Police detained more than 200 opposition activists today for taking part in a wave of anti-Kremlin protests across Russia in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, ahead of a presidential election in March, a monitoring group reported.

Over 2,000 people gathered in central Moscow's Pushkin Square and chanted "Russia will be free" and "Russia without Putin" before walking towards the Kremlin and parliament.Police officers block the Liteinyi prospect during an unauthorized rally in central St. Petersburg

Police briefly detained a few people, but did not charge anyone. It was a different story at rallies in other cities however, and the OVD-Info monitoring group, a non-profit organisation, said at least 262 people had been detained in 27 towns across the country.

In St Petersburg, Mr Putin's home town, a witness saw riot police detain at least 11 people. OVD-Info said at least 66 people had been detained in the city.

Russia rally
 Supporters of the opposition take part in the rally in St Petersburg

Mr Navalny, who is serving a 20-day jail term for violating rules on public meetings, called the rally in Moscow and other cities to coincide with Mr Putin's 65th birthday.

Mr Putin, who has dominated Russia's political landscape for almost 18 years, is widely expected to run for what would be his fourth term.

Mr Navalny hopes to run too, despite the central election commission declaring him ineligible due to a suspended prison sentence he says was politically motivated.

In St Petersburg, some 1,500 activists waving red and white banners gathered in a square before heading for the city's main street.

The size of today's Moscow rally and others across Russia looked far more modest than Navalny-backed mass protests in March and June, which were widely recognised to be some of the biggest since 2012.

Mr Putin is popular across the country however, especially outside major cities where his strong leadership style and tough foreign policy stance go down well. He is expected to confirm later this year that he will run for another six-year term.

Opinion polls show he would comfortably beat Mr Navalny if the opposition leader was allowed to run. Mr Navalny says such polls are meaningless because there is no fair political competition.

Mr Putin spent his birthday taking congratulatory calls from other world leaders, and chaired a security council meeting.