Vladimir Putin

In addition to diplomacy, America needs a stronger hand

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Nov.23, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Nov.23, 2014.

In “21 Jump Street,” a former nerd played by Jonah Hill and former bully played by Channing Tatum return to high school as undercover narcotics officers, expecting the world to look exactly as it did in the 1990s. Instead, they find a completely different social hierarchy, in which Tatum’s particular species of villain is virtually extinct. The modern high school still has jerks and ruffians, but none quite so callous and meatheaded as the archetypical alpha male jock.

While a movie called “21(st) Century International Relations” might not pull in the same quantity of box-office receipts, it would probably have a similar premise. Throughout the 20th century, brutal autocrats played a starring role in shaping global conflicts. From the regal kaisers and sultans of World War I to the fascist strongmen of World War II to the communist despots of the Cold War, the U.S. always had a crop of enemies it could easily label as villains.

But in recent years, those types of dictatorships have started to die out. American invasions toppled dictators in Afghanistan and Iraq. Local revolutions brought democracy to Tunisia and ejected two autocrats in a three-year span in Egypt. Governmental reforms have started to slowly liberalize Vietnam and Cuba. With a few exceptions, like North Korea’s enigmatic Kim Jong-un and Zimbabwe’s geriatric Robert Mugabe, there aren’t a lot of unabashed tyrants out there in the world today.

And now that its more ideological enemies are mostly insurgent groups, America’s battles with other states have become increasingly driven by competing self-interests. Figures like Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani often label themselves democratic or capitalistic, but neither is a trustworthy leader, and both stand resolutely opposed to America’s international agendas.

That’s what makes recent U.S. foreign policy so dangerous. The Obama administration is currently negotiating a compromise with Iran that would hopefully lead to a freeze on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, and the American response to Putin’s aggressive warmongering in Eastern Europe has been nothing more than harsh rhetoric and a weak set of sanctions. George W. Bush didn’t do much better. The former president famously said of Putin in 2001, “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I got a sense of his soul.”

These missteps can delude the American public into a false sense of security. Because no rational state would launch a major attack against the U.S. right now, it’s easy to conclude that maybe softening up is a good approach after all. While the U.S. takes its time to forge amenable solutions with its adversaries, its allies in the Middle East live in constant fear of Iran’s violent puppets, which include the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. Similarly, Poland and the Baltic states have good reason to fear Putin’s incursions into Eastern Europe, and neither the U.S. nor the EU is alleviating their concerns. Plus, the amount of respect other countries hold for American power is far from constant, and changes in their political climates can be subtle and gradual. Just as Austin’s unusually chilly November doesn’t disprove climate change, the lack of an imminent war with Russia or Iran doesn’t make them harmless.

Close diplomatic ties with rival states aren’t impossible, and trust among opposing leaders is one of the most powerful forces for change in international politics. But a brash and increasingly power-drunk Putin is no Mikhail Gorbachev, and not even a moderate rhetorician like Rouhani can overcome Ayatollah Khomeini’s grip on Iranian policy. Appeasement and diplomacy can work, but in these particular cases, America needs a stronger approach, either through full trade embargoes or a credible threat of NATO action. Playing nice might maintain a stable status quo, but it won't keep America or its allies safe in the long run.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics major from Westport, Conn.

Photo Credit: Shannon Butler | Daily Texan Staff

As observers of international affairs, we have a tendency to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, friends and foes. Old maps from the Second World War show the allied countries in one color, the axis countries in another. Cold War maps depict our allies in blue or white, the communists usually in red. Since Sept. 11, 2001, American policymakers have divided the world roughly between our friends in the war against terrorism, and those states that support or house terrorists (what former President George W. Bush infamously called the “axis of evil”). 

Russia, under its dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin, poses a problem for these somewhat unavoidable colors on our maps. Putin’s actions in the last year have clearly shown that he aims to challenge American and West European influence in the territories around his state. Putin has invaded South Ossetia (formerly part of the republic of Georgia), Crimea and eastern Ukraine to prevent those regions from joining the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite strong support in each nation for cultivating these Western connections. Putin has flagrantly vetoed efforts in the United Nations to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal attacks on his own population. On July 17 paramilitary forces in eastern Ukraine operating Russian weapons shot down a civilian aircraft, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 civilians. Undaunted, Russia has continued to support this kind of reckless behavior, including provocative military aircraft flights near E.U. and U.S. borders. 

