The Russian leader has accused the United States of orchestrating public unrest on Russia’s streets after last Sunday’s disputed parliamentary election in a Cold War-style outburst certain to damage US-Russia relations.
In his first comments on three days of anti-Kremlin protests, the Russian prime minister alleged that Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, had deliberately encouraged his political opponents to take to the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“She sent a signal to some activists inside the country,” Mr Putin told a meeting of his supporters. “They got the message and started active work with the support of the US state department.”
Mrs Clinton angered the Kremlin after she declared that the vote, which international observers said was riddled with fraud, was neither free nor fair.
But Mr Putin accused Mrs Clinton of rushing to conclusions before the facts were all in.
He said: “I watched the reaction of our American partners. The first thing that the secretary of state said was that the elections were dishonest and unfair even though she had not even received material from the election monitors at that stage.”
Insisting that the Russian people did not want a revolution or any sharp changes, he made it clear that the Kremlin will not allow the street protests to escalate.
“You and I know that that in our country people do not want the situation to develop like it did in Kyrgyzstan or in the recent past in Ukraine,” he said, referring to mass street demonstrations that brought down those countries’ governments. “Nobody wants chaos.”
While he said he accepted that law-abiding citizens had the right to protest and voice their opinions “within the framework of the law”, he said that anyone breaking the law would be punished.
“If somebody breaks the law then the security forces must implement the law with full legal means,” he warned.
Around 1,000 protestors have been arrested since Sunday’s election but anti-Kremlin activists are still planning a big nationwide protest on Saturday which tens of thousands of people have said on the internet they will attend.
If even half of those people turn up there are likely to be violent clashes and particularly in Moscow where the authorities have only sanctioned a protest of three hundred people.
Russia’s biggest home-grown social networking site, Vkontakte, said it had already come under pressure from the FSB security service to shut down opposition pages being used to organise the protests but had so far refused to do so.
Mr Putin’s United Russia party comfortably won Sunday’s vote with just under fifty percent of the vote but saw support fall by fifteen percent. Critics said that in reality it had probably struggled to win more than forty percent of the vote but that systematic vote-rigging had helped prop it up.
Mr Putin, who has already registered to run for president in March, a vote he is expected to easily win, appeared to be trying to distance himself from the ruling United Russia party on Thursday.
Snubbing the party he leads, he said he would instead run his pre-election campaign through an organisation called the All-Russian People’s Front, a group he set up earlier this year to act as an alternative vehicle for his political ambitions. He promised that fifty percent of the ruling party’s MPs were being changed and that a quarter of its MPs were being directly drawn from the All-Russian People’s Front, an organisation he claimed was not party political. In a sign that the protests in Russia are spooking financial markets too, the daily Kommersant newspaper reported that VEB, Russia’s state development bank, had been forced shelve a 320 million pound bond offering at the last minute after investors took fright over the political volatility.
Signalling that the Kremlin would continue to crack down hard on the opposition, he said it might even be necessary to change the law. "We need to think about strengthening the law and holding more of those responsible who carry out the task of a foreign government to influence our internal political process," he said.
Although he raised the vague possibility of “dialogue” with the opposition, he made it clear he had scant respect for them and thought they were unrepresentative of the Russian people as a whole. "We are all adults here,” he told his supporters. “And we all understand that some of the organisers are following a well-known scenario and have their own narrow political goals."