MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nation's top counterintelligence agency Wednesday to redouble its efforts to address what he described as Western attempts to destabilize Russia.
Speaking at a meeting of top officials of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main KGB successor agency, Putin pointed at the “so-called policy of containment of Russia,” charging that it includes efforts to “derail our development, slow it down, create problems alongside our borders, provoke internal instability and undermine the values that unite the Russian society.”
The Russian president added that those activities by foreign powers, which he didn't name, are aimed at “weakening Russia and putting it under outside control.”
The United States and its NATO allies have rejected similar previous claims by the Kremlin that they were seeking to undermine Russia.
Russia’s relations with the West plummeted to post-Cold War lows following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The recent arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a sweeping crackdown on protesters demanding his release has been another source of tension.
Speaking in Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that when U.S. President Joe Biden recently had a call with Putin, he “did not hold back in expressing his concerns about the actions of his government.”
Psaki said that Biden has asked his national security team to look into reports of Russian hacking around the 2020 election, the massive SolarWinds hack, as well as information that Russia had offered bounties to the Taliban for killing American troops in Afghanistan. "It will be weeks not months before it’s concluded and we have more details about our response,” she said.
Russia has denied involvement in any of those activities.
Navalny, Putin's most prominent critic, was arrested on Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation and accused Navalny of cooperating with Western intelligence agencies — claims which he has ridiculed.
Earlier this month, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating terms of his probation while convalescing in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Сourt of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.
Navalny's arrest has fueled a wave of protests that drew tens of thousands to the streets across Russia. The authorities have detained about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.
In the wake of the demonstrations, the Kremlin-controlled parliament has toughened the punishment for disobeying police and introduced new fines for funding demonstrations. Putin on Wednesday signed those new bills into law.
Without naming Navalny, Putin assailed those in Russia who allegedly serve foreign interests.
“It's necessary to draw a line between natural political competition, competition between political parties, ideological platforms, various views on the country's development, and the activities that have nothing to do with democracy and are aimed at undermining stability and security of our state, at serving foreign interests,” he said.
The Russian president emphasized the need for the FSB to shield the parliamentary election set for September from any "provocations."
Putin hailed the agency for disrupting the activities of foreign spies, maintaining it unmasked 72 foreign intelligence officers and 423 of their informants. He ordered the FSB to tighten the protection of the country's latest military technologies, saying, “You all understand that we have a lot to safeguard.”
Putin also commended the FSB for its efforts to combat terrorism. He said it prevented 72 terror attacks last year. He instructed the agency to “uncover contacts between terrorist groups and foreign special services.”
“Unfortunately, anything goes, and they also use terrorists,” Putin said without elaborating.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.