Some observers have diagnosed a new Cold War, with a renewed division in Europe, but that exaggerates the Russian threat. For all his brutality, Putin is not seeking to close off Russia to Western capital, people or ideas. If anything, he wants his chosen allies at home to benefit from foreign investments, high-skilled workers, innovative technologies and modern media. Putin recognizes that Russian power and prosperity require integration, not separation, from global capitalist markets and knowledge industries. His goal is to manage Russia’s global integration for his maximum benefit, minimizing what he perceives as the advantages of the U.S. and E.U. Putin has shown little concern for the freedoms and living standards of his own citizens; his priority is the power of the state that he controls.

Condemning Putin as an aggressive tyrant is not sufficient, and it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cornered and isolated dictators almost never back down; they usually turn to more threatening policies. Similarly, ignoring Putin’s misdeeds and hoping for the best in negotiations will not work, either. Aggressive and self-righteous tyrants seek to exploit opportunities; they will push against their neighbors until someone pushes back. 

The challenge for American and European policy is to contend with the current realities and the likely reactions from Putin toward various Western actions. Many of our discussions of policy caricature our adversaries, while they simultaneously overstate our power and understate the range of our options. Like the simple lines and colors on our maps, our strategic vision of the world is much too simple. The key task for policy observers is to avoid dichotomies between good and evil and instead conceptualize how the United States can discourage Putin’s continued aggression without further antagonizing the Russian dictator by backing him into a corner. 

What the United States needs is a policy that builds what former Secretary of State Dean Acheson called “situations of strength” while also offering Russia dignified exits from confrontation. Rhetoric about “stopping” Russia overstates our capabilities, and efforts to humiliate Putin make the resolution of conflict more difficult. Backing down is hard for everyone, especially political strongmen who rule through intimidation. Firmness, preparation and respect — even for brutal regimes — are key elements of a workable relationship. Political efficacy requires reasonableness in addition to moral indignation.

So what does a firm, prepared, respectful and reasonable U.S. and E.U. policy toward Russia look like? Historical experience points to three basic elements. First, the U.S. and E.U. should state clearly why we believe that Ukraine, Georgia and other countries around Russia deserve the right to join the E.U., NATO and other Western organizations if they wish. We must show consistency, seriousness and interests beyond immediate gains for our own societies. An adversary, like Russia, cannot appreciate our interests and values if we do not articulate them effectively.

Second, attention to Ukraine, Georgia and other countries does not mean that Russia should be ignored. Quite the contrary, U.S. and E.U. leaders should reach out explicitly to show that we value dialogue with Russia. We should give Putin reasons to want to do the right thing.

Third, and perhaps most important, Washington and Brussels must truly represent global opinion. Instead of falling into Putin’s trap of conceptualizing the conflict as a battle of the rich West against the rest, President Barack Obama and his counterparts must appeal to other major countries in East Asia, Latin America and Africa. Putin must see that there is little sympathy for his behavior around the globe. World opinion matters, and skillful diplomatic work to mobilize world opinion on behalf of democracy and national sovereignty is crucial.

Although the lines on the maps still matter, they should not force our thinking into rigid “us” versus “them” assumptions. Putin’s Russia is a threat, but it is a manageable threat. Policy leadership on this topic is more about diplomacy, negotiation and creativity than the moralistic rhetoric that dominates our public discussions. We can indeed help to lead the world without simplistically dividing it.

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @JeremiSuri. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The last decade has witnessed a proliferation of proxy wars throughout the Middle East, Africa, central Asia and Southeast Asia. These are violent, often genocidal, conflicts between local groups fueled by larger foreign actors. The Pakistanis have been a notorious practitioner of this strategy, funding the Taliban and other extreme groups throughout war zones in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Iran has played a similar game in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

Russia, however, has become the worst offender. Its direct military support for violent forces in Syria and Ukraine poses one of the greatest threats to international stability today as we have seen in the recent downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 by Russian-supported Ukrainian rebels. In Syria, Russia’s aid to the military of Bashir al-Assad has contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and a civil war that is breaking apart the states in the region. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a rump group of extremists in control of territory stretching from the Syrian border with Turkey to the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Falluja, is a result of the fighting surrounding Assad. He and his Russian, as well as Iranian, supporters have attracted a transnational Islamic revolt that has drawn fighters from across the region and beyond. The extremists have filled a political vacuum in the areas that Assad and the deeply divided Iraq government cannot control. Through its military support and its veto of United Nations action, Russia has prevented a solution to this crisis.

