and demanding Russia release him “immediately and without condition.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was expected to deliver a similar strongly worded message during his visit to Russia from February 4-6.
The Kremlin continues to reject Western and domestic criticism over its jailing of Navalny and a crackdown on his supporters, calling it foreign interference in its internal affairs.
Navalny was sentenced on February 2 to almost three years in jail for violating the terms of parole while recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent poisoning in August that the Kremlin critic accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering.
The detention of the popular activist upon his return to Russia in mid-January sparked some of the largest anti-government protests in a decade as hundreds of thousands assembled in more than 100 cities around the country. Police detained some 10,000 people in total during the January 23 and January 31 protests.
More than 1,400 people were also detained when demonstrators took to the streets following the court's order to send Navalny to prison. Many of Navalny's aides have been detained, fined, or put under house arrest.
Leonid Volkov, a close aide to Navalny, called for fresh demonstrations later in the year rather than on the weekend of February 6-7 to give the opposition more time to prepare.
"We will properly organize them and definitely hold another big one in spring and summer," he said in a YouTube live stream.
Russia will hold key parliamentary elections on September 17. Navalny and his team are encouraging citizens to vote for politicians running against candidates from the pro-Putin United Russia party.
In his Instagram post, Navalny said his imprisonment was “Putin's personal revenge" for Navalny surviving and exposing the assassination attempt.
“But even more than that, it's a message from Putin and his friends to the entire country: ‘Did you see what we can do? We spit on laws and steamroll anyone who dares to challenge us. We are the law,'” he wrote.
Ahead of Borrell’s visit, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists on February 4 that Russia rejected outside interference in its internal affairs.
"We do not intend to pay any attention to such statements regarding the application of our laws to those who violate them, as well as regarding the rulings of our Russian court," Peskov said.
"We are ready to explain these issues further, but we are not ready to discuss them with anybody," he added, according to the Interfax news agency.
However, Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and a signee to the European Convention on Human Rights, obliging it to observe the rule of law. The Kremlin repeatedly abuses its obligation by interfering in politically sensitive court cases and arresting people on trumped-up charges.
Peskov also defended the police crackdown on demonstrators who have been demanding the release of Navalny.
"There are no repressions," he said. "There are measures which the police are taking regarding those who break the law."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 3 accused the West of “going overboard” in its reaction to the ruling.
Biden said the United States “will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia” for its malign activities and will coordinate with allies on actions.
Borrell, for his part, put Moscow on notice in a statement ahead of his visit, saying the European Union would discuss “implications and possible further action” at an upcoming meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
European officials previously said they would wait for the court decision to make any move, including further sanctions on top of those imposed following Navalny's poisoning.
Calls are growing for the EU to boost travel bans and asset freezes it slapped on six Russian officials and one entity in October over the poisoning of Navalny.
Relations between the EU and Russia deteriorated over Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. There are other concerns about its involvement in Belarus and conflicts in Syria, Libya, and other countries.