Moscow Detains 4 for Ukrainian Flag Painted Atop Stalin Building

Moscow police detained four people for “desecrating” a Stalin-era skyscraper in Moscow after a star atop its spire was painted to represent the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag.

Police are holding two young men and two young women on suspicion of vandalism, a duty press officer said by phone, asking not to be named because of policy. The charge carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison, according to Russia’s criminal code. The four had been brought in previously for other offenses, he said.

President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has surged to record levels as he confronts the U.S. and Europe in the tensest standoff since the Cold War over a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, he has cracked down on the opposition at home, tightening control over the Internet, jailing protesters and calling for the nation to stand together amidst the chaos in the neighboring country.

“I don’t justify youngsters who painted a star on the skyscraper, but this is an administrative offense, not criminal,” said opposition leader Gennady Gudkov on his account. Gudkov helped organize a wave of street protests against Putin that swept through Moscow in the winter of 2011 and 2012 after parliamentary elections tarnished by accusations of fraud.

The protesters also raised a Ukrainian flag above the Stalin-era residential building, days before Ukraine celebrates its independence on Aug. 24. State television channel Rossiya 24 reported that one of them parachuted off the spire, 176 meters high (580 feet), and broadcast a video clip recorded from a window, showing the person sailing past and landing on a playground in the courtyard below.

Moscow courts this week handed down sentences of as long as three and a half years to protesters held after a demonstration in May 2012 on the eve of Putin’s inauguration. Earlier this year, two organizers were imprisoned for four and half years, while another group of May 6 protesters were given sentences of as long as four years in prison.

The Foreign Ministry today sent a note to the government in Bulgaria, protesting the desecration of a monument to Soviet soldiers in the Black Sea nation’s capital, Sofia. Soviet-era monuments abroad have become targets of regular attacks.

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