LONDON: President Vladimir Putin turned 70 on Friday amid fawning congratulations from subordinates and a plea from Patriarch Kirill for all lay and clergy to pray for the health of the longest serving paramount leader of Russia since Josef Stalin.
Putin, who rose to the Kremlin’s top job on the last day of 1999, is facing the biggest challenge of his rule after war with Ukraine triggered the gravest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
On his birthday, Putin was due to attend an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in St Petersburg, the former imperial capital founded by Peter the Great that is his hometown.
Officials hailed Putin as the saviour of modern Russia while the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia implored the country to say two days of special prayers so that God grants Putin “health and longevity”.
“We pray to you, our Lord God, for the head of the Russian State, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and ask you to give him your rich mercy and generosity, grant him health and longevity, and deliver him from all the resistances of visible and invisible enemies, confirm him in wisdom and spiritual strength, for all, Lord hear and have mercy,” Kirill said.
Putin, who vowed to end the chaos which gripped Russia after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, is facing the most serious war crisis any Kremlin chief has faced for at least a generation since the Afghan war of 1979-89.
Opponents such as jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny say that Putin has led Russia down a dead end towards ruin, building a brittle system of incompetent sycophants that will ultimately collapse and propel Russia into chaos.
Supporters say Putin saved Russia from destruction by an arrogant and aggressive West. They say he has clawed back clout after the humiliations suffered by the Russian elite as the Cold War ended.
Putin has resorted to proclaiming the annexation of territories only partly under Russian control - and whose borders the Kremlin has said are yet to be defined - and threatening to defend them with nuclear weapons.