By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin, whose picture was shown between two giant images of an ancient Orthodox icon on Tuesday, warned the West ahead of elections in March 2024 that any foreign meddling in Russia would be considered an act of aggression.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has led to the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, prompting Putin to pivot towards China.

Since the invasion, Putin has changed the narrative of the war, casting it as an existential battle between sacred Russian civilisation and an arrogant West which he says is in cultural, political and economic decline.

Speaking to the World Russian People’s Council, led by the head of Russia’s Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, Putin’s picture was shown on a giant screen beside two copies of an ancient Orthodox icon. Such icons are stylised, often gilded, religious paintings considered sacred in Orthodox churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church is an ardent institutional supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Putin has espoused its conservatism as part of his vision for Russia’s national identity.

The Kremlin chief said that the West was gripped by racist Russophobia which casts Russians as a people of backward “slaves” and warned that the United States allegedly wanted to dismember and plunder Russia’s vast resources.

Putin, 71, cautioned that Russians themselves should remember the lessons of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war and the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, which he said had allowed the division of the Russian people.

“I want to underscore: We consider any interference from outside, provocations aimed at causing inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflicts as aggressive acts against our country,” Putin said.

“I want to emphasise again that any attempt to sow inter-ethnic and inter-religious discord, to split our society is a betrayal, a crime against the whole of Russia. We will not allow anyone to divide Russia.”

The West casts Putin as a dictator who has led Russia into an imperial-style land grab that has weakened Russia and forged Ukrainian statehood, while uniting the West and handing NATO a post-Cold War mission.

Putin says that the West is now failing in Ukraine and that its attempt to defeat Russia has also failed.

The Kremlin chief claims Western attempts to isolate Russia with the toughest-ever sanctions imposed on a major economy were evidence for what he believed is historic Western racism against Russians.

The West, which denies it wants to rip Russia apart, has said it wants to help Ukraine defeat Russian forces on the battlefields of Ukraine, eject Russian soldiers and punish Putin for the war.

Putin thanked Russian businessmen for evading the West’s sanctions.

“It was by combining the efforts of the state and business that we thwarted the unprecedented economic aggression of the West: its sanctions blitzkrieg failed,” Putin said.

The presidential election campaign is due to start next month and Putin is expected to run, a step that would ensure at least another six years at the helm for the former KGB spy, who has been in power since 2012, and before that, from 2000 to 2008.

Patriarch Kirill said he would pray for Putin to continue his work for the “benefit” of Russia and its people.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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