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‘Tsar’ Putin tells the West: Russia will talk only on equal terms

VLADIMIR Putin honoured like a Russian tsar at his swearing-in for a new six-year presidential term, had a double-edged message for the West: the Kremlin is ready to talk but Russia is girding for victory in Ukraine.

Putin, who rose to the top of the Kremlin just eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union, will overtake Josef Stalin and become Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Empress Catherine the Great if he completes the term.

The 71-year-old former KGB spy exuded confidence in the carefully choreographed inauguration which the West and opponents, who are mainly in jail or abroad, cast as a fig leaf of democracy covering a corrupt Russian autocracy.

As the Russian elite waited in the Hall of Saint Andrew in the Grand Kremlin Palace, where the imperial throne once sat, Putin studied documents in his office before walking down the corridors of the Kremlin to salute guards, even stopping to unhurriedly study a picture on the wall.

“We do not refuse dialogue with Western states,” Putin said after being sworn in, adding that he was ready for talks on security and strategic stability but only if there was no “arrogance” from the United States and its allies.

Russia’s paramount leader of more than 24 years promised victory and said all Russians were now “answerable to our thousand-year history and our ancestors.”

He left the ceremony to the music “Hail” from Mikhail Glinka’s opera “A Life for the Tsar”. The words “Hail, hail, my Rus! Hail you are my Russian land” rang out in the Kremlin. The original words are “Hail, hail, our Russian tsar!”.

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“The authority of our president is higher than ever – higher than the American president, higher even than the Russian tsar. So much depends on our president,” said Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

WAR

Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine touched off the worst breakdown in relations between Russia and the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Russia is advancing along the front line and its artillery production outstrips the NATO alliance.

The West views Putin as an autocrat, a war criminal, a killer and even, as U.S. President Joe Biden said earlier this year, a “crazy SOB” who U.S. officials say has enslaved Russia in a corrupt dictatorship.

Putin casts the war as part of an existential battle with a declining and decadent West which he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by encroaching on what he considers Moscow’s sphere of influence, including Ukraine.

Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), told Reuters that Putin’s speech was an invitation to the West to begin dialogue.

“From one side, this is an invitation to the West to equal cooperation and from the other side, it is the firm conviction that Russia will ensure its own development and security,” Naryshkin said.

And if the West doesn’t want to talk?

“Then let them think,” Naryshkin said with a smile.

The signal comes just a day after Putin ordered drills to practice the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons after what Moscow said were threats from France, Britain and the United States.

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Putin’s suggestion of a ceasefire in Ukraine to freeze the war was rejected by the United States after contacts between intermediaries, Reuters reported in February.

RUSSIA

In Russia, the war has helped Putin tighten his grip on power and boost his popularity with Russians. According to official results, he won 88% of the vote in the March election.

The United States said it would not send anyone to the swearing-in and that the election was not free and fair but said it still considered Putin to be the president of Russia.

Britain, Canada and most EU nations boycotted the event, a move that top Russian officials cast as pointless and with no significance for anyone but the West.

The main points of Putin’s short speech were: the danger of upheaval and stagnation, and that Russia’s unique civilization must develop with a transforming world.

Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, told Reuters that the election was an unprecedented event in Russian electoral history and indicated a new level of “internal consolidation”.

Sergei Chemezov, who worked with Putin in East Germany and is a close ally, said that Putin had brought stability, something which 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,” Chemezov said. The West, he said, “will understand that Putin is stability for Russia rather than some sort of new person.”

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There is no obvious successor.

By GUY FAULCONBRIDGE

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