Vladimir Putin evoked Russia's historic 1812 victory over Napoleon Bonaparte on Thursday in a patriotic speech to tens of thousands of people intended to show he has real support and counter opposition protests ahead of presidential elections.
Addressing his supporters in a Moscow sports stadium, the prime minister recalled some of Russia's finest military victories citing a poem about a decisive 1812 battle against Napoleon and promised to win another key battle: the battle for Russia's future.
Speaking just over a week before a presidential election he is expected to win, Putin called on people not to betray the motherland and repeated his by now familiar promise of pledging to protect Russia from foreign interference.
We are the defenders of our homeland, Putin told the crowd. We will not let anyone interfere in our internal affairs ... We are a nation that wins. This is in our genes.
The crowd was much larger than at any point in Putin's largely low-key election campaign and he appeared to be on fighting form.
I can't hug you all and shake everyone's hand but I thank you for your moral support, he said.
Shouting to the crowd, Putin asked: Will we win?
The crowd chanted back: Yes.
Police said 130,000 people marched along the banks of the Moscow River or attended the rally in a packed sports stadium on a national holiday. But many said they had been paid to attend or were coerced by their bosses.
Dressed casually in an anorak over a zip-up sweater, Putin was cheered and applauded.
He is all but certain to win a six-year term as president after already dominating the country for 12 years.
Opinion polls regularly show he is Russia's most popular politician, suggesting he will win more than 50 percent of the votes on March 4, enough to avoid a second-round runoff. He still has broad support outside Moscow.
But his authority has been undermined by the biggest opposition protests in the capital since he rose to power. Questions remain too about the policies he will pursue when he returns to the presidency, the post he held from 2000 until 2008, and how much - if at all - he will bend to opposition demands.
OPPOSITION QUESTIONS PUTIN'S SUPPORT
Although Putin drew a crowd that appeared at least as large as any at the recent opposition rallies, Communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov told a rally in central Moscow the crowd had largely been bought.
I came here with friends. They said they would pay each of us 2,000 roubles (43 pounds), said a 21-year-old man who gave his name only as Alexander and said he and his friends had been bussed into Moscow from outside the city.
If I had a choice I would vote for (nationalist Vladimir) Zhirinovsky, but our voices don't count.
Others had similar stories.
I came here today because my boss is blackmailing me that he won't give me the salary raise he promised me half a year ago if I don't come, said Anastassia Smirnova, a 31-year-old employee in the finance department of a state firm.
Putin says that even if some people are obliged to attend, there are many more who genuinely want him to return to the presidency. His previous two stints in the job saw him preside over an economic boom on the back of a surge in the price of oil, Russia's main export commodity.
I support Putin. He's an FSB (security service) guy and my father is too so I like him, said Rostislav Galeyev, 20.
GUARANTOR OF STABILITY
Many of Putin's supporters see him as the candidate best able to defend Russia and regard the opposition protesters as a threat to stability.
I came here for stability, for there not to be any revolutions in the future. Personally, my quality of life has really improved, said Marina Kuzmina, a 46-year-old bank employee. I don't see any alternative to Putin.
Police said they had detained several dozen people before the protests but there were no reports of clashes, although Communists and Nationalists staged small rallies in cities across the vast country of more than 140 million people.
After initially insulting the demonstrators who have protested about alleged fraud in a parliamentary election won by Putin's party on December 4, the 59-year-old leader has allowed their main rallies to go ahead.
But he has repeatedly accused foreign governments of backing the opposition protesters and has met none of their main demands, including a rerun of December's election, the release of people the opposition call political prisoners and far-reaching political reform.
Instead, he has announced only token electoral reforms. But opposition leaders who met President Dmitry Medvedev this week said the reforms did not go far enough and will not be implemented quickly. The next opposition protest in Moscow is planned for Sunday.
If he wins two more terms, Putin could stay in power until 2024. The opposition protesters say a growing number of Russians feel they have no say in the way Russia is run and that it is bad for any country to be led by one person for so long.
(Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski Writing by Timothy Heritage. Editing by Andrew Osborn)