Putin sweeps to new term as tensions spiral with west
The Kremlin's longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had almost 77% of the vote with about 95% of the ballots counted, putting him on track for a new six-year term. The results represented record support for Putin, who barely campaigned before Sunday's vote and faced no real competition in an election that even some of his seven rival candidates described as a farce.
"Thank you very much. Together, we'll take on a great task in the name of Russia," a triumphant Putin told a crowd of flag-waving supporters at a rally near Moscow's Red Square Sunday evening. "Success awaits us".
The Russian leader, 65, rules unchallenged at home even as the economy stagnates after the longest recession in two decades. Abroad, he faces spiralling conflict after the UK directly accused Putin of ordering the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal earlier this month. He has defied US and EU sanctions over his 2014 annexation of Crimea and diplomatic pressure over Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin's defiance of the West has played well in the campaign with an electorate nostalgic for Russia's superpower status.
"Putin isn't going to retreat an inch," said Evgeny Minchenko, a Moscow-based political consultant who advises the Kremlin. "He'll push for maximum independence from the West and build alliances with other centres of power".
Putin, who's also been accused of cyber-attacks and election meddling, including in the US 2016 presidential vote, secured the results despite opposition calls for a boycott. Turnout was reported high at about 67%.
"I came here to vote for stability," said Larisa Kuznetsova, a 62-year-old pensioner, outside a polling station in central Moscow. "That's what we count on from our president in such a frightening world".
Official turnout figures in different regions of Russia are being inflated by as much as 18 percentage points, opposition leader Alexey Navalny said on Twitter, citing data compiled by his observers at polling stations. Navalny, who was barred from contesting the election, had called for a boycott of the vote in protest.There's been "widespread fraud" and observers have caught many instances of ballot-rigging on camera, according to Open Russia, an opposition organisation founded by former oil tycoon and Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Election officials said violations were limited and didn't influence the result.
In addition to accusing Putin, the UK expelled the largest number of Russian diplomats from London in 30 years. Russia retaliated by ordering out an equal number of British envoys as well as demanding the closure of the British Council cultural office and the UK consulate in St. Petersburg.
The US, Germany and France rallied behind the UK, saying there's "no plausible alternative explanation" to Russian responsibility for the first use of a chemical weapon on European soil since World War II. It's unclear so far if they'll back new measures to isolate Russia, which denies any involvement. European Union foreign ministers will discuss the crisis when they meet Monday in Brussels.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Putin gave his most detailed public comments on the case, saying, "It's complete nonsense to imagine that anyone in Russia could resort to such tricks ahead of the presidential elections and World Cup. It's unthinkable".
Putin campaign spokesman Andrei Kondrashov credited the tension with the UK for boosting turnout for the president with its tough line. "We need to say thank you to Great Britain because they again misread the Russian mindset," he said, according to Interfax.
Putin's ability to confront the West has increased after President Donald Trump's election exposed fault lines between the US and Europe and the UK's vote to leave the EU, said Roderic Lyne, former British ambassador to Russia. "The West at the moment is rather fragmented because of transatlantic tensions and Brexit," he said.
In the latest challenge, the Kremlin leader brandished new "invincible" nuclear weapons in his state-of-the-nation speech this month, amid confrontation with the US over allegations Russia meddled to help Trump win. Russia has been accused of deploying cyber tools to encourage separatists in Spain's Catalonia as well as opponents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in elections last year.
Officials in Washington also said Thursday that Russian government-backed hackers are carrying out rolling attacks on "critical infrastructure" including the electric grid, water processing plants and air transportation facilities that are relied upon by hundreds of millions of Americans.
Confrontation ultimately could work against Putin because it'll deprive Russia of investment and know-how needed to lift the economy out of the doldrums, said Oksana Antonenko, visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economic and Political Science. Russians, who've seen living standards steadily erode, are focused on issues such as low incomes and pensions, not foreign policy, according to opinion polls.
"If Putin wants Russia to build a modern economy, he can't do that in conflict with the west," said Antonenko. "He'll be judged at the end of his term on whether he's improved living standards," she said.
Even so, Putin will use his next six years to assert his vision of a strong Russia, according to Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the US.
"Putin now has a feeling of success, he feels the west is splintering," Forbrig said by phone from Berlin. "The priority in the next term is to build on that".
Constitutional limits ban Putin from seeking another term in 2024. Asked Sunday if he might consider running in 2030 -- when he would be 77 -- Putin dismissed the question as "funny," saying "Am I going to stay around until I'm 100? No".