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Polls open as Putin seeks tighter grip on Russia

By Nathan Hodge and Angela Dewan, CNN

(CNN) -- Russians vote Sunday in a presidential election widely expected to cement President Vladimir Putin's power for another six years.

Polls have opened in the Far East, and 109 million voters are eligible to cast ballots across the 11 time zones of the world's biggest country.

It's an enormous logistical undertaking for a vote that is essentially a one-sided affair. There is no meaningful opposition in the running, and Putin's fiercest political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from competing. Despite a lackluster campaign period, the President is the clear front-runner.

While the vote may seem like a repeat of the Putin-dominated 2012 election, this one is particularly charged with anti-Western sentiment. With few election-related events to report on, Russians are seeing more news of the country's diplomatic crises with the UK and United States.

Voter apathy

The Kremlin, however, is concerned about turnout. The uneventful campaign period and lack of competition have left some Russians uninspired. Navalny has called for a boycott of the election since he was squeezed out of the race.

A wave of anti-government protests in the past year also suggests growing fatigue with corruption scandals seeping through the Kremlin and Putin's inner circle of oligarchs.

Nonetheless, Putin is genuinely a popular figure among many Russians, who see him as a strongman who lifted the country out of post-Soviet chaos to stability.

Polls in the past have also shown that Putin's popularity rises during times of confrontation with the West, so Russians appear to be shrugging off the current diplomatic crises.

Decoded: Everything you need to know about Russia

Russia-UK relations plunged into turmoil over the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy, his daughter and a police officer on British soil earlier this month. British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was "highly likely" the Kremlin was behind the attack, and both countries have expelled diplomats in an ongoing tit for tat.

Russia has also vowed to retaliate after the United States imposed new sanctions on the country this week over its reported cyberattacks and meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In both cases, Moscow has dismissed the accusations of involvement in the attacks.

But such conflict with international powers is unlikely to hurt Putin at home.

In fact, he may be banking on confrontation with international players this election. His United Russia party helped parliament move the date of the vote to the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 redefined Russia's role on the world stage and marked the beginning of new, heightened tensions with Western powers.

The-CNN-Wire

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