Putin to tighten grip on Russia as opponents pose election day challenge By Reuters

© Reuters. A man casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia, March 16, 2024. REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov

By Guy Faulconbridge and Lidia Kelly

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin will seek to tighten his grip on power on Sunday in a Russian election that is certain to deliver him a landslide victory though opponents called on people to stage a symbolic protest against his rule at polling stations.

Putin, who rose to power in 1999, is poised to win a new six-year term that, if he completes it, would make him Russia’s longest-serving leader for more than 200 years.

The election comes just over two years since Putin triggered the deadliest European conflict since World War Two by ordering the invasion of Ukraine in what he casts as a defensive “special military operation”.

War hangs over the three days of voting that ends on Sunday: Ukraine over recent days repeatedly attacked oil refineries in Russia with drones, shelled Russian regions and sought to pierce Russian borders with proxy forces – a move Putin said would not be left unpunished.

Putin, 71, has warned the West that any meddling in the vote will be considered an act of aggression. While his re-election is not in doubt given a lack of any significant rival candidate he wants to show that he has the overwhelming support of Russians.

The Kremlin has sought a high turnout and as polls opened for a third day in western Russia, officials said the turnout in the first two days had already reached 60% nationwide. An exit poll will be published shortly after voting ends at 1800 GMT.

Supporters of Alexei Navalny, who died in unexplained circumstances at an Arctic prison last month, have called on Russians to come out at a “Noon against Putin” protest to show their dissent against a leader they cast as a corrupt autocrat.

“Today we want to say to all of us – noon is the very beginning,” the “Noon Against Putin” initiative wrote on their Telegram early Sunday.

“Yes, some of us are scared. Yes, the choice is not easy. But we are the people. And we will cope with both the choice and the responsibility.”

Over the previous two days, there were scattered incidents of protest as some Russians set fire to voting booths and poured dye into ballot boxes, drawing a rebuke from Russian officials who said they were scumbags and traitors.

About 100 people came out at one polling station at noon (0500 GMT) in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. Abroad, at Russian voting stations from Thailand to Sydney and from Bishkek to Tashkent queues formed at noon, though it was not immediately clear if the Russians were protesting or simply voting.

Many Russians opposed to Putin have left Russia – with many young men fleeing abroad in 2022 after the start of the war in Ukraine and a mobilisation order.

The West, variously, casts Putin as an autocrat, a war criminal and a killer. U.S. President Joe Biden last month dubbed him a “crazy SOB” and U.S. officials say he has enslaved Russia in a corrupt dictatorship that leads to strategic ruin.

WAR

Angela Stent, senior non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the election outcome was not in question but that there were serious reasons to take note of the event.

“Vladimir Putin will win, probably by a landslide, and he will claim increased legitimacy as a successful war leader on March 18,” Angela Stent, told the Russia Matters project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.

“The Russian presidential election matters to the United States and its allies for two reasons: what happens during the voting period and what follows after it is over.”

The West, which has supplied Ukraine with hundreds of billions of dollars of aid, weapons and top-level intelligence, says Putin is engaged in a brutal imperial-style war aimed at restoring some of the clout of the Soviet Union.

Russian and Ukrainian estimates indicate that hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both side have been killed or seriously injured, though neither side gives proper casualty figures. Swathes of Ukraine have been devastated.

Putin casts the war as part of a centuries-old battle with a declining and decadent West that he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by encroaching on what Putin considers to be Russia’s sphere of influence such as Ukraine.

Russian officials say the West is engaged in a hybrid war against Russia that will include trying to meddle in its election and cast doubt on its results.

Whoever wins the November U.S. presidential election is almost certain to have to deal with an emboldened Putin, who has forged a close strategic partnership with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

More than 114 million Russians are eligible to vote, including in what Moscow calls its “new territories” – four regions of Ukraine that its forces only partly control, but which it has claimed as part of Russia.

Kyiv regards the election taking place in parts of its territory controlled by Russia as illegal and void.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive in 2023 failed to pierce heavily dug in Russian lines, and Russian forces have been pushing into Ukrainian territory just as U.S. support for Ukraine is tangled in domestic political debates.


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