Putin begins his fifth term as president, more in control of Russia than ever

President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term at a glittering Kremlin inauguration Tuesday, embarking on another six years as leader of Russia after destroying his political opponents, launching a devastating war in Ukraine and concentrating all power in his hands.

At the ceremony in the gilded Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin placed his hand on the Russian Constitution and vowed to defend it as a crowd of hand-picked dignitaries looked on.

“We are a united and great people and together we will overcome all obstacles, realize all our plans, together we will win,” Putin said after being sworn in.

Since succeeding President Boris Yeltsin in the waning hours of 1999, Putin has transformed Russia from a country emerging from economic collapse to a pariah state that threatens global security. Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine that has become Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II, Russia has been heavily sanctioned by the West and is turning to other regimes like China, Iran and North Korea for support.

Already in office for nearly a quarter-century and the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin, Putin’s new term doesn’t expire until 2030, when he will be constitutionally eligible to run again.

In a heavily choreographed performance, Putin was pictured in his office looking at his papers before walking along the Kremlin’s long corridors, pausing at one point to look at a painting, on the way to his inauguration.

His guard of honor waited in the sleet and rain for hours, in temperatures hovering just above freezing, while Putin made the brief journey to the Grand Kremlin Palace in his Auras limousine.

Putin used the the first moments of his fifth term to thank the “heroes” of his war in Ukraine and to rail against the West.

Russia “does not refuse dialogue with Western states,” he said. Rather, he said, “the choice is theirs: do they intend to continue trying to contain Russia, continue the policy of aggression, continuous pressure on our country for years, or look for a path to cooperation and peace.”

He was greeted with applause when he entered the hall with more than 2,500 invited guests. They included senior members of the Russian government as well as celebrities including American actor Steven Seagal.

Neither the U.S., U.K. nor German ambassadors attended. The U.S. Embassy said Ambassador Lynne Tracy was out of the country on “prescheduled, personal travel.”

A handful of European Union envoys attended even though top EU diplomat Josep Borrell said he told them “the right thing to do is not to attend this inauguration,” because Putin is the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.

Among those present was the French ambassador, according to a French diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrive for a meeting with the military brass in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. A Shoigu deputy was detained last month on charges of bribery amid reports of rampant corruption. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrive for a meeting with the military brass in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group private military contractor, looks from a military vehicle leaving the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Two months later, Prigozhin was killed in a mysterious plane crash after launching a brief uprising against the Defense Ministry in what represented the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo, File)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group private military contractor, looks from a military vehicle leaving the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. (AP Photo, File)

A 30-gun salute followed Putin’s remarks. He reviewed the presidential regiment in the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square in a light drizzle and then walked into nearby Annunciation Cathedral for a blessing from Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

During the brief service, Kirill compared Putin to Prince Alexander Nevsky, the medieval ruler who “courageously defended their people on the battlefield.”

He reminded Putin that the head of state sometimes “has to take fateful and formidable decisions” that can lead to victims, an apparent reference to the many casualties in Ukraine — a conflict the church has endorsed.

The question now is what the 71-year-old Putin will do over the course of another six years in the Kremlin, both at home and abroad.

Russian forces are gaining ground in Ukraine, deploying scorched-earth tactics as Kyiv grapples with shortages of men and ammunition.

Ukraine has brought the battle to Russian soil through drone and missile attacks, especially in border regions. In a speech in February, Putin vowed to fulfill Moscow’s goals in Ukraine, and do what is needed to “defend our sovereignty and security of our citizens.”

Shortly after his orchestrated reelection in March, Putin suggested that a confrontation between NATO and Russia is possible, and he declared he wanted to carve out a buffer zone in Ukraine to protect his country from cross-border attacks.

The Russian government has now been dissolved so that Putin can name a new prime minister and Cabinet.

One key area to watch is the Defense Ministry.

Last month, Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov — a protege of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu — was detained on charges of bribery amid reports of rampant corruption. Some analysts have suggested Shoigu could become a victim of the government reshuffle but that would be a bold move, with the war still raging.

At home, Putin’s popularity is closely tied to improving living standards for ordinary Russians.

Putin on Tuesday once again promised Russians a prosperous future, but since the invasion of Ukraine, many have seen the cost of living rise.

Putin began his term in 2018 by promising to get Russia into the top five global economies, vowing it should be “modern and dynamic.” Instead, Russia’s economy has pivoted to a war footing, and authorities are spending record amounts on defense.

Analysts say now that Putin has secured another six years in power, the government could take the unpopular steps of raising taxes to fund the war and pressure more men to join the military.

In the years following the invasion, authorities have cracked down on any form of dissent with a ferocity not seen since Soviet times.

Putin indicated Tuesday that he would continue to silence critics.

He told his audience in the Grand Kremlin Palace to remember the “tragic cost of internal turmoil and upheaval,” and said that Russia “must be strong and absolutely resistant to any challenges and threats.”

Putin enters his fifth term with practically no opposition inside the country.

Laws have been enacted that threaten long prison terms for anyone who discredits the military. The Kremlin also targets independent media, rights groups, LGBTQ+ activists and others who don’t hew to what Putin has emphasized as Russia’s “traditional family values.”

His greatest political foe, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony in February. Other prominent critics have either been imprisoned or have fled the country, and even some of his opponents abroad fear for their security.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, released a video ahead of the inauguration in which she said Putin’s promises “are not only empty, they are false.”

Russia, she said, is “ruled by a liar, a thief and a murderer.”

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