Recent events in Ukraine fit the same dangerous pattern of Russian behavior. On March 21 Russian President Vladimir Putin forcefully annexed the Crimean Peninsula, taking the Black Sea territory from Ukraine. He had done this by sending irregular Russian forces into the territory, motivating local Russian-supporters to stage a Moscow-inspired rebellion against Ukrainian authorities. The international community universally condemned Russian aggression, but Putin falsely claimed this was a legitimate act to protect Russian speakers.

Putin made a similar argument for the eastern part of Ukraine, which also has a large Russian-speaking population, especially in industrial cities like Donetsk.  Russia has deployed advanced weapons, military trainers and its own soldiers to support a violent separatist movement in Ukraine. It is fueling a proxy war, designed to create a separate Russian Ukrainian state that will stand against the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO.)

The brutality of Russia’s proxy wars in Syria and Ukraine created the Malaysian Airliner tragedy that resulted in the tragic death of 298 innocent civilians, none of whom had any connection to these conflicts. On July 17 Russian-supported rebels in Ukraine, and perhaps Russian military forces, fired a surface-to-air missile at what they thought was a Ukrainian government airplane. They were using these missile attacks to destroy government aircraft threatening rebel-held areas. The accidental destruction of the civilian aircraft was the result of this aggressive use of force against the Ukrainian state, made possible by the most sophisticated Russian military hardware. Without Putin’s support, the Ukrainian separatists would never have threatened the Malaysian airliner, flying 30,000 feet above the ground.

The escalating violence of Russia’s proxy wars undermines hopes for stability in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. These conflicts will continue to produce a large death toll, destabilize local governments, and demand American and allied intervention in response. President Barack Obama has condemned Russian behavior and he has led efforts to implement stiff economic sanctions on key Russian actors, including many of Putin’s closest business supporters, the “Oligarchs.” President Obama has had mixed success encouraging the European Union and other key international actors to act similarly.

The time has come for a more significant American response. The United States should initiate a firm policy of containing Russian meddling beyond its borders. The President should offer a detailed public account of Russia’s actions, he should forthrightly condemn this behavior, and he should isolate Moscow from full participation from all American-influenced trade and diplomatic organizations until Moscow abandons its support for proxy wars. The purpose is not to isolate Russia permanently, but to make Putin and his supporters pay a heavy international and domestic cost for their aggressive behavior. Negotiations can continue with Moscow, as they always should, but Russia should no longer benefit from status as a respected international actor. It is indeed a rogue state, and will remain such as long as Putin continues his current proxy war policies. Nothing is gained by operating from old, wishful fictions. 

Suri is a history professor who specializes in international modern history. 

People protest during a May Day rally in Barcelona, Spain on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of workers marked May Day in European cities with a mix of anger and gloom over imposed austerity measures.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MADRID — On the front lines of the world’s May Day protests this year, along with the traditional chants, banners and marches, a gamut of emotions flowed through the crowds: Anger. Fear. Elation. Despair.

With Europe’s unemployed denouncing austerity measures, Asia’s laborers demanding higher salaries and U.S. protesters condemning Wall Street, Tuesday’s demonstrations by hundreds of thousands were less a celebration of workers’ rights than a furious venting over spending cuts, tax hikes and soaring unemployment.

The protests came just days ahead of key elections in Greece and France, whose leaders have acutely felt popular anger over policies many feel are strangling any hopes of economic recovery. The rallies reflected deep pessimism in Spain, dealing with a fragile economy is in the cross-hairs of the European debt crisis.

Yet optimism and national pride emerged too. Over 100,000 turned out in Russia for May Day rallies that celebrated Vladimir Putin’s government. And tens of thousands of workers rallied with joy in France, hoping this would be the last week of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative leadership.

In the U.S., protesters lined major financial institutions in the country’s most high-profile Occupy Wall Street rallies since the encampments protesting the gap between the superrich and poor came down in the fall. Crowds blocked intersections in Oakland, Calif., trying to force businesses to shut down for not observing calls for a “general strike.” Police in riot gear faced dozens of Occupy activists marching in front of a Bank of America in New York City, chanting “Bank of America. Bad for America.”

Under a gray Madrid sky that reflected the dark national mood, 25-year Adriana Jaime turned out to march. Jaime speaks three languages and has a masters degree as a translator, but works for what she derided as peanuts in a university research project that has been cut from three years to three months due to a lack of funds.

