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Putin begins new six-year term in defiance of the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin said it is up to the West to choose between confrontation and cooperation as he was sworn in for a new six-year term on Tuesday in a Kremlin ceremony that was boycotted by the United States and many of its allies.

More than two years after the war in Ukraine, Putin said he wanted to “bow” to the Russian soldiers there and declared in his inauguration speech that his landslide re-election in March was proof that the country was united and in the correct road.

“You, citizens of Russia, have confirmed the correctness of the country’s course. This is of great importance at this time, when we face serious challenges,” he told dignitaries in a gilded Kremlin hall where a fanfare of trumpets sounded to greet their arrival.

“I see in this a deep understanding of our common historical goals, a determination to firmly defend our choice, our values, freedom and the national interests of Russia.”

At 71 years old, Putin dominates the domestic political landscape. Leading opposition figures are in prison or exile, and its best-known critic, Alexei Navalny, died suddenly in an Arctic penal colony in February.

Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of the late dissident, urged her followers in a video on Tuesday to continue the fight against Putin. “With each of his terms, everything gets worse, and it’s terrifying to imagine what else will happen while Putin remains in power,” she said.

On the international stage, Putin is locked in a confrontation with Western countries that he accuses of using Ukraine as a vehicle to try to defeat and dismember Russia.

Putin told Russia’s political elite after taking the oath that he did not reject dialogue with the West, including on the issue of nuclear weapons.

“The choice is yours: do you intend to continue trying to stop Russia’s development, continue with the policy of aggression, of incessant pressure on our country for years, or seek a path towards cooperation and peace?” he stated.

With Russian troops gradually advancing into eastern Ukraine, the top U.S. intelligence official said last week that Putin appeared to see domestic and international events trending in his favor and that the conflict was unlikely to end soon.

It is still unclear to what extent Putin will try to press the war and under what terms he might discuss ending it, decisions that will depend in part on whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the US presidential election in November. Ukraine says peace can only come with a complete withdrawal of Russian troops, who control almost 20% of its territory.

Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, will overtake Soviet leader Josef Stalin to become Russia’s longest-serving ruler since 18th-century Empress Catherine the Great if he completes a new six-year term. He would then be eligible to seek re-election again.

He won by a record margin in a closely controlled election in which two anti-war candidates were excluded on technical grounds. The opposition called it a farce.

The United States, which said it did not consider his re-election free and fair, abstained from attending Tuesday’s ceremony.

Britain, Canada and most EU countries also decided to boycott the swearing-in, but France said it would send its ambassador.

Ukraine noted that the event sought to create “the illusion of legality for the almost lifelong permanence in power of a person who has turned the Russian Federation into an aggressor state and the ruling regime into a dictatorship.”

Sergei Chemezov, a Putin ally, told Reuters before the ceremony that Putin brought stability, something even his critics should welcome.

“For Russia, this is the continuation of our path, this is stability; You can ask any citizen on the street,” she stated.

Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies are at their lowest point since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world came to the brink of nuclear war.

The West has provided Ukraine with artillery, tanks and long-range missiles, but NATO troops have not joined the conflict directly, something that both Putin and Biden have warned could lead to World War III.

Underscoring rising nuclear tensions, Russia said on Monday it would practice deploying tactical nuclear weapons as part of a military exercise, after what it said were threats from France, Britain and the United States.

One of the decisions awaiting Putin in his new term will be whether he will seek to renew or replace the last remaining treaty limiting Russia and the United States’ strategic nuclear warheads. The New START agreement will expire in 2026.

In accordance with the Constitution, the government resigned at the beginning of the new presidential term. Putin ordered him to remain in office while he names a new one that is expected to include many of the same faces.

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