Early results and an exit poll showed that Vladimir Putin handily won a fourth term as Russia's president Sunday, adding six years in the Kremlin for the man who has led the world's largest country for all of the 21st century. The vote was tainted by widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and forced voting, but the complaints will likely do little to undermine Putin. The Russian leader's popularity remains high despite his suppression of dissent and reproach from the West over Russia's increasingly aggressive stance in world affairs and alleged interference in the 2016 US election. Putin's main challenges in the vote were to obtain a huge margin of victory in order to claim an indisputable mandate. The Central Elections Commission said Putin had won about 72 percent of the vote, based on a count of 22 percent of the country's precincts.
Russian authorities had sought to ensure a large turnout to bolster the image that Putin's so-called "managed democracy" is robust and offers Russians true choices, though his most vehement foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was rejected as a candidate because he was convicted of fraud in a case widely regarded as politically motivated. The election came amid escalating tensions between Russia and the West, with reports that Moscow was behind the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain and that its internet trolls had mounted an extensive campaign to undermine the 2016 US presidential election. Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin was confident of victory, saying he would consider any percentage of votes a success. "The program that I propose for the country is the right one," he declared. (Read more Russian elections stories.)