“I am here because there is no future for the young people of this country,” Jaime said as many marchers carried black-and-white placards with the word NO and a pair of red scissors.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying desperately to cut a bloated deficit, restore investor confidence in Spain’s public finances, lower its 24.4 percent jobless rate, and fend off fears the country will soon need a bailout like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

But Ana Lopez, a 44-year-old civil servant, argued the government is doing nothing to help workers and that the economic crisis is only benefiting banks.

“Money does not just disappear. It does not fly away. It just changes hands, and now it is with the banks,” Lopez said. “And the politicians are puppets of the banks.”

In France, tens of thousands of workers, leftists and union leaders marked May Day with glee, hoping that a presidential runoff vote Sunday will put a Socialist at the helm for the first time since 1988.

Protests took place all over the globe, in places such as Germany Russia; Chile; Argentina, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Taiwan and Cuba. Also known as International Workers’ Day, it is a commemoration of those killed striking during the Haymarket Riots of 1886.Many voters fear Sarkozy will erode France’s welfare and worker protections, and see him as too friendly with the rich.

“Sarkozy has allowed himself for too long to manhandle the lower classes,” said Dante Leonardi, a 24-year-old in Paris. “Today we must show ... that we want him to leave.”

Hollande has promised high taxes on the rich.

“We are going to choose Hollande because we want something else for France. We want to keep our jobs, we want to keep our industrial jobs, we want a new economy,” said protester Serge Tanguy.

Even in Germany, where the economy is churning and unemployment is at a record low, unions estimated that 400,000 people showed up at over 400 May Day rallies. The DGB union group sharply criticized Europe’s treaty enshrining fiscal discipline and the austerity measures across the continent, calling instead for a stimulus program to revive the 17-nation eurozone’s depressed economies.

In debt-crippled Greece, more than 2,000 people marched through central Athens in subdued May Day protests centered on the country’s harsh austerity program.

“(We need) new policies that will satisfy the needs of workers and not of bosses and banks,” said Ilias Vrettakos of the ADEDY union.

In Moscow, the mood was resolutely pro-government, as 100,000 people — including President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Putin — took part in the main May Day march.

The two leaders happily chatted with participants as many banners criticized the Russian opposition movement. One read “Spring has come, the swamp has dried up,” referring to Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square, the site of some of the largest opposition demonstrations.

Communists and leftists held a separate May Day rally in Moscow that attracted about 3,000. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov decried international economic troubles, saying that “without socialism, without respect for the working people who create all the main value in this land, it is not possible to get out of this crisis.”

Police arrested 22 people at the rally, and violence was largely contained at the protests.

After a workers’ day march in Santiago, Chile, some protesters threw objects at closed businesses, breaking the windows of several banks and pulling out furniture to build a bonfire in the street. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons, and arrested an undetermined number of people. In Argentina, small explosion went off outside the EU headquarters in Buenos Aires before dawn, breaking a few windows, but there were no injuries and no one was arrested.

Earlier, thousands of workers protested in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and other Asian nations, demanding wage hikes. They said their take-home pay could not keep up with rising food, energy and housing prices and school fees.

An unemployed father of six set himself on fire in southern Pakistan in an apparent attempt to kill himself because he was mired in poverty, according to police officer Nek Mohammed. Abdul Razzaq Ansari, 45, suffered burns on 40 percent of his body but survived.

In Manila, capital of the Philippines, more than 8,000 union members clad in red shirts and waving red streamers marched under a brutal sun to a heavily barricaded bridge near the Malacanang presidential palace, which teemed with thousands of riot police.

Another group of left-wing workers later burned a huge effigy of President Benigno Aquino III, depicting him as a lackey of the United States and big business. Aquino has rejected their calls for a $3 daily pay hike, which he warned could worsen inflation and spark layoffs.

In Indonesia, thousands of protesters demanding higher wages paraded through traffic-clogged streets in the capital, Jakarta, where 16,000 police and soldiers were deployed. Protests were also held in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

In Havana, Cubans marked May Day not with protest but with a mass demonstration dedicated to “preserving and perfecting socialism,” the slogan on a huge banner carried by medical workers who led the march.

Thousands filed through the capital’s Plaza of the Revolution in front of President Raul Castro and Cabinet officials, waving red, white and blue Cuban flags.

