MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has won six more years in office, with near-final results handing him a landslide victory amid reports of thousands of violations and widespread pressure on citizens to vote.
Central Election Commission results cited by Interfax and state-run TASS news agency showed that with more than 99 percent of ballots counted, Putin had 76.67 percent of the vote in the March 18 election, and the voter turnout was 67.47 percent.
The election commission said Putin’s total came to more than 55.4 million votes.
According to the election committee, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin was second with 11.82 percent, followed by flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 5.68 percent and journalist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak with 1.66 percent.
The four other candidates -- liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, nationalist Sergei Baburin, Communists of Russia candidate Maksim Suraikin, and centrist Boris Titov -- had 1 percent apiece or less.
Ahead of the vote, Russian media cited unidentified Kremlin sources as saying that the government was aiming for a turnout of 70 percent, with 70 percent of the vote going to Putin.
While tainted by allegations of fraud -- in some cases backed up by webcam footage appearing to show blatant ballot-box stuffing -- the resounding win sets up Moscow's longest-ruling leader since Stalin for six more years in office amid severely strained ties with the West.
Among the first leaders to congratulate Putin so far was Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has just been handed a second term himself and appeared to be positioned for indefinite rule after presidential term limits were lifted last week.
Other authoritarian leaders from around the world, such as Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro were also quick to extend their congratulations to Putin.
However, amid worsening tensions between the West and Moscow after the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a potent nerve agent -- an attack Britain blames on Moscow, few European heads of state followed suit, including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose country has been a traditional ally of Russia.
Putin, 65, made a brief appearance at a rally outside the Kremlin about an hour before midnight, thanking voters for their support and leading a chant of "Russia! Russia!"
"Victory awaits us!" Putin said to a cheering crowd, adding that his win demonstrates the "confidence and hope" of the Russian people.
Speaking to reporters a little later, Putin said that he has no plans to change the Russian Constitution for the time being, and suggested he would not seek the presidency again in 2030.
An existing limit of two straight presidential terms means that Putin would not be eligible to run again in 2024 without changing the constitution, but could do so in 2030.
"I am not planning any constitutional reforms for now," Putin said.
Putin is riding a wave of government-stoked popularity on the fourth anniversary of Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and in the wake of a military intervention in Syria that has been played up on state-controlled television as a patriotic success.
WATCH: RFE/RL correspondent Christopher Miller found out what some Russians think about the election and their preferred candidates.
Amid government efforts to get out the vote and reports of voter fraud, much attention was focused on whether Russians would turn out in big enough numbers to hand Putin a convincing mandate.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin said "any" result that allows him to continue as president would be a "success."
"I am sure the program I am offering is the right one," Putin said.
Reports of violations at polling stations mounted as the day progressed. By the time the polls closed, independent election monitor Golos said it had received reports of 2,742 alleged violations, including ballot boxes placed out of sight of observation cameras and observers being blocked from carrying out their job.
Russian election officials said they were looking into several reports of voting violations. It was also clear efforts were being made to get out the vote.
On Russia’s Pacific coast, in the Khabarovsk region, local officials offered food at a discount to lure people to the polls.
Voters were being bused in across Russia to the polls, according to supporters of Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader barred from running in the election.
They also reported hundreds of cases of alleged voter fraud, notably in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two areas where Putin has low support.
Some voters in various Russian regions said they had been pressured by their employers or teachers to vote and take a photograph of themselves at the polling station as evidence of their participation.
While officials said voting in the Russian capital was steady and higher than the previous presidential election, in 2012, apathy was palpable at some polling stations.
The election comes two weeks after the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a potent nerve agent -- an attack Britain blames on Moscow -- has made Russia's already severely strained ties with the West even worse.
In addition, the United States on March 15 imposed another round of sanctions on Russian entities and individuals in connection with what Washington says was Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
These tensions, however, may have only bolstered Putin's popular image as a defender of Russia and given credence to his assertions that Russia is surrounded by foreign enemies.
Putin's campaign spokesman suggested as much following the release of early returns, claiming what he portrayed as favorable turnout figures were due in part to Britain’s heated response to the nerve-agent poisoning of the ex-spy, Sergei Skripal.
"We have to say thank you to Britain for that, because once again they didn’t read the Russian mentality correctly," Andrei Kondrashov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
Putin made his first comments about the Skripal poisoning while speaking to reporters late on March 18. He denied Russian involvement, saying "it's complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup."
'There's Nobody Else'
Maria Nazachik, an 88-year-old admirer of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, told RFE/RL in Moscow why she voted for Putin.
