Russia election to tighten Putin’s grip, opponents stage protest

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President Vladimir Putin

Russia’s election comes at what Western spy chiefs say is a crossroads for the Ukraine war and the wider West

News Desk

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin is poised to tighten his grip on power on Sunday in a Russian election that is certain to deliver him a landslide victory, though thousands of opponents staged a symbolic noon protest at polling stations.

Putin, who rose to power in 1999, is set to win a new six-year term that would enable him to overtake Josef Stalin and become 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. He casts it as a “special military operation”.

Russia’s election comes at what Western spy chiefs say is a crossroads for the Ukraine war and the wider West in what Biden casts as a 21st Century struggle between democracies and autocracies.

Support for Ukraine is tangled in U.S. domestic politics ahead of the November presidential election pitting Biden against his predecessor Donald Trump, whose Republican party in Congress has blocked military aid for Kyiv.

Though Kyiv recaptured territory after the invasion in 2022, Russian forces have lately made gains after a failed Ukrainian counter-offensive last year.

The Biden administration fears Putin could grab a bigger slice of Ukraine unless Kyiv gets more support soon. CIA Director William Burns has said that could embolden China.

Putin says the West is engaged in a hybrid war against Russia and that Western intelligence and Ukraine are trying to disrupt the elections.

Voting is also taking place in Crimea, which Moscow took from Ukraine in 2014, and four other Ukrainian regions it partly controls and has claimed since 2022. Kyiv regards the election on occupied territory as illegal and void.

War has hung over the three day election: Ukraine has repeatedly attacked oil refineries in Russia, shelled Russian regions and sought to pierce Russian borders with proxy forces – a move Putin said would not be left unpunished.

While Putin’s re-election is not in doubt given his control over Russia and the absence of any real challengers, the former KGB spy wants to show that he has the overwhelming support of Russians. Several hours before polls were due to close at 1800 GMT, the nationwide turnout surpassed 2018 levels of 67.5%.

Supporters of Putin’s most prominent opponent Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison last month, 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.

There was no independent tally of how many of Russia’s 114 million voters took part in the opposition demonstrations, amid extremely tight security involving tens of thousands of police and security officials.

Some said they were protesting, though there were few outward signs to distinguish them from ordinary voters.

As noon arrived across Asia and Europe, crowds hundreds strong gathered at polling stations at Russian diplomatic missions. Navalny’s widow, Yulia, appeared at the Russian embassy in Berlin to cheers and chants of “Yulia, Yulia”.

Exiled Navalny supporters broadcast footage on YouTube of protests inside Russia and abroad.

“We showed ourselves, all of Russia and the whole world that Putin is not Russia that Putin has seized power in Russia,” said Ruslan Shaveddinov of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “Our victory is that we, the people, defeated fear, we defeated solitude – many people saw they were not alone.”

Leonid Volkov, an exiled Navalny aide who was attacked with a hammer last week in Vilnius, estimated hundreds of thousands of people had come out to polling stations in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other cities.

At least 74 people were arrested on Sunday across Russia, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors crackdowns on dissent.

Over the previous two days, there were scattered incidents of protest as some Russians set fire to voting booths or poured green dye into ballot boxes. Russian officials called them scumbags and traitors. Opponents posted some pictures of ballots spoiled with slogans insulting Putin.

But Navalny’s death has left the opposition deprived of its most formidable leader, and other major opposition figures are abroad, in jail or dead.

The West casts Putin as an autocrat and a killer. U.S. President Joe Biden last month dubbed him a “crazy SOB”. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted him for the alleged war crime of abducting Ukrainian children, which the Kremlin denies.

Putin casts the war as part of a centuries-old battle with a declining and decadent West that he says humiliated Russia after the Cold War by encroaching on Moscow’s sphere of influence.

“Putin’s task is now to imprint his worldview indelibly into the minds of the Russian political establishment” to ensure a likeminded successor, Nikolas Gvosdev, director of the National Security Program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told the Russia Matters project.

“For a U.S. administration that hoped Putin’s Ukraine adventure would be wrapped up by now with a decisive setback to Moscow’s interests, the election is a reminder that Putin expects that there will be many more rounds in the geopolitical boxing ring.”