“Country, revolution and socialism are inextricably fused together,” said Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of Cuba’s central labor union.

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: May Day protesters focus economic rage

MOSCOW — The Russian parliament on Wednesday passed a Kremlin bill restoring gubernatorial elections, with opponents saying the new law will still allow the president to screen out undesirable candidates.

The 450-seat State Duma, the elected lower house, approved the bill with a majority of 237 votes.
President Dmitry Medvedev submitted the bill in response to massive protests against his mentor Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the March election that gave Putin a third presidential term.

Putin had scrapped direct elections of provincial governors during his presidency as part of a systematic rollback of democratic freedoms.

While the president will no longer appoint Russia’s governors, the new law will give him the right to “consult” with potential candidates or the parties nominating them.

Candidates will also have to receive formal backing from 5 to 10 percent of the members of local legislatures, depending on the region.

“It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for an opposition candidate to become governor,” said Communist lawmaker Anatoly Lokot.

Yelena Mizulina of the leftist Just Russia party said the bill was a throwback to the Soviet era, when all candidates were approved by the Communist Party.

“The government’s fear of people and direct elections lies in the foundation of that bill,” she said.

The State Duma is dominated by the Kremlin party, United Russia, which holds a majority of the seats. The bill must still be approved by the upper house and signed by Medvedev, steps regarded as formalities.

Medvedev’s reforms also include bills easing registration requirements for political parties and liberalizing election rules. Those steps have been welcomed by the opposition, but the next election to the national parliament is five years away.

Printed on Thursday, April 26, 2012 as: Russian law increases presidential power

Ilya Yashin, 29-year-old leader in the People’s Freedom Party and the Solidarnost movement in Russia, delivered a talk titled, “Protesting Po

Photo Credit: Batil Joselevitz | Daily Texan Staff

A month ago, crowds flooded Moscow’s city squares to protest the controversial re-election of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president. On Monday, the University hosted a key figure in the protest movement that has shaken Russia to its core.

Ilya Yashin, a 29-year-old leader in the People’s Freedom Party and the Solidarnost movement, delivered a talk titled, “Protesting Power: The 2012 Russian Elections and the Legitimacy of the Putin Government.” Thomas Garza, associate professor in the Department for Slavic and Eurasian Studies, hosted the talk.

Speaking through an interpreter throughout the event, Yashin said the purpose of his speech was to give his audience a fair portrayal of what is happening in Russia and what the goals of the opposition movement are.

“I really hope that citizens in the U.S. and around the world will have their own understanding of what’s going on in Russia, not just what’s spread by Putin’s propaganda machine,” Yashin said.

Yashin said Russia is in a political crisis and that a return to the authoritarian status quo is not possible. Russians knew that elections were falsified prior to Putin’s recent victory, but the rise of a young middle-class and Internet-savvy civil society has led to an unprecedented popular protest movement, Yashin said.

“We have a new generation of Russians, those younger than me, the Facebook generation,” he said. “Those young people use social media to not only meet girls and boys but also as a source of information and self organization. It’s exactly those people who came out into the streets to protest elections.”

Using the Internet, that same young urban population has raised awareness about the extent of corruption in Russian society, Yashin said.

“The awareness of this corruption has shocked the Russian middle class,” he said.

Yashin said Putin’s regime is misconstruing the opposition movement as destructive and revolutionary.

“We’re often accused of being revolutionary, but we’re not,” Yashin said. “The dialogue between the government and the opposition goes like this: The opposition says we want elections, free speech and for our laws to work. The government says that we are CIA agents who are trying to destabilize the country. It’s absurd that any attempt to establish laws or make sure they’re enforced is called revolutionary.”

Garza, who studies Russian culture, said Yashin embodies a rejection of the cynicism that has long dominated Russian political culture.

“Previously, there has been apathy among Russia’s youth,” Garza said. “They thought: Putin’s going to win, so why bother voting? Yashin and Solidarnost are the exact opposite. The last thing they want to do is be apathetic. They think that if they raise the flag and get excited, that will lead to change.”

In his pursuit of change, Yashin has been arrested three times and was most recently taken into police custody two weeks ago, Garza said.

Garza said he has been trying to bring Yashin to UT for 10 years. Plan II senior Victoria Hopper has also been eagerly awaiting the young politician’s visit.

“As a charismatic advocate for democracy in Russia, Ilya Yashin is a very important figure in Russian politics today,” Hopper said. “Political dissent is not an easy pursuit in Russia.”

