Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman says the Kremlin does not consider opposition leader Aleksei Navalny a threat.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke to reporters on January 29, a day after thousands of people demonstrated in cities nationwide in support of Navalny's call for a boycott of the March 18 election that appears certain to extend Putin's rule.
A respected independent monitor said police detained at least 350 people including Navalny, who has been barred from challenging Putin in the election due to a financial-crimes conviction that he and his supporters contend was Kremlin-engineered retribution for his opposition activity.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on January 29 criticized the detentions, saying of Putin that "confident political leaders do not fear competing voices."
Navalny, who has irked the Kremlin with investigative reports alleging corruption among Putin's closest allies, came in second in a 2013 Moscow mayoral election.
He and his backers say he is being left off the ballot because Putin fears is performance would expose popular opposition to Putin, dent his mandate in what could be his final presidential term, and undermine his legacy.
WATCH: Thousands of protesters gathered at Moscow's central Pushkin Square on January 28 to call for the boycott of Russia's upcoming presidential election.
Asked whether the Kremlin viewed Navalny as a political threat, Peskov said: "No."
"Vladimir Putin's popularity level reaches far beyond Russia's borders," he said.
"I don't think anybody can doubt that Putin is the absolute leader of public opinion, the absolute leader of the political Olympus...with whom it is unlikely that anyone can seriously compete with at this stage," Peskov added.
With the Kremlin controlling the levers of political power nationwide after years of steps to suppress dissent and marginalize political opponents, Putin is virtually assured of victory in the election.
Because the constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms, the election campaign has set off speculation about Russia's political future beyond 2024.
Navalny has accused the rest of the field of presidential hopefuls of playing into Putin's hands and aiding a Kremlin bid to portray what he calls a farce as a legitimate, competitive contest.
The protests in dozens of cities on January 28 were held in support of Navalny's call for a "voters' strike" -- a boycott of an election he has dismissed as Putin's "reappointment."
"You can't call choosing between one candidate an election," said Nastya, a 25-year-old woman at the Moscow rally.
Police warned earlier in the week that in the run-up to the election, they will be tough on demonstrators deemed to have broken the law.
Navanly, who was denied permission to hold a rally in central Moscow but called on people to come out anyway, was grabbed by police and bundled into a bus shortly after joining more than 1,000 people on Tverskaya Street.
"I've been detained. That doesn't matter. Come to Tverskaya. You're not coming out for me, but for yourself and your future," Navalny, whose arrest was captured live on video, wrote on Twitter from a police van.
Hours later, Navalny tweeted that he had been released by police and driven to a subway station but would face a hearing on unspecified charges.
"A huge thanks to everyone who supported [me] and stood outside the police station. I heard your chants," Navalny tweeted. "You're awesome."
OVD-Info, a website that monitors law enforcement activity in Russia, said that 350 people were detained nationwide, including 66 in Ufa, 65 in Volgograd, 51 in Cheboksary, 31 in Kemerovo, 23 in Murmansk, 19 in St. Petersburg, and 16 in Moscow.
The Russian Interior Ministry said on January 29 that 266 people were detained in 16 cities amid the previous day's protests, and that all had been released. It said that police had issued a total of 175 noncriminal citations in connection with the demonstrations.
Several Navalny supporters -- including members of his campaign team -- were handed jail sentences ranging from 10 to 30 days on January 29 after being found guilty of repeatedly violating rules on public demonstrations or resisting police.
Most of those detained during the January 28 protests were released within hours.
"If we stay at home then nothing will change for sure. If we take to the streets, then at least we have some kind of chance," said Nastya, who would not give her last name for fear of repercussions.
With reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow, RFE/RL's Russian Service, AFP, Reuters, Mediazona, Ekho Mosvky, TASS, and Novaya Gazeta