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In First Post-Election Speech, Putin Threatens NATO With World War III

Vladimir Putin warned that a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO would be “one step away from a full-scale World War III” in a speech following his reelection on Monday.

“I think hardly anyone is interested in this,” Putin added.

The three-day vote, which wrapped up Sunday, saw Putin face no credible opposition. Western countries and election watchdogs have been quick to call it a “sham” contest.

Putin’s comments come after French President Emmanuel Macron said last week he could not rule out the deployment of French troops in Ukraine if Russia’s invasion continues.

Putin also raised the prospect of taking Ukraine’s Kharkiv region as a buffer zone between the two countries. Ukraine had reportedly increased its shelling on Russian border regions during the vote.

With no viable alternative candidates permitted to participate in the three-day election, Putin claimed 87% of the vote, according to exit polling published by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center and the Public Opinion Foundation. That figure is an increase from 2018, when Putin claimed 76.7% of the vote with a voter turnout of 67.5%. The latest result extends Putin’s nearly 25-year rule with a fifth term that will last until 2030.

The White House said the election was “obviously not free nor fair,” while Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Sunday that Putin had become “addicted to power.”

During his Monday address, Putin also acknowledged Alexei Navalny for the first time since the opposition leader’s death in a Russian penal colony on Feb. 16. Putin said the 47-year-old “passed away” and that he had agreed to a prisoner swap with the U.S. that would see Navalny freed on the condition that he never returns to Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden has blamed Putin for Navalny’s death, saying last month, “Make no mistake, Putin is responsible.”

Navalny’s death had sparked unprecedented protests in Russia and his widow Yulia Navalnaya had called for demonstrations at polling booths dubbed “noon against Putin.” The plan had been endorsed by her late husband before his death.

On Sunday, Navalnaya shared that she had written “Navalny” on her election ballot paper. “You give me hope that everything is not in vain, that we will still fight,” she said of her supporters.

Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com.