Ilya Yashin Partial Transcript

Printed on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 as: Yashin sheds light on Russian election

MOSCOW — An attempt by Vladimir Putin’s foes to protest his presidential election victory by occupying a Moscow square ended Monday with riot police quickly dispersing and detaining hundreds of demonstrators — a stark reminder of the challenges faced by Russia’s opposition.

The harsh crackdown could fuel opposition anger and bring even bigger protests of Putin’s 12 years in power and election to another six, but it also underlined the authorities’ readiness to use force to crush such demonstrations.

The rally marked a change of tactics for the opposition, which has been looking for ways to maintain the momentum of its demonstrations that flared in December. Alexei Navalny, a popular blogger and one of the most charismatic protest leaders, was the first to suggest that supporters remain on Moscow’s streets and squares to turn up the heat on Putin.

For Putin, the opposition move raised the specter of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where demonstrators camped on Kiev’s main square in massive protests that forced officials to throw out a fraud-tainted election victory by the Kremlin-backed candidate.

The government’s response Monday night was fast and brutal. Lines of officers in full riot gear marched into tree-lined Pushkin Square and forced protesters into waiting police buses. About 250 people were detained around the city, police said.

The crackdown followed a rally that drew about 20,000 people angry over an election campaign slanted in Putin’s favor and reports of widespread violations in Sunday’s voting.

Putin commands the loyalty of police and the military, whose wages were recently doubled. Following Monday’s massive show of force, the urban middle-class forming the core of the protests could be more reluctant to attend future demonstrations.

Navalny — who sought to electrify the crowd with a passionate call of “We are the power!” — was among those detained, along with opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. Both were released from police custody a few hours later.

“We are calling for peaceful action of civil disobedience, and we shall not leave,” Navalny shouted to the crowd. “We know the truth about this government. This is the government of crooks and thieves.”

Upon his release from police custody, Navalny told 30-40 supporters who greeted him that another protest was planned for Saturday in Moscow and other cities.

“We will keep on fighting until we win,” he said.

Putin, who was president from 2000-08 and is the current prime minister, won more than 63 percent of the vote, according to the nearly complete official returns, but the opposition alleged massive ballot fraud. Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov finished a distant second with 17 percent.

“The campaign has been unfair, cowardly and treacherous,” said opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who was denied registration for the race on a technicality.

International election monitors pointed to the lack of real competition and said the vote count “was assessed negatively” in almost a third of polling stations that observers visited.

“There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt,” said Tonino Picula, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission. “Broadcast media was clearly biased in favor of one candidate and did not provide fair coverage of the other candidates.”

Russian observers cited numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters were driven around to cast ballots multiple times, as well as other violations. They said the number appeared to be as high as in December’s disputed parliamentary vote that kicked off the protests.

The independent Russian elections watchdog Golos said incomplete reports from its observers at individual polling station counts contradicted the official vote count, indicating that Putin was perilously close to the 50-percent mark needed for a first-round victory.

Monday’s rally was sanctioned by authorities, but security was tight, with about 12,000 police deployed.

The estimate of about 20,000 people was significantly smaller than previous protests that drew up to 100,000 — perhaps because of the relatively modest size of Pushkin Square. Rally organizers picked the site for its symbolic importance for the nation’s democratic movement in the waning days of the Soviet Union and also for its proximity to the Kremlin.

Udaltsov, one of the organizers, urged protesters to stay on the square until Putin stepped down.

“If it was a free election, why have they flooded the entire city with troops?” Udaltsov shouted to the crowd, which responded: “They fear us!”

After the rally ended, Navalny, Udaltsov and other opposition leaders were joined by several hundred protesters who tried to stay on the square, chanting: “We shall not leave!”

Hundreds of riot police surrounded them, but waited more than an hour before breaking it up.

Dozens of passersby angrily chanted “Shame! Shame!” as they watched riot police drag the protesters into waiting buses.

“This is a police state!” a man in his 40s told a friend by cellphone.

An elderly woman added: “This is outrageous!”

Shortly after his arrest, Navalny posted a picture to Twitter of a group of people detained along with him in the same prison van.

“One man in a paddy wagon is calmly smoking an electronic cigarette. One is using his iPad to talk on Skype. One person is reading a book,” he wrote in a separate tweet.

Police also rounded up protesters who tried to walk toward the Kremlin.

