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Putin poised to sweep to victory in Russian election

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Putin poised to sweep to victory in Russian election

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Olga Maltseva
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MOSCOW — Russia's president Vladimir Putin was poised to be re-elected Sunday night, the widely anticipated outcome, extending his rule into a third decade and raising questions about what another six years under his helm will bring.

With ballots counted from 60 percent of the vast country's precincts, Putin had won more than 75 percent of the vote. Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin currently has 12.5 percent and LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky earned 6 percent. TV-personality-turned-politician Ksenia Sobchak, whose father was Putin's political mentor, came in with 1.4 percent of the vote.

Putin's share of the votes is much higher than the 63.6 percent he garnered in 2012.

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

A number of fraud allegations were reported by election observers. CEC said it opened 13 criminal cases related to today's 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 vote, saying high voter turnout would only help legitimize an election with no real competition.

Related: Voter turnout key for Kremlin as Russia heads to polls to hand Putin 4th presidential term

Sunday afternoon, Navalny told reporters his election observers recorded a 12-18 percent discrepancy in voter turnout as compared to the official numbers released by CEC.

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

Putin made an appearance at the event before final election results were announced, thanking his supporters. "We are destined for success," Putin yelled to the crowd as people chanted his name.

Speaking to reporters later that night, Putin said he was grateful for people's trust and called for unity in the face of political differences.

Vladimir Putin addresses the crowd during a rally and a concert celebrating the fourth anniversary of Russia\'s annexation of Crimea at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on March 18, 2018.
Vladimir Putin addresses the crowd during a rally and a concert celebrating the fourth anniversary of Russia\'s annexation of Crimea at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on March 18, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko

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

Putin was also asked about the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. and what it might mean for Russia's relationship with Europe.

On Saturday, Russia expelled 23 British diplomats in a retaliatory measure after the U.K. accused the Kremlin of responsibility for the poisoning. British Prime Minister Theresa May had kicked 23 Russian diplomats out of the U.K. earlier in the week.

Putin denied Russia was responsible for the attack, which he called a "tragedy."

"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," Putin 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."

Putin has spent almost 14 years as president — and boasts two other stints as the country's prime minister. Another six-year term will extend his lock on power to 24 years — longer than any Russian leader since Stalin.

As voters cast their votes across polling stations in Moscow Sunday, many were musing about what the next six years could bring.

Mikhail, 35, didn't want to reveal his last name to NBC News but said he voted for Putin and welcomed status quo. "I am happy with everything," he said.

Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes during Russia\'s presidential election in Saint Petersburg on March 18, 2018.
Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes during Russia\'s presidential election in Saint Petersburg on March 18, 2018. Olga Maltseva

Pensioner Inna Kovalskaya, 74, also gave her vote to Putin, but 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 Communist Party's Grudinin. He said the future looks bleak to him. "There is no economy other than the gas line. We are left vulnerable," Esipov said.

He 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.

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, U.S. and, most recently, the spy poisoning scandal. Tensions over the issues have led to suggestions of a new cold war.

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 due to 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."