Russia has accused Western countries of encouraging rallies in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Tens of thousands defied a heavy police presence to join the rallies on Saturday. More than 3,500 were detained, monitors say. But President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman the next day dismissed the turnout as insignificant.
“Now many will say that many people came out for the illegal actions. No, few people came out; many people vote for Putin,” he said.
There are calls for the EU to step up sanctions on Russia amid US accusations of “harsh tactics” against protesters. In Moscow, riot police were seen beating and dragging away demonstrators.
Mr Navalny, President Putin’s most high-profile critic, called for protests after his arrest last Sunday. Demonstrations were held in about 100 cities and towns from Russia’s Far East and Siberia to Moscow and St Petersburg.
Observers say the scale of the demonstrations across the country was unprecedented, as they braved freezing conditions to turn out in support of Navalny. The protest in the capital was adjudged the largest in almost a decade.
They appeared to enjoy widespread passive support, with trolley bus passengers waving to the crowds and large numbers of car drivers honking their horns.
As pressure mounted on Sunday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov has criticised a message from the US embassy in Moscow warning people to avoid the demonstrations, branding the warning an “interference in our domestic affairs”.
During the protests, embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross said on Twitter that “the US supports the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression. Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights.” The embassy also tweeted a State Department statement calling for Navalny’s release.
Peskov says the US Embassy’s statements about the nationwide protests, in which more than 3,500 people reportedly were arrested, interfere in the country’s domestic affairs and encourage Russians to break the law.
Before now, the new Biden administration had previously called on the Russian authorities to release those detained, and condemned what it called “harsh tactics” used by the police against protesters
.Meanwhile, the Russian embassy in the UK also accused Western nations of using their embassies to encourage the protests.
The 44-year-old Navalny, Putin’s most prominent and persistent foe, was arrested Jan. 17 when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from severe nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin and that Russian authorities deny.
Authorities said his five-month stay in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence that was imposed in a 2014 fraud and money-laundering conviction, which he says is fraudulent and politically motivated.
He is to appear in court on Feb. 2 for a hearing on whether the suspended sentence will be converted to 3 1/2 years in prison.