Some demonstrators grew angry when they saw riot police blocking their way on Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main avenue. A man shouted “Moscow is my city!” and a young woman screamed in fear as police pushed demonstrators back.

Police also detained Eduard Limonov, the leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party, and dozens of his supporters who tried to rally on Lubyanka Square near election commission headquarters. The main KGB successor agency is located on the same square.

In St. Petersburg, about 300 protesters were arrested when about 2,000 people gathered for an unauthorized rally.

Putin’s win was assured as he faced a weak slate of Kremlin-approved candidates and many across the country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated.

He has relied on massive coverage by state television, denouncing his foes as Western stooges working to weaken Russia.

Putin claimed victory to a large crowd of supporters outside the Kremlin on Sunday night, before all the votes were counted. His eyes filled with tears, he defiantly proclaimed that they had defeated opponents intent on “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded Putin in the past on Twitter, reacted quickly to the images of Putin’s tears with an acerbic tweet: “Dear Vlad, Surprise! Surprise! You won. The Russian people are crying too!”

The protesters on Monday mocked Putin’s tears as evidence of his fear of the opposition. “We have seen a man who wasn’t sure of himself,” said Ilya Yashin, one of the opposition leaders.

“Moscow does not believe in tears,” one placard read, a sarcastic play on the title of an Academy Award-winning Russian movie from 1980.

Vladimir Belyayev, a 62-year-old protester, held a sign that said, “People, where is your self-dignity?”

“I have nothing to fear,” he said.

Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister during Putin’s first term before becoming an opposition leader, urged protesters to focus on demanding a rerun of the fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December, which allowed Putin’s party to retain its majority in the lower house.

“Early Duma election is our immediate goal!” he shouted. “Putin is afraid of us!”

In an apparent bid to assuage the opposition anger, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev told the Justice Ministry to present its explanation for last year’s rejection of registration for the People’s Freedom Party, an organization led by some of the opposition’s most prominent figures.

In another apparent attempt to soothe protesters. Medvedev also ordered the prosecutor-general to re-examine the legality of the conviction of imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and more than 30 others regarded by the opposition as political prisoners.

The Obama administration congratulated the Russian people for turning out to vote in big numbers in Sunday’s election, but it also expressed concern about allegations of fraud and urged a full investigation into the charges.

The State Department said the U.S. would work with Russia’s “president-elect” once the votes are certified, but pointedly did not mention Putin by name or congratulate him.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul voiced concern about Monday’s crackdown, tweeting: “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are universal values.”

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, left, flanked by President Dmitry Medvedev, has tears in his eyes as he addresses a massive rally of his supporters at Manezh square outside Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia on Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin swept Sunday’s presidential election to return to the Kremlin and extend his hold over Russia for six more years, incomplete returns showed. His eyes brimming with tears, he defiantly proclaimed to a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”

Putin’s win was never in doubt as many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.

Accounts by independent observers of extensive vote-rigging, however, looked set to strengthen the resolve of opposition forces whose unprecedented protests in recent months have posed the first serious challenge to Putin’s heavy-handed rule. Another huge demonstration was set for Monday evening in central Moscow.

With fewer than a quarter of the votes counted, Putin spoke to tens of thousands of supporters at a rally just outside the Kremlin walls. Many of them were government workers or employees of state-owned companies who had been ordered to attend.

Putin, 59, said the election showed that “our people can easily distinguish a desire for renewal and revival from political provocations aimed at destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”

The wave of protests began after a December parliamentary election in which observers produced evidence of widespread vote fraud. Protest rallies in Moscow drew tens of thousands in the largest outburst of public anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrating growing exasperation with the pervasive corruption and tight controls over political life under Putin.

Golos, Russia’s leading elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia needs to modernize its military arsenals to deter others from grabbing its resources, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in an article published Monday.

Putin, who is running to reclaim presidency in March 4 election, didn’t name any specific nation eyeing Russian mineral riches, but in the past he had repeatedly accused the United States of trying to weaken Russia in order to sideline a rival.

“We mustn’t tempt anyone with our weakness,” Putin wrote in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Putin said the government plans spending about 23 trillion rubles (about $770 billion dollars) over the next decade to purchase more than 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than 600 combat aircraft, dozens of submarines and other navy vessels and thousands of armored vehicles.

