Vladimir Putin cruised to a landslide victory in Russia’s presidential vote, extending his 18-year rule amid escalating confrontation with the West.
The Kremlin’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had almost 77 percent of the vote with about 99 percent of the ballots counted, putting him on track for a new six-year term.
The results represented record support for Putin, who barely campaigned before Sunday’s vote and faced no real competition in an election that even some of his seven rival candidates described as a farce.
“Thank you very much. Together, we’ll take on a great task in the name of Russia,” a triumphant Putin told a crowd of flag-waving supporters at a rally near Moscow’s Red Square Sunday evening. “Success awaits us.”
The Russian leader, 65, rules unchallenged at home even as the economy stagnates after the longest recession in two decades.
Abroad, he faces spiraling conflict after the U.K. directly accused Putin of ordering the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal earlier this month.
He has defied U.S. and EU sanctions over his 2014 annexation of Crimea and diplomatic pressure over Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Putin’s defiance of the West has played well in the campaign with an electorate nostalgic for Russia’s superpower status.
“Putin isn’t going to retreat an inch,” said Evgeny Minchenko, a Moscow-based political consultant who advises the Kremlin. “He’ll push for maximum independence from the West and build alliances with other centers of power.”
Putin, who’s also been accused of cyber-attacks and election meddling, including in the U.S. 2016 presidential vote, secured the results despite opposition calls for a boycott. Turnout was reported high at about 67 percent.
“I came here to vote for stability,” said Larisa Kuznetsova, a 62-year-old pensioner, outside a polling station in central Moscow.
“That’s what we count on from our president in such a frightening world.”
Official turnout figures in different regions of Russia are being inflated by as much as 18 percentage points, opposition leader Alexey Navalny said on Twitter, citing data compiled by his observers at polling stations.
Navalny, who was barred from contesting the election, had called for a boycott of the vote in protest.
There’s been “widespread fraud” and observers have caught many instances of ballot-rigging on camera, according to Open Russia, an opposition organization founded by former oil tycoon and Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Election officials said violations were limited and didn’t influence the result.
In addition to accusing Putin, the U.K. expelled the largest number of Russian diplomats from London in 30 years.
Russia retaliated by ordering out an equal number of British envoys as well as demanding the closure of the British Council cultural office and the U.K. consulate in St. Petersburg.
The U.S., Germany and France rallied behind the U.K., saying there’s “no plausible alternative explanation” to Russian responsibility for the first use of a chemical weapon on European soil since World War II.
It’s unclear so far if they’ll back new measures to isolate Russia, which denies any involvement. European Union foreign ministers will discuss the crisis when they meet Monday in Brussels.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Putin gave his most detailed public comments on the case, saying, “It’s complete nonsense to imagine that anyone in Russia could resort to such tricks ahead of the presidential elections and World Cup. It’s unthinkable.”
Putin campaign spokesman Andrei Kondrashov credited the tension with the U.K. for boosting turnout for the president with its tough line.
“We need to say thank you to Great Britain because they again misread the Russian mindset,” he said, according to Interfax.
Putin’s ability to confront the West has increased after President Donald Trump’s election exposed fault lines between the U.S. and Europe and the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU, said Roderic Lyne, former British ambassador to Russia.
“The West at the moment is rather fragmented because of transatlantic tensions and Brexit,” he said.
In the latest challenge, the Kremlin leader brandished new “invincible” nuclear weapons in his state-of-the-nation speech this month, amid confrontation with the U.S. over allegations Russia meddled to help Trump win.
Russia has been accused of deploying cyber tools to encourage separatists in Spain’s Catalonia as well as opponents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in elections last year.
Officials in Washington also said Thursday that Russian government-backed hackers are carrying out rolling attacks on “critical infrastructure” including the electric grid, water processing plants and air transportation facilities that are relied upon by hundreds of millions of Americans.