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The rift over the elections revealed deep cracks in U.S.-Russian relations despite President Obama’s efforts to “reset” ties with Russia. Mr. Putin said Moscow would like to develop cooperation with Washington, but he harshly criticized U.S. foreign policy, accusing it of unilateralism.

“America doesn’t need allies, it only needs vassals,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Putin alleged that the organizers of Saturday’s demonstration by tens of thousands in Moscow had paid some participants and publicly referred to them as sheep. Unleashing his penchant for dismissive and earthy remarks, Mr. Putin derided the white ribbons that have been adopted as a protest symbol, saying he thought demonstrators had “put some condoms” on their sleeves to promote safe sex.

The harsh comments and his insistence that the Dec. 4 election was valid likely will fuel anger and may produce even bigger crowds for upcoming protests. The number of people who signed up on Facebook to go to the Dec. 24 rally increased from 18,000 to 21,500 just in the hours Mr. Putin was speaking.

One of Russia’s most-read bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, who took part in Saturday’s rally, was disappointed with Mr. Putin‘s dismissal of protesters as paid agents of the West.

“Instead of unifying the nation and looking for opportunities to start a discussion, we still see the same Soviet ‘witch hunt,’ which means searching for enemies who go to protests because they’ve been paid,” he wrote in his blog.

Mr. Putin said the results of Russia’s parliamentary election properly reflected the people’s will, adding that the drop in support for his party was a natural result of the global financial crisis of 2008. He brushed off vote-fraud claims as part of the opposition’s maneuvering ahead of the presidential election, and said any complaints should go to the courts.

“The opposition goal’s is to fight for power, and it’s looking for every chance to advance,” he said.

The opposition has been energized by the huge Moscow protest and simultaneous rallies in some 60 other cities. It also senses a new weakness in United Russia — blamed for a good amount of the corruption that plagues Russia — that has dented Mr. Putin‘s power.

Mr. Putin sought to counter public discontent by proposing Thursday to place Web cameras at each of Russia’s more than 90,000 polling stations by the presidential vote.

“Let them be there next to every ballot box to avoid any falsifications,” he said.

He said he sees the presidential election as the only real test of his popularity, saying that “it’s not determined on websites or on squares.”

“If I see I don’t have such support, I will not remain in my chair for a single day,” he vowed.

For his part, Mr. Prokhorov also vowed to allow free registration of opposition parties and restore popular elections of provincial governors if he wins the March vote.

Mr. Putin has marginalized opposition forces, tightened election rules and abolished direct elections of governors. He has defended those moves as necessary to prevent criminal clans and separatist forces from dominating the gubernatorial elections, but he suggested he may allow their election in the future. He said candidates for governors still should be nominated by the president but then could be put to a direct popular vote.

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