MOSCOW—The protests that swept Russia this weekend in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny show the challenge President Vladimir Putin faces in managing social discontent ahead of parliamentary elections this year.
Saturday’s unsanctioned rallies were among the largest in recent years and saw tens of thousands of people brave freezing temperatures, the threat of the pandemic and the possibility of incarceration. Security forces detained more than 3,500 people—the largest number in at least nine years, according to independent monitors.
The protests have left the Kremlin facing a dilemma: Either bow to the pressure from the street and undermine its own authority by releasing Mr. Navalny or risk inciting more backlash and unifying the opposition by keeping him behind bars.
“There are few good options for Putin,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a Moscow-based political consultant and former speechwriter for Mr. Putin. “It seems like Navalny is attacking and the Kremlin is defending.”
Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have swooned in recent years amid a sluggish economy and protest activity. Observers say the Navalny demonstrations, if sustained, could pose a threat to Mr. Putin’s dominance despite constitutional changes approved last year that could allow him to stay in power until 2036.