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Russia polling stations vandalized as election sure to grant Vladimir Putin a new 6-year term begins

Voting begins in Russia presidential election
Voting begins in Russia's presidential election 02:01

Moscow — Russian police detained at least eight people Friday for acts of vandalism at polling stations on the first day of voting in presidential elections, officials said. Authorities did not say if the protests were directed against Russia's longtime leader Vladimir Putin, and state-media reports said voting was "continuing as normal."

A woman threw a Molotov cocktail at a school being used as a voting station in Saint Petersburg, electoral authorities said. The suspect was in her 20s, and an electoral official said her "unlawful actions were promptly stopped by police officers. No one was injured."

In Moscow, a video published by the independent SOTA news outlet showed an elderly woman setting a voting booth alight, filling a polling station with smoke before she is detained by police. Another video in the capital showed a woman pouring dye into a ballot box. She was detained and charged with "obstructing the exercise of electoral rights," investigators said.

An image from surveillance video obtained by Reuters shows an unidentified woman pouring ink into a ballot box on the first day of Russia's 2024 presidential elections, in Moscow, Russia, March 15, 2024. Reuters

Four others in the Russian regions of Voronezh, Karachay-Cherkessia and Rostov were also arrested for pouring dye into ballot boxes, officials said. In the remote Siberian region of Khanty-Mansi, a woman was detained for trying to burn a ballot box with a Molotov cocktail, and in Chelyabinsk, police detained a man who tried to set firecrackers off at a polling station, state media said.

An election in the absence of democracy

While the motive remained unclear, the sporadic incidents may have been the death throes of a political opposition that has been all but quashed under the increasingly heavy fist of Russia's 71-year-old strong-man leader.

Putin's biggest political rival, longtime dissident and anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny, died in a remote Russian prison a month before the polls opened. Russian officials say he died of natural causes, but his family and allies accuse Putin of having his most vocal critic murdered.

Russians gather to mourn Alexey Navalny 03:33

Virtually every other member of Navalny's movement, along with anyone who has dared to voice support for it, or anyone or anything else that has challenged Putin's narrative about Russia's war in Ukraine, has been killed, locked up or forced into exile.

With protests of virtually any kind barred across Russia and hundreds of would-be candidates excluded from the elections, there was no doubt that Putin would emerge victorious to claim a new six-year term in office. As president or prime minister, Putin has ruled over Russia uninterrupted for almost a quarter of a century already.

Speaking Thursday in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said "the Russian people deserve free and fair elections and the ability to choose among candidates representing diverse views. They deserve access to impartial information."

Miller noted Navalny's recent death "following years of harassment and abuse," and said Putin and his government, "continue to deny anti-war candidates registration on spurious grounds and to deprive Russian voters of genuine choices."

"Sham elections" in Russian-occupied Ukraine as war grinds on

Russians started voting on Friday in the three-day presidential election as fresh attacks brought the raging conflict in Ukraine further into Russian territory. Putin has cast the election as a show of Russians' loyalty and support for his military assault on the neigboring country, which is now in its third year.

Ukraine vows to keep fighting Russia amid stalled U.S. aid effort 03:37

Voting was taking place at polling stations in a country spread over 11 time zones, and in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, wedged between European Union members Poland and Lithuania, as well as in Russian-occupied parts of eastern Ukraine.

"The United States condemns Russia's continuing efforts to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence through sham elections held in occupied Ukrainian territories," Miller said Thursday at the State Department. "The United States does not and will never recognize the legitimacy or outcome of these sham elections held in sovereign Ukraine as part of Russia's presidential elections."

As the voting started on Friday, both Moscow and Kyiv said civilians had been killed in the latest wave of overnight aerial strikes.

"We have already shown that we can be together, defending the freedom, sovereignty and security of Russia," Putin told his nation, urging Russians to back him in the face of a "difficult period."

"Today it is critically important not to stray from this path," he said in a pre-election message broadcast on state TV.

The Kremlin leader's confidence has been riding high, with his troops recently having secured their first territorial gains in Ukraine in nearly a year and Ukrainian forces desperate for a vital extension of U.S. support currently mired in America's domestic politics.

Biden administration announces $300 million for Ukraine 19:38

Kyiv launched some of its largest air attacks on Russia this week ahead of the election — some reaching hundreds of miles into Russian territory — and pro-Kyiv guerilla fighters have also launched a series of attempted cross-border raids.

Voters in Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, were forced to leave a polling station to head to a bomb shelter as authorities issued an air alert and ordered people to take cover, the RIA Novosti state-run news agency reported. Russia's defense ministry said Ukraine had fired seven rockets at the region.

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