Russian President Vladimir Putin used his 17th annual state-of-the-nation address to a joint session of the Russian parliament to issue threats against what he called foreign provocations, vowing amid several widening rifts with the West that Moscow would respond in a harsh and swift way.
Putin spoke on April 21 just hours before supporters of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny gather for mass protests to demand the anti-corruption campaigner be given independent medical care, as well as amid preparations for legislative elections to be held before September 19 and the continued economic and social fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic.
The nationally televised address came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and the United States and the European Union, a simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, and unrest in neighboring Belarus following a disputed presidential election last August.
In his speech, Putin said that Moscow strived to have good relations with other countries, but warned no foreign state should cross Russia's "red lines" which he said "we ourselves will determine where that is."
"Anyone who stages any provocations that threaten our safety will regret it in a way they've never regretted anything before," Putin said.
"In some countries, they have started an obscene custom of blaming Russia for anything," Putin continued, likening the moves to "a new kind of sport."
Last week, Washington tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations of computer hacking and election interference, and the Czech Republic accused Moscow of a role in explosions at an arms depot in 2014. Both expelled Russian diplomats. Russia denied any wrongdoing and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.
At the start of his address, Putin focused on health and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Russia hard. Putin said that Russians should attain collective immunity from COVID-19 by this autumn and urged all citizens to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
More than 106,000 people have died as a result of the virus, according to data from the government's coronavirus task force. The federal statistics agency has kept a separate count and has reported a much higher toll of more than 225,000 from April 2020 to February 2021.
As Putin was speaking, police had reportedly detained several people, including two key Navalny allies, ahead of the planned protests.
Lyubov Sobol, one of the faces of Navalny's popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, were both detained in Moscow on April 21, according to their lawyers.
In his speech, Putin made no mention of Navalny -- not a surprise as he has steadfastly refused to use his critic's name -- who is 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.
Navalny also blames Putin for trying to assassinate him last August by giving the order to poison him with a Soviet-style chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. Navalny barely survived the attack after he was medically evacuated to Germany for treatment. The Kremlin has denied any role in the incident.
Police raided several regional offices of Navalny’s organizations in anticipation of the protests scheduled for the evening of April 21. Navalny has been on a hunger strike for more than three weeks, demanding that he be seen by his own doctors. Prison authorities transferred him on April 19 to a prison with a hospital, despite saying that his health was “satisfactory.”
On the eve of the speech, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan announced he would return to the United States for consultations, just days after Washington imposed a fresh batch of sanctions on Russia for its alleged cyberattacks on the United States and interference in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
Russia has also ramped up its military capabilities along its border with Ukraine and in and around the annexed Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea. Since 2014, Russia has provided military, economic, and political support to separatist formations in parts of eastern Ukraine that are waging war against Kyiv. Tensions have been on the rise in recent weeks, with sporadic fighting breaking out and the peace process remaining stalled.
Part of Putin's speech was devoted to new social spending as he looked to shore up historically low support for the ruling United Russia party as preparations begin for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in September.
In recent weeks, the authorities have cracked down on dissent in what many analysts see as a bid strictly to control the election process and outcome.
He also vowed that Russia, one of the world's major producers of oil and gas, would do its part to fight climate change, setting a target for the country's emissions to be "less than in the European Union".
In addition to members of both chambers of parliament, the audience for the speech included the prime minister, the cabinet, senior judges, military and security officials, senior leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and other major religious groups, and other guests.
Putin, a 68-year-old former KGB officer, has led Russia as president or prime minister since 1999.