Vladimir Putin, who exit polls say won a fourth term as Russian president in Sunday's election, has tightened the Kremlin's grip on society since taking power 18 years ago. If none of the candidates wins in the first round, the two front-runners will enter a run-off three weeks later, when he or she will defeat the other by getting more votes.
The Department of the Treasury announced on Thursday that 19 Russian individuals and five Russian entities would be sanctioned for allegedly interfering in the 2016 election and engaging in cyberattacks.
The result would extend the leader's total time in office to almost a quarter of a century, by which time he will be 71. A low turnout would diminish Putin's authority within the ruling elite, which is founded in large part on his ability to mobilize the public behind him. By 5 p.m. Moscow time, authorities said turnout had hit almost 52 percent. "When your candidate is not on the ballot, there is no point to voting".
Monitors organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny and others complained of ballot stuffing and other methods of increasing turnout in Sunday's votes, but an official from Russia's elections committee said no serious violations had taken place. Meanwhile, art history student Maria Pogodina, 19, will be supporting the boycott Navalny has called as an alternative.
Russians were voting Sunday in an election set to hand President Vladimir Putin a fourth Kremlin term but slammed by the opposition as a sham as tensions with Britain escalated over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent.
Prime Minister Theresa May responded defiantly to the tit-for-tat move, which followed Britain's expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and the suspension of high-level contacts earlier this week.
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Mnuchin said there would be additional sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs "for their destabilizing activities". But the disputes likely worked in Putin's favor, reinforcing the official stance that the West is infected with "Russophobia" and determined to undermine both Putin and traditional Russian values.
Sobchak called on Putin's critics to "come together".
Leaders from the United States, Germany and France joined the U.K.in accusing Russian Federation of being behind the attack in a statement this week. But Putin's popularity remained strong, apparently buttressed by nationalist pride.
The outcome in Sunday's vote is so certain that authorities are investing in get-out-the-vote efforts to ensure a decent turnout.
At home, Putin will be faced with how to groom a successor or devise a strategy to circumvent term limits, how to drive diversification in an economy still highly dependent on oil and gas and how to improve medical care and social services in Russian regions far removed from the cosmopolitan glitter of Moscow.
Many voters credit Putin, a 65-year-old former KGB spy, with standing up for Russia's interests in a hostile outside world, even though the cost is confrontation with the West.
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"I don't know where to turn to complain", he said, insisting Putin was still Russia's best hope.
Voters cast ballots from the Pacific coast to Siberia and Moscow. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears repercussions from his employers if he speaks publicly about the electoral pressure.
"I voted for Putin", said Lyubov Kachan, a teacher in the settlement of Ust-Djeguta, in southern Russian Federation. Asked why one woman was photographed, Kostina said: "Her work asked her to report back".
Observers believe that Sobchak's involvement in the race will help combat voter apathy and boost turnout to make Putin's victory look more impressive.
First-time voters also received free concert tickets.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin said he would be pleased with any result giving him the right to continue as president.
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Voting in the world's largest country ended at 2 p.m. EDT. They included discrepancies in ballot numbers, ballot boxes placed out of sight of observation cameras and last-minute voter registration changes likely created to boost turnout.