Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption group vowed Thursday to fight on, despite a court ruling branding it an "extremist" organisation and requiring it to shut down.
Western countries and the European Union were quick to condemn Wednesday's late-night ruling, but senior Russian officials doubled down, describing Navalny as an agent collaborating with Washington.
The court decision was the latest in a series of moves against critics of President Vladimir Putin, with some of his loudest opponents fleeing the country and several prominent activist groups and independent media shutting down.
The ruling bans Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and a network of regional offices from continuing to operate and, under a recently passed law, prevents those previously associated with the groups from running in parliamentary elections.
The FBK was defiant, saying in a Thursday morning Twitter post: "We woke up, smiled with destructive intent and knowing that we are a 'danger to society' will continue to fight corruption!"
What exactly the group will be able to do is unclear in the wake of the ruling, which followed a hearing behind closed doors.
Navalny's closest allies still in Russia are under close law enforcement supervision, some under house arrest, and other prominent aides have fled the country.
Navalny himself was jailed for more than two-and-a-half years in February after he returned to Russia from Germany where he had been convalescing after a poisoning attack in Siberia that be blamed on the Kremlin.
After Wednesday's ruling Navalny, who is in a penal colony outside Moscow, acknowledged supporters would need to alter their strategy.
- 'We will not retreat' -
"But we will not retreat from our goals and ideas. This is our country and we have no other," the 45-year-old said in an Instagram post.
The European Union on Thursday condemned the court decision, describing it as the latest effort to "suppress" Russia's opposition.
"It is an unfounded decision that confirms a negative pattern of a systematic crackdown on human rights and freedoms which are enshrined in the Russian constitution," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on behalf of the 27 member states.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had earlier described the ruling as "perverse" and "Kafka-esque," while the United States called on Moscow to end the crackdown and release Navalny.
US President Joe Biden has promised to raise the issue of human rights with Putin when the two meet next week for a summit in Geneva.
The spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry defended the ruling, saying the swiftness of the international outcry suggested Navalny was actually working with foreign governments.
"This means that they are politically involved in the story," Maria Zakharova said in a radio interview, adding that Washington, with its response, was exposing "agents".
"They show such political zeal because it touches those whom they supervised, those whom they supported politically and in other ways," Zakharova said.
Russian officials have repeatedly accused the country's opposition of working for and receiving funding from foreign interests.
Prosecutors had in April requested that Navalny's organisations be hit with the "extremist" label, saying the group was plotting an uprising with support from the West.
Announcing the decision from the Moscow city court steps after a marathon session on Wednesday, a spokesperson for prosecutors said Navalny's groups had "incited hatred and enmity against government officials, but also committed extremist actions".
The ruling comes at difficult time for Russia's embattled opposition, which had hoped to make a dent in the Kremlin's monopoly on political life during parliamentary elections in September.
Navalny's network of regional offices had promoted his "smart voting" campaign, which encouraged voters to cast ballots for candidates in elections most likely to unseat Kremlin-friendly incumbents.
But legislation signed by Putin this month bars employees and even supporters of "extremist" groups from running in elections, a move that essentially clears the path for a clear sweep in September for Kremlin-aligned candidates.