Inside Moscow vote Putin will win with no opposition

MOSCOW, Russia — A steady stream of voters arrived at a polling station in the heart of Russia’s capital early on this crisp, sunny Friday to cast their votes in a three-day presidential election.

With the winner in no doubt, the Kremlin will instead be looking to turnout as a measure of public support for Vladimir Putin’s extended rule across this vast country.

Muscovites filed into this school-turned-voting site as soon as the doors opened at 8 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET). At the entrance stood a large banner emblazoned with the letter “V” in the colors of the Russian flag and stating the dates of this Friday-Sunday election.

Authorities have used the Latin letters “V” and “Z” as unofficial symbols for its war in Ukraine, which has entered its third year with the country’s military advancing on the battlefield.

The Kremlin’s expanded control over Russian life means there is no true opposition to Putin, with the three other men on the ballot representing parties loyal to Putin who only campaigned sparingly.

Still, some voters said they did not need an alternative.

Nina Kisileva, 90, told NBC News as she exited the station that she came out early to vote for another six years of Putin. “Because I trust him. I really trust him,” Kisileva said, adding that she has lived through a slew of Soviet leaders, including Josef Stalin. “I remember when Stalin died, his funeral in 1953, I remember it well. And now I trust only Putin,” she said.

Svetlana Kulikova said she voted at the station electronically, an option for the first time this year.

Like Kisileva, she said she also voted for Putin. “We live well, we are satisfied with everything and, well, we are very satisfied with our president,” Kulikova, 59, said.

Denis Babushkin, who works in highway construction, said that Putin was the only “adequate” candidate out of the four, so he voted for him. “He is the only person who has made others respect Russia as a country recently,” said Babushkin, 39. While he said he was not happy about everything going on in the country, he said the positives still outweigh the negatives.

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Denis Babushkin.NBC News

Gauging public opinion has become nearly impossible since the beginning of the war, as many people fear speaking out freely amid a crackdown on dissent. But Putin’s approval rating remains high at 86%, according to the independent pollster Levada Center.

NBC News also saw a group of 15 municipal workers come in as an organized group to vote and leave together. Russian authorities have in the past faced accusations of making state employees take part in elections.

There is not much suspense on this occasion, since two candidates with anti-war views have been barred from running, and there is little independent monitoring of the vote process.

But a big turnout would be seen as legitimizing the war and would help to solidify the notion that the country is united around its president, already the longest serving Kremlin leader since Stalin. In 2018, 67% of the eligible voters came out to vote, and the Kremlin will want to boast it has topped that number come Monday.

On the eve of the election, Putin, 71, appealed to feelings of patriotism and duty in a special video message, as he encouraged people to vote and demonstrate unity.

The Kremlin’s efforts to encourage turnout were evident across Russia on Friday, with videos showing celebrities performing inside polling stations and one region even allowing the public to take photos with a cardboard cutout of Tucker Carlson, the conservative commentator who recently interviewed Putin and has become a favored American personality here.

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Voters cast their ballots at a school turned polling station in central Moscow on Friday.NBC News

But Russian state media also reported on some incidents of disruption, including several cases of people pouring colored dye into or over ballot boxes and others using Molotov cocktails to set polling stations on fire.

The country’s opposition, decimated by a crackdown and the death of its leader Alexei Navalny, has been split on how Russians should treat the election. Some have called for a boycott; others have urged people to spoil their ballots or vote for any candidate other than Putin.

The most likely protest will center on a call for Russians to show up en masse at polling stations at noon on Sunday in all of the country’s 11 time zones, in a silent display of their discontent.

Some voters at the Moscow polling station told NBC News they knew about the call for this protest.

Elena, who did not want her last name revealed, said she knew that it was taking place Sunday, but had an opportunity to vote today.

“I believe that in order to have your own opinion and have an attitude toward something, one doesn’t necessarily need to come at noon on Sunday,” said Elena, 24, who works as an economist and would not say who she voted for. “Otherwise, you will come on your own feet, but might not leave on your own.”

That was likely a hint at the crackdown by authorities, which has left many Russians fearful of arrest and reluctant to give their last names to foreign media.

Perhaps most troublesome for the Kremlin, this week has seen a surge in Ukrainian drone attacks across large parts of Russia, and attempts at a land incursion in the two border regions of Belgorod and Kursk that appear to be ongoing after several days of fighting.

The regions’ governors urged people to vote on Friday, but also shared warnings about missile threats and suggested voting electronically if necessary given the potential dangers to people leaving their homes.

Addressing an election day meeting of his security council, Putin vowed revenge for what he said was a “criminal” Ukrainian effort “to disrupt the voting process and intimidate the people.”

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Presidential candidates, including Putin, displayed inside a Moscow polling station on Friday.Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP – Getty Images

This is the first presidential election in which people can vote electronically, raising concerns about falsifications and fraud, which have historically plagued Russian elections. Russia’s ministry of digital development said 1.6 million people had already voted electronically Friday morning, state news agency Tass reported.

An observer from the Communist party, Konstantin Shavlak, said that while they could monitor for any potential violations with paper ballots, the electronic vote was a bit of a mystery that they had no control over. “This is our problem,” said Shavlak, 44. “We always encourage people to vote the old way, using paper ballots. That’s the most reliable, the most honest way.”

More than 114 million Russians are eligible to vote in the election, including nearly 2 million abroad. For the first time, people in the four occupied regions of Ukraine annexed by Russia will also be included, in violation of international law in a move condemned by Kyiv and its Western allies.

Results are expected to start coming in late Sunday, with a landslide win for Putin expected to be announced on Monday.

Keir Simmons and Natasha Lebedeva reported from Moscow. Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.