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Despite threats of harsh consequences from the Kremlin, tens of thousands gathered to protest opposition leader Navalny’s arrest and were met with considerable force from Russian police. President Biden called Putin earlier this week to discuss Navalny’s possible release, and has also discussed possible sanctions with Europe leaders. PBS NewsHour Special Correspondent Ryan Chilcote joins from London to discuss.
For more on the protests, the Russian response and what the Biden administration may be facing, I spoke with NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Ryan Chilcote who joined us from London.
So, Ryan, given what the Russian government was trying to do to tamp down the protests today, what do you make of what happened?
I think was pretty extraordinary. I mean, you hit the nail on the head there. They did a lot even before these protests today began. In fact, they started a week ago when the opposition announced they were going to have these protests. They detained a lot of Navalny's closest allies, at least those allies that weren't already detained, were already in prison. They searched their homes, their offices, and they warned people that if they participate in these illegal unsanctioned protests, then they will be punished and could face up to even 10, 15 years in jail.
And yet, Hari, you still had tens of thousands of people turning out at these protests. More than 4,000 arrested, more than last week, despite all of these warnings. And in some cases and this is something that I thought was really interesting, you could even see that the protesters were battling the police themselves. In other words, a protester would get detained by the police. They would actually go after the police and actually free some of the detained people. That's not the kind of thing that the Kremlin wants to see.
You know, this also reminds me, just several weeks ago, a couple of months ago, we were talking about persistent protests week after week in Belarus. What does Russia do in this case when it's coming much closer to home, right, in Moscow?
Yeah, and the thing is that when those protests were happening in Belarus, which is just to the west of Russia, Russians were watching them. And even Russians, I think, were more than a little surprised at how seriously, how brutal the Belarusian government crackdown on those protests. Because in the past, the Kremlin, I know from the outside it looks like the Kremlin has been very tough on protests, but generally speaking, it has not been as difficult, as severe as the Belarusians have. But clearly, what we're seeing now today and what we saw last week suggests that the Kremlin has changed their mind and they are very intent on crushing these protests.
So what are the important dates? Are there a timeline, moments, things that you're watching out for as this perhaps progresses?
Yeah, there are. So we can expect protests again on Tuesday. That's because that's when Alexei Navalny will appear at a hearing in Moscow, where he will be told whether his month that he's now been sentenced to prison will be extended to as long as perhaps three and a half years. If he gets any more jail time and he's certainly likely to, then you could see more protests. The thinking really is that the Kremlin will keep Alexei Navalny in jail until at least beyond some very important parliamentary elections that are set to take place in September. And then, of course, in 2024, when President Putin, in theory, because he's changed the Constitution, could run for another term. So it's possible we could see protests right up until 2024.
All right. We've got a new president. We've heard so far about a difficult conversation between him and Vladimir Putin. What is the Biden administration capable of doing? What can they do about matters on the ground?
Well, President Biden already used his first phone call to President Putin to call for Alexei Navalny, for him to be freed. He could impose sanctions. In fact, Navalny himself, through his surrogates, has asked President Biden to impose sanctions. Those would be targeted sanctions against people within President Putin's government, but also some of Russia's wealthiest oligarchs, if you will, including some who live here in London and very famous people that own soccer teams and whatnot. So that is possible.
You know, there's support for that in Congress. Just as important, I think you need to watch Europe because interestingly, President Biden, before he called on Tuesday of last week, phoned a number of European leaders, the prime minister of the U.K., the chancellor of Germany and the president of France, to kind of get on the same page. That's something we haven't seen in American foreign policy for a while. And Europe has a much closer relationship business-wise to Russia. So if Europe imposes sanctions, that's much more painful for the Russians. One thing I will point out about sanctions, we've seen the West imposing sanctions against Russia since 2014, at least as far as I can tell, they haven't had a huge influence on President Putin's behavior.
All right. Ryan Chilcote joining us from London. Thanks so much.
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