Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a softer tone towards the West on Monday after winning his biggest ever election victory, saying he had no desire for an arms race and would do everything he could to resolve differences with other countries.
Mr. Putin’s victory, which comes at a time when his relations with the West are on a hostile trajectory, will extend his political dominance of Russia by six years to 2024. That will make him the longest-serving ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and has raised Western fears of spiralling confrontation.
But Mr. Putin (65) used a Kremlin meeting with the candidates he soundly defeated in Sunday’s election to signal his desire to focus on domestic, not international, matters, and to try to raise living standards by investing more in education, infrastructure and health while reducing defence spending.
Change in tone
“Nobody plans to accelerate an arms race,” said Mr. Putin. “We will do everything to resolve all the differences with our partners using political and diplomatic channels.”
His comments, which are likely to be heard with some scepticism in the West following years of confrontation, mark a change in tone after a bellicose election campaign during which Mr. Putin unveiled new nuclear weapons, he said, could strike almost any point in the world. Russia is currently at odds with the West over Syria and Ukraine; allegations of cyberattacks and meddling in foreign elections; and the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter. As a result, relations with the West have hit a post-Cold-War low.
With nearly 100% of the votes counted, the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced that Mr. Putin, who has run Russia as President or Prime Minister since 1999, had won 76.69% of the vote.
Free and fair?
With more than 56 million votes, it was Mr. Putin’s biggest ever win and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader.
But the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a rights watchdog, said restrictions on fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, had restricted the scope for political engagement and crimped competition.
“Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice,” the OSCE said in a statement. The CEC said earlier on Monday it had not registered any serious complaints of violations.
Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating of around 80%, Mr. Putin faced no credible threat from a field of seven challengers. His nearest rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won 11.8% while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.6%. His most vocal opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.
Mr. Navalny, who had called on voters to boycott the election, urged his supporters not to lose heart and said his campaign had succeeded in lowering the turnout, accusing authorities of being forced to falsify the numbers.
Near-final figures put turnout at 67.7%, just shy of the 70% the Kremlin was reported to have been aiming for before the vote. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down suggestions that tensions with the West had boosted turnout, saying the result showed that Russians were united behind Mr. Putin’s plans to develop the country.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to offer his congratulations to Mr. Putin, but Heiko Maas, Germany’s new Foreign Minister, questioned whether there had been fair political competition.
French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the few Western leaders to speak by telephone to Mr. Putin on Monday, wishing Russia and its people success in modernising the country.
Asked after his re-election if he would run for yet another term in the future, Mr. Putin laughed off the idea.“Let’s count. What, do you think I will sit (in power) until I’m 100 years old?” he said, calling the question “funny”.
Although Mr. Putin has six years to consider a possible successor, uncertainty about his future is a potential source of instability in a fractious ruling elite that only he can keep in check.