Tens of thousands of people have packed into a football stadium for a campaign rally in support of Vladimir Putin, 10 days ahead of a presidential election in which Russia's prime minister is aiming to return to the country's top job.
Putin, who served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008 before being appointed prime minister during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, is expected to win the March 4 election.
But he has faced outbursts of public discontent for the first time since his emergence as the country's dominant political figure 12 years ago, with an anti-Putin protest movement drawing tens of thousands to its rallies.
Putin told supporters on Thursday that he would not allow foreign powers to interfere in Russia's internal affairs and predicted victory in an ongoing battle over the country's future.
"We will not allow anyone interfere in our internal affairs," said Putin.
"We will not allow anyone to impose their will on us. We have our own will and this has always helped us be victorious. We are a victorious nation. This is in our genes. This is in our genetic code."
In a fiery, nationalist-tinged speech that had not been announced in advance, Putin thanked voters who would support him in the elections and repeatedly invoked past battles for Russia.
"We will be victorious," claimed Putin. He then turned to the crowd and asked: "And I want to ask you. Will we be victorious?" The tens of thousands in the crowd roared back "Yes!"
"The battle for Russia continues. Victory will be ours," he said.
Police said 130,000 gathered at the 78,000-capacity stadium prior to Putin’s arrival, according to Russia's RIA Novosti new agency.
The pro-Putin rally, held in the Luzhniki stadium, was a response to the opposition protests, which have been embraced by Russia's middle class and young urban professionals.
"I love Putin and Putin loves me," said Vladimir Gryzlov, a 68-year-old musician who brought his accordion to the stadium.
With him was 70-year-old Tatyana Goytseva, who said it was "too late for us to change our leaders."
"We are happy with them, but of course the young people don't think the same," said Goytseva, a social worker who helps the elderly. She said her three grandchildren were not voting for Putin.
Putin has four challengers, including three veteran party leaders who long ago reached an accommodation with the Kremlin and pose little challenge to Putin's authority.
The only newcomer is Mikhail Prokhorov, a 46-year-old billionaire businessman who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team.
Prokhorov's candidacy has been viewed as a Kremlin-approved effort to add legitimacy to the election and channel the discontent of the protesters.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran leader of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, was denied the right to run.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|