Two of Alexei Navalny’s closest allies were arrested on Wednesday at the start of a planned day of mass protests in support of the jailed Kremlin critic.
Lyubov Sobol, one of the faces of Navalny’s popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, were both detained in Moscow, according to their lawyers.
Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician and a thorn in Putin’s side for the past decade, is gravely ill in prison after a three-week hunger strike.
His team have urged people across the country to take to the streets on Wednesday to demand life-saving medical treatment for him.
Government warns protestors
The government has called the planned gatherings illegal, with previous pro-Navalny rallies dispersed by force, with thousands of arrests.
Police detained at least 10 opposition activists ahead of the protests and raided apartments of Navalny supporters across the country, including a journalist.
“As usual, they think that if they isolate the ‘leaders’, there won’t be any protest,” said Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny associate. “Of course that’s wrong.”
Another Navalny aide, Ruslan Shaveddinov, tweeted: “Right now across the whole of Russia they are detaining potential protesters. This is repression. This cannot be accepted. We need to fight this darkness.”
Demonstrators target Putin speech
The arrests of Navalny’s allies came on a day where Vladimir Putin is set to deliver his state of the union speech.
Putin, who makes a point of never saying Navalny’s name, has said that his speech will focus on projects to boost economic growth and the deep crisis in Russia’s relations with the west.
Since last week, the US tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations Moscow hacked computers and interfered in elections.
The Czech Republic has also accused Moscow of a role in explosions at an arms depot in 2014.
Navalny’s team has said protests will be held in more than 100 cities and towns, including the Moscow square near where Putin will give his address.