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MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Russians to stay the course in the face of a “difficult period”, hours before polls open in a vote set to extend his hardline rule. The former KGB agent is set to secure another six-year term this weekend in a vote the Kremlin says will show society is fully behind his assault on Ukraine.

“I am convinced: you realise what a difficult period our country is going through, what complex challenges we are facing in almost all areas,” Putin said in an address to Russians on the eve of the vote.

“And in order to continue to respond to them with dignity and successfully overcome difficulties, we need to continue to be united and self-confident,” he added.

Victory in the March 15-17 contest will allow Putin to stay in the Kremlin until at least 2030, longer than any Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century.

Appointed by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin on the final day of 1999, Putin has ruled Russia as president or prime minister ever since.

His first years in office saw an economic boom as Moscow cashed in on its vast energy resources. But under his rule, Russia became increasingly authoritarian at home, eventually cracking down and outlawing all forms of dissent.

And abroad, Putin ramped up confrontation with the West and dispatched troops into Ukraine — annexing Crimea in 2014 and backing separatist rebels in the eastern Donbas region before launching his full-scale offensive in 2022.

With all his major critics dead, in prison or exiled, Putin sees Russian society as united behind him.

“We have already shown that we can be together, defending the freedom, sovereignty and security of Russia,” he said in a video message, while flanked by flags of the Russian tricolour and the president’s state insignia.

“Today it is critically important not to stray from this path,” he said.

The vote was a way for Russians to demonstrate their “patriotic feelings,” he added.

Voting will also take place in four recently occupied territories of Ukraine, as well as the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.

“Our fighters at the front will also vote. They, showing courage and heroism, defend the Fatherland and, participating in the elections, set an example for all of us,” the Russian leader said.

In the Ukrainian city of Mariupol — under the control of Russian forces — election officials on Thursday opened pop-up polling stations at small tables in the street and on the hoods of cars.

Banners were unfurled sporting a red, white and blue ‘V’ logo — an army symbol used as a sign of support for the military offensive. Kyiv has dismissed the vote as a sham and appeared to have targeted some of those involved.

Last month a member of the Russian elections body in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region was killed in a car bombing celebrated by Kyiv’s spy agency.

The poll comes at a time of high confidence for Putin.

Russia’s troops in Ukraine have chalked up their first battlefield gains in months and his most strident critic, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison colony last month.

No genuine opposition candidate has been allowed on the ballot, with Putin officially facing off against three Kremlin-approved candidates from political parties loyal to him and his policies.

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