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Russia election: Putin sweeps to victory with commanding mandate

After nearly 14 years as president, and two other stints as the country's prime minister, another six-year term will extend his lock on power to 24 years.

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin won a landslide re-election victory Sunday, a widely anticipated win that will see him extend his rule over the world's largest country into a third decade.

The Central Election Commission, with nearly 100 percent of the votes counted, announced that Putin had won 76.66 percent of the vote.

Putin thanked his supporters before final results were announced, yelling to a crowd chanting his name in Moscow, "We are destined for success!"

Putin — who promised to strengthen the country's defenses against the West and boost living standards — also denied Russia was behind the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England.

He has spent almost 14 years as president, and four years in two separate stints as prime minister. Another six-year term would extend his lock on power to 24 years — longer than any Russian leader since Joseph Stalin.

With 99.84 percent of the vote counted, results showed Putin won almost 77 percent of the vote,

Backed by state TV, a ruling party, and credited with approval ratings of around 80 percent, he faced no credible threat from field of seven challengers. Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin had 12 percent, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, had 6 percent. TV personality-turned-politician Ksenia Sobchak, whose father was Putin's political mentor, came in with less that 2 percent of the vote.

There was wide speculation over how many people would turn out to vote and hand Putin a mandate for a fourth term in office.

Election observers reported numerous fraud allegations. The Central Election Commission, or CEC, said it opened 13 criminal cases related to the election.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was not registered as a candidate over what he calls a fabricated criminal case against him, encouraged his supporters to boycott the election, saying high voter turnout would only help legitimize an election with no real competition.

Sunday afternoon, Navalny told reporters that his election observers recorded a 12 percent to 18 percent discrepancy in voter turnout compared to the official numbers released by the CEC. He also clashed publicly with Sobchak, accusing her of being a Kremlin stooge.

Despite the allegations of fraud, no protests or marches were staged as results rolled in. Instead, a big celebration marking the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea took place in Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow.

Speaking to reporters after he appeared before the crowd, Putin said he was grateful for people's trust and called for unity in the face of political differences.

Asked by a reporter whether the Russian public could expect to see "an old or new Vladimir Putin," the president replied: "Everything changes. We all change."

Image: Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin at a rally and concert celebrating the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on Sunday.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Pool

Putin also commented on what Skripal's poisoning might mean for Russia's relationship with Europe.

"Any sensible person understands that it's a complete fantasy, rubbish, nonsense, that someone in Russia might do something like this on the eve of the presidential elections and the World Cup,"he said. "It's simply unthinkable. Nonetheless, irrespective of all these difficulties, we are ready to work together and ready to discuss any subject and to overcome any difficulties."

Russia expelled 23 British diplomats on Saturday in a retaliatory measure after Britain accused the Kremlin of responsibility for the poisoning. British Prime Minister Theresa May kicked out 23 Russian diplomats last week.

Putin's most recent term as president has been marked by an escalating conflict between Russia and the West, as seen on at least four fronts: Ukraine, Syria, the United States and, most recently, the spy poisoning scandal. Tensions over the issues have led to suggestions of a new cold war.

As voters cast their votes Sunday in Moscow, many reflected on what the next six years could bring.

Mikhail, 35, who didn't want to provide his last name, said he voted for Putin and welcomed the status quo.

"I am happy with everything," he said.

Inna Kovalskaya, a 74-year-old retiree, also voted for Putin, but she said she does want to see change — a stronger economy and a tougher stance on corruption.

"And a higher pension for myself," she added.

College professor Igor Esipov, 73, voted for the Grudinin of the Communist Part. He said the future looked bleak.

"There is no economy other than the gas line," he said. "We are left vulnerable."

Image: Election commission
Members of a local election commission in St. Petersburg empty a ballot box as they start counting votes during Russia's presidential election on Sunday.Olga Maltseva / AFP - Getty Images

Esipov added that Putin did a lot for the country but that he is past his prime as president. "He accomplished his mission by year 2008, or maybe even 2012. That was the peak of his success. He was necessary and important for the country then ... but we need someone else now," Episov said.

Less than three weeks before the election, Putin revealed Russia's new array of nuclear-capable weapons, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that renders defense systems "useless," he said.

The Russian constitution bars Putin from running in 2024 because of a two-term limit, but he would be eligible to run again in 2030, when he would be 77. Putin dismissed the possibility of running again in 12 years.

"Will I be doing this till I am a hundred years old?" he asked, before responding, "No."