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Russia arrests chief Putin critic Alexei Navalny as thousands protest nationwide

Thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities across the county on Sunday to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government’s restriction of candidates in the upcoming March 18 presidential election. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who called for the protests, was arrested en route to the Moscow demonstration; he was released Sunday night while prosecutors reportedly prepare charges for organizing unauthorized protests. Navalny wants people to boycott the election, which Putin is all but guaranteed to win.

Hours before Navalny’s arrest, police in Moscow raided his headquarters in the middle of a live video transmission, detaining one anchor, Dmitri Nizovtsev, and Navalny’s Moscow coordinator, Nikolai Lyaskin, The Associated Press reports, citing Russian media. Some 257 people were arrested in the demonstrations nationwide, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info. Navalny has been barred from running in the election due to a fraud conviction widely seen as politically engineered. His arrest and the police raid of his studio — one anchor said police used a power grinder to break into the studio, claiming there was a bomb threat — were captured on video.

Some Republican allies of President Trump, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), condemned Navalny’s arrest and the crackdown on demonstrators. Trump and his White House have not yet released or tweeted out a statement on the protests. Michael McFaul, a recent U.S. ambassador to Russia, offered to write one for Trump, using Trump’s tweeted condemnation of Iran’s protest crackdown a month ago as a template.

The protesters on Sunday tended to be young, with many of them born after Putin rose to uninterrupted power in 1999.