Kremlin confident it can ride out protests, ready to use more force: sources

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin believes it can easily ride out nationwide protests over the arrest and jailing of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and is ready to authorise the use of more force against demonstrators if necessary, two sources close to it said.

A still image taken from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is accused of flouting the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement, making a hand heart gesture during the announcement of a court verdict in Moscow, Russia February 2, 2021. Press Service of Simonovsky District Court/Handout via REUTERS

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic critic, was jailed for nearly three years on Tuesday in a case that has prompted three nationwide protests, strident Western condemnation and talk of sanctions on Moscow.

Thousands have been detained, some of Navalny’s key allies are under house arrest or outside Russia, and police have resorted to increasingly harsh tactics, clubbing protesters, and, in some cases, lashing out at journalists.

“This is just a warm-up,” the first source said of the police response.

“The real adventures definitely come later. A scenario where we see an increasingly forceful reaction across the country is completely realistic.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that the police had used tough but legal counter measures in response to what he called numerous attacks on them by protesters taking part in illegal demonstrations.

He said that the authorities were looking into individual allegations of brutality by police.

Both sources, who are familiar with the thinking in the Kremlin on the subject, pointed to neighbouring Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko, with Moscow’s support, has successfully withstood months of protests.

They also cited Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has survived serious unrest. The Kremlin, said the two sources, had concluded it was in a stronger position than either of those two, and had nothing to fear.

“The scenario tested in Belarus proved effective. They (the Kremlin) will definitely not get down on their knees. Lukashenko held out. Maduro is fine. And what we have on our streets is a far cry from what they had,” said the first source.

The second source said the socio-economic situation in Russia, which has deteriorated due to the pandemic, was nowhere nearly as bad that of Venezuela and that Russia was dominated by a conservative majority who did not want change, meaning the opposition would struggle.

“The Kremlin is hardly afraid,” said the second source.

“Belarus has shown that repressive regimes have great capabilities. Venezuela shows this, and the people there are genuinely hungry - there are no salaries, terrible unemployment, and crime. There is none of this in Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin has huge resources.”

Some Western analysts believe the Kremlin’s confidence masks jitters.

“The more the Kremlin projects confidence that it can ride out any protests, the more worried it probably is: just as with the massive deployment of force on the streets, it’s all about trying to convince people that resistance is futile,” said Professor Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Others, such as Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based independent political analyst, think the Kremlin is right to be confident. He said the protests posed no threat to it in the absence of a counter-elite or viable political alternative to Putin, who an independent poll showed on Thursday remained far more popular than Navalny.

“The people who sit in the Kremlin are pragmatists and have studied recent history in the region and seen that street protests die out sooner or later,” said Oreshkin.

“And the generals policing these protests understand that nobody will punish them for excessive violence, but that they could be punished for being too soft.”

Putin, 68, has dominated Russian politics since 2000 and could rule until 2036 under recent constitutional changes. He has successfully faced down street protests before, notably in 2012 when he returned to the presidency after a four-year hiatus.

Additional reporting and writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff