Putin says vote results show Russians’ trust in his leadership

Author: Editors Desk, AFP Source: News Corp Australia Network:
March 17, 2024 at 23:07
Vladimir Putin has vowed Russia will not be “intimidated” after clinching victory in Russian presidential elections.

Vladimir Putin said his imminent victory in Russian presidential elections on Sunday — after a vote in which he faced no serious competition — showed Russians trusted his leadership.

“I want to thank all of you and all citizens of the country for your support and this trust,” Mr Putin said early Monday morning in a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Moscow.

Mr Putin his country would not be intimidated, as he looked set to secure another six years in power after a three-day vote.

“No matter who or how much they want to intimidate us, no matter who or how much they want to suppress us, our will, our consciousness — no one has ever succeeded in anything like this in history,” he said.

“It has not worked now and will not work in the future. Never.”

Mr Putin said that the death of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny was a “sad event”, and that he had been ready to release him in a prisoner exchange.

Using his name in public for the first time in years, Mr Putin said, “As for Mr Navalny. Yes, he passed away. This is a sad event.”

He added, “A few days before Mr Navalny passed away, some colleagues told me... there was an idea to exchange Mr Navalny for some people who are in prison in Western countries... I said, ‘I agree.’”

Vladimir Putin speaks at his campaign headquarters. Picture: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP
Vladimir Putin speaks at his campaign headquarters. Picture: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

Mr Putin, who has over the past two decades built up a system of domestic repression and confrontation with the West, is heading for a fifth term in office.

Ever since the previously little-known KGB agent became president on New Year’s Eve 1999, he has consolidated power by bringing oligarchs to heel, banning any real opposition and turning Russia into an authoritarian state.

The Kremlin leader was set for his largest ever election victory on Sunday, with exit polls by state-run companies and the first wave of official results putting him on more than 87 per cent of the vote.

It paves the way for the hardline former spy to become the longest-serving Russian leader in more than 200 years.

Mr Navalny, his most prolific critic, died in an Arctic prison colony last month in mysterious circumstances. Other opponents are serving lengthy jail sentences or have fled into exile.

Abroad, 71-year-old Mr Putin has spearheaded efforts to challenge the dominance of the West.

His grip on power tightened further after he invaded Ukraine in February 2022, with public dissent against the war effectively silenced through court proceedings and imprisonment.

His rule risks being defined by the war in Ukraine, which has cost many thousands of lives and sparked unprecedented Western sanctions that have created major tensions in the Russian economy.

There were large anti-war protests in the days after he ordered troops into Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2022. They were quickly quashed.

Preliminary results in the Russian presidential election. Picture: AFP
Preliminary results in the Russian presidential election. Picture: AFP

Quashed mutiny

But there were more demonstrations months later when the government was forced to announce a partial mobilisation, after Russia failed to topple Ukraine’s government in the opening offensive of the war.

The most serious challenge to Mr Putin’s long rule came in June 2023, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, a long-time ally and head of the Wagner mercenary group, announced a mutiny to unseat Russia’s military leadership.

The bloody uprising threatened to tarnish Mr Putin’s self-created image of a strategic genius — uncomfortable for a ruler who likes to compare himself to Peter the Great, the reform-minded emperor who expanded Russia’s borders.

But in recent months, Mr Putin has demonstrated his lasting power. Domestic opposition has been silenced, the economy is growing again, the Russian military has gained ground in east Ukraine, and he has resumed foreign travel.

Mr Putin started out as an intelligence officer before embarking on a political career in the mayor’s office in his native Saint Petersburg in 1991, as the Soviet Union was falling apart.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, appointed him as head of the FSB security service in 1998 and as prime minister the following year.

Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in 1999. Picture: AP
Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in 1999. Picture: AP

Early reform hopes

It was a carefully planned strategy, culminating in his nomination as acting president when Mr Yeltsin resigned.

Mr Putin won his first presidential election in March 2000 and a second term in 2004.

