In a short but fiery presidential campaign speech, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on voters to prepare for battle to protect the country's future.
Government opponents and foreign influences are threatening to weaken Russia, Putin told tens of thousands of people at a rally in Moscow held on Defender of the Fatherland Day, a national holiday known as Red Army Day during the Soviet era.
"We won't allow anybody to interfere with our internal affairs and we won't allow anybody to impose his will on us because we have a will of our own!" Putin told the crowd, largely made up of government workers brought near the Luzhniki soccer stadium in chartered buses. "The battle of Russia is continuing! Victory will be ours!"
Putin, who presents himself as a defender of Russia, has about 50% support nationwide and is expected to win his third presidential term in the March 4 election, in part because there are no strong opponents on the ballot. Large antigovernment protests have been held recently in response to parliamentary elections won by Putin's party that many considered damaged by fraud.
In his speech Thursday, Putin did not specify who or what Russia would face in battle, though he has described protest leaders as agents of the West. He spoke of the 1812 battle of Borodino and quoted from a school curriculum poem by Mikhail Lermontov: "'Let's die near Moscow like our brothers!' And to die we promised and the oath of loyalty we kept."
Some in the crowd praised the prime minister and former president and carried signs with slogans such as "Putin Is Our President" or "Putin Is the Best," while others showed little enthusiasm, at times hesitating to say why they were attending a pro-Putin rally. Some said they were reminded of the Soviet era, when national holidays meant every enterprise and organization was ordered to provide a certain number of people equipped with paper flowers, balloons, banners and posters of leaders.
The rally participants marched through the winter sludge before entering the soccer stadium. Men with harmonicas mixed with the crowd, playing popular songs.
Svetlana Petrova, a social worker from a Moscow suburb, said she was not ordered to attend the rally. "No, I volunteered!" she said, giggling. Her colleagues laughed.
One young municipal worker from Zelenograd, an industrial town northwest of Moscow, who gave his name only as Nikolai, said he and his fellow workers were offered an extra day off to compensate for the time they spent demonstrating for Putin.
"Everyone agreed," he said quietly, stepping away from his group. "No one wants problems with the administration."
Many others said they attended the rally of their own accord because they wanted to support Putin and vote for him.
Yevgeny Krasilich, an engineer from Mosgortrans, a Moscow city-owned company in charge of municipal transportation, said that under Putin his salary was constantly growing and that he had bought an apartment, a dacha and a car. Krasilich, a father of two and grandfather of three, said his company brought at least 5,000 members of its 30,000-person workforce to the rally.
"I am happy with everything and I want my life to go on the same way," Krasilich said. "Putin is our only hope and guarantee!"
Alexei Stebennikov, who is unemployed, said Putin is a great talker and that he doesn't drink or smoke and thus sets a good example for youths.
Denis Grishin, a municipal worker from central Moscow who said he was enlisted by the administration to come to the rally after his night shift, was holding a banner which read in English: "In Putin we trust." Grishin said he didn't know the meaning of the banner, which was handed to him by one of the organizers, and did not want to vote for Putin.
"I don't want to vote for any of the candidates," he said. "I just came here to simply look at all this circus."
In front of them were Cossacks dressed in trench coats and mutton fur hats and a big group of middle-aged men and women representing the Industrial Wastes company. They were drinking hot tea from plastic glasses and carrying portraits of a very youngish-looking Putin.
Boris Dubin, a senior researcher with the independent Levada Center polling organization, said Putin's approach Thursday stemmed from the protests after the December parliamentary elections and showed the authoritarian leader's increasing reliance on the rhetoric of confrontation and war.
"The recent mass public protests … demonstrated that Putin's positions are no longer as reliable as they used to be and this victory will not be accepted by many," Dubin said. "Putin is flexing his war muscles today to a crowd which doesn't want war and which doesn't see any danger to the country and they don't fall for such rhetoric."