"He's a very good man" who has guaranteed that there is "no war" in Russia, Nazachik said, adding, "There's nobody else."
Other Russians said they felt powerless to influence politics in a country dominated by Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999. Other than Stalin, no Soviet or post-Soviet leader has been in power longer.
"There is no real choice," 20-year-old Yevgeny Kiva, who came to one Moscow polling station not to vote but because he was paid by the local election committee to wear a clown suit and dance with children to pop music blaring from a mobile sound system.
"Give your smile to the world," two young boys sang into the sound system's microphone as Kiva twirled, expressionless.
Several people told RFE/RL they were pressured by employers to vote.
One middle-aged man who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions said management at the textile plant where he has worked for more than 20 years threatened to fire employees who didn't go to the polls.
At a polling station in Zelenodolsk, 800 kilometers east of Moscow, five people photographed themselves voting. When they were asked why, a young woman in the group said, "It's a photographic report for our bosses," Reuters reported.
An election commission worker in the southern Daghestan region, which historically has reported enormously high official turnout figures, told the AFP news agency that dozens of men entered a polling station where he was working and assaulted an independent monitor before proceeding to stuff a ballot box.
Russian election commission officials said they were investigating several reports of voting irregularities, though elections chief Ella Pamfilova said her commission had not registered any serious violations.
One incident was recorded in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy. Irina Konovalova, the head of the election commission for the Moscow region, said all ballots in the box were declared invalid.
In Artyom, in Russia's Far East, a man tossed several ballots into the box, according to Tatyana Gladkikh, the head of the regional election commission. She said the ballot box was sealed and the man was arrested.
The Central Election Commission also said it was looking into claims of ballot stuffing in Siberia's Kemerovo region.
According to a Gallup poll, taken in late 2017, 80 percent of Russians approve of Putin's leadership, while only 40 percent have confidence in the reliability of Russia's elections.
Navalny, Putin's only significant potential rival, was barred from participating in the election because of a felony embezzlement conviction that has been widely seen as trumped up and politically motivated.
Navalny, who has dismissed the election as "the reappointment of Vladimir Putin," had called on voters to boycott. The Kremlin and local authorities have launched a wide-ranging carrot-and-stick effort to boost turnout in order to bolster the appearance of the election's legitimacy.
In the early evening on March 18, Sobchak appeared together with Navalny on his official YouTube channel and suggested they hold discussions about uniting Russia's notoriously fractious liberal opposition forces after the election.
Navalny rejected the suggestion, accusing Sobchak of helping to legitimize the election with her candidacy:
Navalny told Sobchak she had "played the role of a caricature of a liberal candidate" and claimed that she told him she had been offered "huge money" to run. Sobchak denied it.
Sobchak said at her campaign headquarters the same day that she planned to request a meeting with Putin after the election and ask him to release "political prisoners."
On Russia’s Pacific coast, in the Khabarovsk region, local officials brought eggs, tinned peas, and frozen pike to be sold at a discount of between 10 and 30 percent to voters at polling stations, according to Reuters.
"By doing this we hope to attract voters to the polling stations and we think we can increase turnout," said Nikolai Kretsu, chairman of the consumer market committee in the regional administration. "The second objective is to strengthen allegiance towards the authorities."
Navalny supporters said turnout figures tabulated by their unofficial observers -- some of whom are being blocked from working -- were broadly in line with official data, but noted voters were being bused to polling stations "in every region" of the country.
They said hundreds of cases of alleged voter fraud had been reported in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as Bashkortostan in the Urals region.
Support for Putin is much lower in Moscow and St. Petersburg compared with the rest of Russia.
Security was intensified across the country, after police in Moscow announced plans to put 17,000 officers, National Guard troops, and other security personnel on the streets on election day.
The Central Election Committee refused to accredit independent election monitors organized by Navalny, as well as those organized by the Golos election-monitoring NGO.
The campaign was low-key, with Putin largely declining to participate. The other candidates held a series of nationally televised "debates" that frequently deteriorated into shouting matches, name-calling, and fisticuffs.
Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, would be 71 when the six-year term expires in 2024. Under the current constitution, he would not be eligible to seek another consecutive term. However, he could repeat the tactic he used in 2008 when he allowed Dmitry Medvedev to take the presidency for one term while he continued to wield decisive power as prime minister -- or look for another way to retain power.
Opponents say Putin has not presented a detailed program for his expected new term and has said little about how goals he set out in a March 1 address to the nation can be achieved. Putin skipped campaign debates and did not set out his plans in a series of newspaper articles, as he did before the 2012 election.