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World & Nation

For Russia’s triumphant Putin, more muscle-flexing likely, especially on international stage

Vladimir Putin meets other presidential candidates, Moscow, Russia - 19 Mar 2018
Vladimir Putin meets at the Kremlin with other presidential candidates a day after the election.
(Yuri Kadobnov / Pool Photo )

A day after his not-at-all-surprising landslide win in Russia’s presidential election, Vladimir Putin slipped comfortably into a favored role on Monday: that of the magnanimous victor.

In an ornate conference room deep inside the Kremlin, with golden draperies as a backdrop, the 65-year-old leader, now set to remain in power until at least 2024, personally welcomed those he had vanquished in Sunday’s balloting, treating them with elaborate politesse.

“Let’s hear what you have to say, please,” he told them.

But the Kremlin-distributed video of the meeting, shown on state television, cut away before their responses could be heard.

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In his moment of triumph, Putin, whose aggressive style is popular with his compatriots, made it clear that he planned to use his latest electoral mandate — his largest yet, by the official count — to impose his will, both at home and on the international stage.

The Central Election Commission said Monday that with virtually all the ballots counted, Putin won nearly 77% of the vote. Only one of Putin’s seven challengers, Pavel Grudinin, broke into double digits, garnering 11.9% of the vote, the commission said.

With nonstop government appeals before Sunday’s election for citizens to do their civic duty and cast a ballot, turnout was recorded at 67%, almost exactly matching a Kremlin forecast.

Putin’s showing was almost certainly bolstered by his main rival, Alexei Navalny, being prevented from running because of a 2013 fraud conviction Navalny says was politically motivated, and, according to government critics, because brazen ballot-stuffing was ignored.

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Russia’s relations with the West may be at post-Cold War lows, but after his win, Putin’s rhetoric on international relations was carefully affable. Moscow, he said, “will seek to develop constructive relations” with adversary and ally alike.

“We will do all we can to solve all disputes … using political and diplomatic means,” he said at the Kremlin gathering of the defeated candidates, according to Russian news agencies.

Even as Putin spoke, however, European allies were expressing solidarity with Britain over the brazen poisoning this month of a former Russian spy who was living in the quiet English provincial city of Salisbury. Prime Minister Theresa May and others have placed the blame on Russia.

At a news conference in Brussels on Monday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, flanked by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, denounced what he called the Kremlin’s longtime pattern of “reckless behavior.”

But Putin was nonchalant about the accusation that Moscow had used a military-grade nerve agent to try to assassinate turncoat Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, 66, and his visiting daughter, Yulia, 33.

“It would be rubbish, drivel, nonsense, for Russia to embark on such an escapade on the eve of a presidential election,” the president told reporters after results pointed to an overwhelming victory.

Putin also employed barbed sarcasm to deflect speculation that he might try to remain in power beyond this six-year term, which will already make him Russia’s longest-serving leader since the Soviet-era dictatorship of Josef Stalin.

Asked whether he planned to change the constitution so he could run again, he said he wasn’t considering any constitutional reforms “right now.” A reporter then asked if he would run in 2030, which would be constitutionally permissible after skipping a term.

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“What, am I going to sit here until I’m 100 years old?” Putin said.

He also seemingly dismissed his own boast, made weeks earlier in a bellicose state of the nation speech, that Russia was developing a new generation of nuclear weapons that could outwit any Western defenses. On Monday, Putin declared that his government has “no intention of engaging in some kind of arms race.”

Relatively few world leaders have reached out to congratulate Putin for his win, although French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday wished him and the Russian people success in modernization efforts, the Elysee Palace said.

President Trump has sometimes rushed to congratulate authoritarian leaders on their electoral victories. But the White House, struggling under the cloud of the special counsel’s investigation stemming from Russia’s interference in the 2016 vote, was circumspect about Putin’s win.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump was aware of Putin’s victory, and said no phone call between the two leaders was scheduled. Asked if the Trump administration considered the vote free and fair, Gidley replied: “We’re not surprised by the outcome.”

Putin’s ties with Washington are awkward because Trump’s past fulsome praise of him has raised questions about his policies toward Russia.

Some analysts said Putin has little incentive to improve overall ties with the West, because he was well served politically by an image of him standing firm against Russia’s enemies.

“In foreign affairs, I think President Putin and the Kremlin will be consistent in their hard-line resurgent foreign policy,” said Roman Osharov, an analyst with the British think tank Chatham House. “The challenges are the same — sanctions, isolation — but he sees himself as having a mandate, even if there are costs.”

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The Russian government sees its involvement in Syria — a robust military intervention that turned the civil war’s tide in favor of its client, Syrian President Bashar Assad — as a success. From that perspective, Putin managed to get the United States to deal with him on the Syria crisis even amid Western efforts to punish Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine, which included the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Russia, which in recent years has staged a concerted campaign of election meddling in the United States as well as Western Europe, is also unlikely to be deterred in its efforts to interfere with future elections, analysts said.

“We should expect election hacking everywhere, all the time now,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “Putin is trying to split the Western alliance as much as possible, and its great success has been the utilization of high tech.”

While a stagnant economy could engender popular discontent, Putin is buoyed by a splintered opposition that analysts said was unlikely to challenge him at a national level.

That discord was on clear display on social media, where Navalny quarreled with Ksenia Sobchak, whose presidential campaign he called a Kremlin project.

Olga Oliker, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that historically, “the Russian opposition isn’t able to get its act together, and isn’t able to consolidate.”

“In that case, it doesn’t matter how many people win city council elections in Russian cities,” she said. “They might be able to do something in local politics. But if it doesn’t move beyond that, that’s not a threat to the regime at all.”

Going forward, some observers said, the Russian leader’s main asset may be a proven commodity: unpredictability.

“Putin’s great strength is to surprise us,” Aslund said. “We shouldn’t think about what to expect, except the unexpected.”

Special correspondent Ayres reported from Moscow and Times staff writer King from Washington.

laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT


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