Putin's sabre-rattling raises tensions with West ahead of vote


Moscow (AFP)

Vladimir Putin's pre-election nuclear sabre-rattling has raised the stakes in Moscow's confrontation with the West on the eve of his fourth Kremlin term.

The 65-year-old former KGB officer is all but guaranteed to extend his rule until 2024 in a presidential election on March 18 that follows an anaemic campaign punctuated by international scandal.

Since taking power 18 years ago, Putin has stamped his total authority on the country, silencing opposition and reasserting Moscow's lost might abroad.

This has included sparking a fresh rivalry with the West, which Russia remains at odds with on numerous fronts, from its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war, to the annexation of Crimea, sports doping and accusations of interference in foreign elections.

"It appears that on the eve of the Russian presidential election a conflict between our country and the West -- which both sides are not embarrassed to publicly call a new 'Cold War' -- can enter a new, even more dangerous level," the Gazeta.ru news site said in an editorial.

Earlier this month Putin rolled out a new arsenal of nuclear weapons in a pre-election address that many analysts called the most aggressive and militaristic speech of his nearly two decades in power.

"We would consider any use of nuclear weapons of small, medium or any other power against Russia or its allies to be a nuclear attack on our country. The response would be immediate and with all its attendant consequences," he said.

The speech followed the first major direct clash between Russian and US forces in Syria, where a US-led coalition struck pro-regime forces in February, killing dozens of people including Russian mercenaries.

The former Cold War rivals have also been feuding over allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, with Putin telling US television network NBC that he did "not care" if individual Russians had been involved.

- Poisoned relations -

But the latest diplomatic row casting a shadow over the election campaign is with Britain, after former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent in England.

The attack in the southwestern city of Salisbury revived memories of the 2006 poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Britain would respond "robustly" if Russia was found responsible.

The Gazeta editorial said Russia's ties with the West were "the most toxic since the end of World War II" and -- no matter who was behind the attempted murder -- "the Skripal case can poison Russian ties with the West even further".

But analysts say that far from hurting his chances at the ballot box, the controversies surrounding Putin reinforce a besieged fortress mentality that prompts Russians to rally behind their leader despite a fall in living standards.

March 18 will mark four years since Putin signed a treaty that declared Crimea part of Russia following its annexation from Ukraine, an action that led to the war in the east of the former Soviet state.

"It will not be an election in the true sense of the word, but rather a sort of celebration of the post-Crimea majority's identity," said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

Running against a motley crew of seven challengers, Putin barely campaigned, promising "victories" to tens of thousands of supporters at a rally this month.

- 'Pseudo-elections' -

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny -- seen as the only politician with enough stamina to challenge Putin -- has been barred from running and is awaiting a court hearing that could put him in jail for 30 days for organising an unauthorised protest.

Navalny has called on Russians to boycott the "pseudo-elections", but official polls suggest that Putin will take nearly 70 percent of the vote with a turnout of more than 60 percent.

Critics warn that armed with a strong new mandate, Putin will preside over a fresh round of repressive laws to further limit freedoms after muzzling media and crushing the opposition.

Lawmakers are discussing legislation that could deem not only organisations but also individuals "undesirable" as space for dissent and independent thought rapidly shrinks in Russia.

Over the past weeks Kremlin supporters have unleashed a campaign against actor Alexei Serebryakov, a star of Oscar-nominated "Leviathan," for saying that Russia's national idea was "force, impudence and loutishness".

"A tyranny of the majority is emerging," said Kolesnikov.

"Russia may have problems ?- very serious ones -- but the country is united by common anti-Western, isolationist, and conservative values."