EXPLAINER: Behind the Kremlin's response to Navalny rallies

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FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2021, file photo, police officers confront people protesting the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia. Rattled by nationwide demonstrations over Navalny, Russian authorities are moving rapidly to block any new ones from piling legal pressure on his allies to launching a campaign to discredit the rallies. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

MOSCOW – Rattled by nationwide protests over jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian authorities are moving rapidly to block any new ones – from piling legal pressure on his allies to launching a campaign to discredit the demonstrations.

Unprecedented mass rallies across Russia on Jan. 23 demanding Navalny's release from jail resulted in thousands of arrests, and dozens of criminal investigations were opened. Scores of his associates and top allies have been jailed, with some facing criminal charges that carry prison terms.

President Vladimir Putin likened organizers of the protests to “terrorists,” and lawmakers charged that Navalny was a Western stooge and betrayed his country to benefit Russia’s adversaries.

Navalny’s team admits the pressure is unprecedented, but says it won't give in and is calling for another demonstration Sunday.

A look at the unrest and the Kremlin’s strategy:

WHAT LED TO THE PROTESTS?

Navalny, Putin's fiercest critic, returned to Russia on Jan. 17 after five months in Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning with a nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin and that Russian officials deny.

The 44-year-old Navalny was arrested at the airport upon arrival and jailed for 30 days, pending a court hearing into whether to send him to prison for alleged probation violations of a past conviction — which he claims was politically motivated. A court Thursday refused to release Navalny, rejecting his appeal of his arrest.