Russian President Vladimir Putin has delivered his annual address to the nation amid a sweeping Kremlin crackdown on opposition protests and soaring tensions with the West.
He began his state-of-the-nation speech by hailing the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying the quick development of three coronavirus vaccines underlined Russia’s technological and industrial potential.
The Russian leader has urged authorities to quicken the pace of the country’s vaccination programme, which has been slow compared with the West.
He promised new measures to encourage births and increase average life expectancy, acknowledging that the pandemic has exacerbated demographic trends in Russia.
Mr Putin proposed new incentives to help the economy recover from the pandemic and new social payments to the population.
Allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny have called for nationwide protests across Russia on Wednesday to support him.
Mr Navalny started a prison hunger strike three weeks ago to protest against what he says is inadequate medical treatment for his back pain and officials’ refusal to allow a visit by his doctor.
His imprisonment and health condition have fuelled tensions with the West, already strained over Moscow’s interference with elections, hacking attacks and, most recently, a massive Russian military build-up near the border with Ukraine.
The Kremlin has rejected Western concerns about the troop concentration, saying it is free to deploy the military wherever it is deemed necessary on the Russian territory.