His rise initially spurred hopes that Russia would reform and become a predictable, democratic partner to the West on the global stage.

Mr Putin gained popularity by promising stability to a country still reeling from a decade of humiliation and economic chaos following the Soviet collapse.

After two stints as president, Mr Putin switched back to being prime minister in 2008 to circumvent a constitutional ban on holding more than two consecutive terms as head of state.

But he kept the reins of power firmly in hand and returned to the presidency in 2012 despite pro-democracy protests in Moscow, winning a fourth term in 2018.

He jailed his loudest rival, Alexei Navalny, in 2021 and kept him in prison for three years until his death under opaque circumstances in February 2024.

The clampdown on opposition movements ramped up after the launch of hostilities in Ukraine.

Thousands of Russians were handed long prison sentences using newly reinforced censorship laws.

An anti-Putin rally in Washington, DC. Picture: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
An anti-Putin rally in Washington, DC. Picture: Roberto Schmidt/AFP

‘New Iron Curtain’

The West imposed sanctions that effectively cut off Russia from the global banking system, adding to the Russian leadership’s siege mentality.

In October 2023, Mr Putin accused Europe of creating a “new Iron Curtain” and said Russia was building “a new world” that would not be based on Western hegemony.

He has also increasingly pushed a domestic agenda of nationalism and social conservatism, including most recently laws against Russia’s LGBTQ community.

Persona non grata among Western leaders after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian strongman has sought to pivot east, wooing India and China with increased energy exports.

After shrinking in 2022, the Russian economy began to grow again last year despite high inflation, a weakening of the ruble and a drastic increase in defence spending.

The war failed in its initial aims to topple Ukraine’s government and Russia was forced into a series of humiliating setbacks by the determined defence of the much smaller Ukrainian army.

A woman votes in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine. Picture: AFP
A woman votes in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine. Picture: AFP

Growing confidence

But, with the conflict now in its third year, Mr Putin has been speaking with increased confidence about Russia’s prospects on the battlefield — a topic he avoided for many months.

Russian forces have successfully held off a much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive and there are increasing doubts about whether Kyiv can hold the front lines in the face of delays to much-needed Western military supplies.

Wrangling in Washington in recent months has held up $US60 billion in military aid for Ukraine, prompting alarmed warnings from the US administration.

In February, Russian forces captured the former Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka, handing Moscow its first major territorial gain in more than a year of fighting for the town.

The Kremlin chief struck a defiant tone in his state of the nation address almost two weeks later, vowing his troops would fight until the end.

“They will not back down, will not fail and will not betray,” Mr Putin said.

A woman casts her ballot in Moscow. Picture: AFP
A woman casts her ballot in Moscow. Picture: AFP

UK deplores Russian vote

Britain’s foreign minister David Cameron on Sunday dismissed early results from Russia indicating that Mr Putin had been comfortably re-elected.

“The polls have closed in Russia, following the illegal holding of elections on Ukrainian territory, a lack of choice for voters and no independent OSCE monitoring,” he posted on X.

“This is not what free and fair elections look like.”

Former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday congratulated Mr Putin on his victory.

“I congratulate Vladimir Putin on his splendid victory in the election,” Mr Medvedev said on Telegram, while Russian state-run television praised “colossal support to the president” and the “unbelievable consolidation” of the country behind its leader.

A top ally of Mr Navalny dismissed huge vote numbers for Mr Putin.

“The percentages drawn for Putin have, of course, not the slightest relation to reality,” Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s former chief of staff, said in a post on Telegram

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday called Mr Putin a power-hungry “dictator” after the Russian president looked set to secure another six-year term following elections denounced by Kyiv.

“It is clear to everyone in the world that this figure — as has happened so often in history — is simply sick from power and is doing everything he can to rule forever,” Mr Zelensky said in a message on social media.

“There is no evil he will not commit to prolong his personal power.”

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