“Amid global economic upheavals and other shocks there always is a temptation to solve one’s problems by using force to apply pressure,” Putin wrote, pointing at arguments that resources of global significance shouldn’t be subject to national sovereignty and should be shared.

Putin didn’t specify who is making such claims, but some Russian officials and lawmakers had alleged in the past that the West is eyeing Russia’s rich mineral resources.

He said that Russia will respond to the planned U.S. missile defense by developing weapons capable of penetrating it.

Putin has dismissed the U.S. claim that the prospective shield is intended to counter the Iranian missile threat, saying that its real goal is to erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Putin said Russia also needs to look 30 to 50 years ahead to foresee threats posed by prospective new weapons technologies.

While a nuclear conflict looks unlikely, scientific progress leads to the emergence of new weapons that could change the character of war, Putin said. He specifically referred to precision long-range non-nuclear weapons, saying they emerge as key instrument of modern warfare.

While Putin on Monday stopped short of naming any nation developing the technology, Russia has long voiced concern with U.S. plans to re-equip some of its long-range nuclear missiles with conventional warheads.

Experts have warned that the obsolete equipment and aging workforce at Russian defense plants put a challenge to the ambitious weapons modernization program.

Putin said the government would need to focus on modernizing weapons-making plants, promising to encourage private investments in arms production.

Printed on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 as: Putin promises military buildup over fear of perceived weakness

A member of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Stal wearing a Darth Vader mask participates in a rally in downtown Moscow on Tuesday. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he’s satisfied with the performance of his party in Russia’s parliamentary election even though it lost a significant number of seats, adding that a drop in support is “inevitable” for any ruling party.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Police clashed with demonstrators protesting alleged election fraud in Moscow and at least two other major Russian cities on Tuesday as anger boiled over against strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party.

At least 250 people were detained by police at a protest in downtown Moscow that included fireworks thrown at a group of pro-Kremlin youth, said city police spokesman Maxim Kolosvetov.

Russian news agencies reported about 200 were arrested at a similar attempt to hold an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg and another 25 in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. The Moscow protest ended after around 3 1/2 hours and the others were broken up by police.

It was the second consecutive night of large protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, an unusually sustained show of indignation as Russian police routinely crack down hard on unauthorized rallies, and protesters generally take time to regroup for a new attempt.

The protests follow Sunday’s parliamentary election, in which United Russia lost a share of the seats it had held in the State Duma. The party maintains a reduced majority, but opponents say even that came because of vote fraud.

Local and international election observers reported widespread ballot-stuffing and irregularities in the vote count.

The protesters appear to be both angered by the reported fraud and energized by the vote’s show of declining support for Putin and his party, which has strongly overshadowed all other political forces in Russia for the past dozen years.

But pro-Kremlin supporters also put on a pair of large rallies in Moscow, attracting thousands and showing vehement divisions in Russian society.

The Moscow protest demonstrated the violent potential of those divisions.

Several hundred young men with emblems of United Russia had gathered with police at Triumphal Square in the city center ahead of the planned opposition rally. Police waded into several groups of opposition supporters, pushing them away from the square — roughly grabbing many and throwing them into police vehicles. Detainees included prominent opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Eduard Limonov.

After the protesters were pushed back, they and government supporters shouted at each other — “Shame, shame” was the call from the opposition, while the others, some of whom beat drums, shouted “Putin victory.” Members of the pro-authorities group gravitated toward the nearby Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, continuing to chant and bang drums. Then at least two flare-type fireworks were thrown into their midst.

It was unclear who threw the devices or if anyone was injured. The confrontation lasted more than three hours before pro-government youth began leaving.

About a half-mile away, around 100 demonstrators chanting against Putin held a short march from the U.S. Embassy toward the Russian White House, but scattered when police arrived.

A heavy police presence was visible throughout the city, including several police trucks parked around Pushkin Square, another popular demonstration site.

United Russia won slightly less than 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, according to nearly complete preliminary results. Although that gives the party an absolute majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, it is a significant drop from the 2007 election when the party got a two-thirds majority, enough to change the constitution unchallenged.

Sunday’s election results reflect public fatigue with Putin’s authoritarian streak and with official corruption in Russia, signaling that his return to the presidency in next March’s election may not be as trouble-free as he expected.

Putin, meanwhile, called his party’s reduced number of seats in Sunday’s parliamentary election an “inevitable” result of voters always being dissatisfied with the party in power. He also dismissed allegations of corruption among his United Russia party members.