Putin is poised to rule Russia for 6 more years after an election with no other real choices

A woman gets a ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Mariupol, Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Friday, March 15, 2024.

A woman gets a ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Mariupol, Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Friday, March 15, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to extend nearly a quarter century of rule for six more years on Sunday after wrapping up an election that gave voters no real alternatives to an autocrat who has ruthlessly cracked down on dissent.

The three-day election that began on Friday has taken place in a tightly controlled environment where no public criticism of Putin or his war in Ukraine is allowed. Mr. Putin’s fiercest political foe, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison last month, and other critics are either in jail or in exile.

Navalny’s associates have urged those unhappy with Mr. Putin or the war to protest by coming to the polls at noon on Sunday, a strategy endorsed by Navalny shortly before his death. Team Navalny described it as a success, releasing pictures and videos of people crowding near polling stations in various cities across Russia around noon.

The 71-year-old Russian leader faces three token rivals from Kremlin-friendly parties who have refrained from any criticism of his 24-year rule or his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Mr. Putin has boasted of Russian battlefield successes in the run-up to the vote, but a massive Ukrainian drone attack across Russia early on Sunday sent a reminder of challenges faced by Moscow.

The Russian Defence Ministry reported downing 35 Ukrainian drones overnight, including four near the Russian capital. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said there were no casualties or damage.

Russia’s wartime economy has proven resilient, expanding despite bruising Western sanctions. The Russian defence industry has served as a key growth engine, working around the clock to churn out missiles, tanks and ammunition.

Voting is taking place at polling stations across the vast country’s 11 time zones, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, and online. More than 60% of eligible voters had cast ballots as of early Sunday.

Dmitry Sergienko, who cast his ballot in Moscow, said he voted for Mr. Putin: “I am happy with everything and want everything to continue as it is now.”

Olga Dymova, who also backed Mr. Putin, said, “I am sure that our country will only move forward towards success.”

Another Moscow voter, who identified himself only by his first name, Vadim, said he hopes for change, but added that “unfortunately, it’s unlikely.”

Navalny’s associates broadcast footage with comments by those who turned up at the polls at noon to protest against Mr. Putin, their faces blurred to protect their identities.

“The action has achieved its goals,” Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a YouTube broadcast. “The action has shown that there is another Russia, there are people who stand against Putin.”

It wasn’t possible to confirm if the voters shown lining up at polling stations in videos and photos released by Navalny’s associates and some Russian media had responded to the protest call, or merely reflected strong turnout.

Despite tight controls, several dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations were reported.

A woman was arrested in St. Petersburg after she threw a firebomb at a polling station entrance, and several others were detained across the country for throwing green antiseptic or ink into ballot boxes.

Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy head of the Russian Security Council chaired by Mr. Putin, called for toughening the punishment for those who vandalise polling stations, arguing they should face treason charges for attempting to derail the vote amid the fighting in Ukraine.

Some Russian media also posted images of spoiled ballots posted by voters.

Ahead of the election, Mr. Putin cast his war in Ukraine, now in its third year, as a life-or-death battle against the West seeking to break up Russia.

Russian troops have recently made slow advances relying on their edge in firepower, while Ukraine has fought back by intensifying cross-border attacks and launching drone strikes deep inside Russia.

The Ukrainian shelling of the city of Belgorod near the border killed a 16-year-old girl on Sunday and injured her father, according to the local governor, who also reported two deaths from Ukrainian attacks the previous day.

Putin described the attacks as an attempt by Ukraine to frighten residents and derail Russia’s presidential election, saying they “won’t be left unpunished.”

Western leaders have derided the election as a travesty of democracy.

Beyond the lack of options for voters, the possibilities for independent monitoring are very limited. No significant international observers were present. Only registered, Kremlin-approved candidates, or state-backed advisory bodies, can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of independent watchdogs.

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