MOSCOW

- Since he took over Crimea, President Vladimir Putin has seen his popularity soar and his opposition fall silent. So when the U.S. vice president told Russia to defuse tensions in Ukraine, Putin had few reasons to listen.

Emboldened by the national euphoria over the annexation of Crimea, Putin has moved against the few remaining critical voices in Russia and further neutered the news media. Yesterday, a court cleared the way for sending his most vocal critic to prison.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was found guilty of slandering a lawmaker and fined the equivalent of $8,400. As a result, he may be jailed during a trial in a second case that starts tomorrow.

Navalny was nearly jailed last summer, when he was running a high-profile mayoral campaign in Moscow, but his conviction brought thousands into the streets in protest. The Kremlin evidently calculated it would be better to allow him to run for mayor, but he surprised everyone by finishing a strong second with 27 percent of the vote.

Now Putin, with his approval rating at 80 percent, no longer appears willing to tolerate any criticism. Chillingly, Putin has begun to cast his critics as "national traitors," an intimation that anyone who opposes the Kremlin is serving the interests of the West.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Russia must quickly "stop talking and start acting" to reduce tensions in Ukraine if it wants to avoid more sanctions. "We will not allow this to become an open-ended process," he said in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Bumbling kidnappers nabbed target's dad

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A North Carolina prosecutor was the intended target of an elaborate kidnapping plot, but the kidnappers looked up the wrong address on the Internet and abducted the prosecutor's father instead, according to an indictment released yesterday.

Nine people were charged in the kidnapping of 63-year-old Frank Janssen, the father of Wake Forest Assistant District Attorney Colleen Janssen. Frank Janssen was abducted April 5 from his Wake Forest home and held captive for five days in Atlanta before being rescued.

Authorities have said the kidnapping was retaliation for Colleen Janssen's prosecution of Kelvin Melton for his involvement in a 2011 shooting. Melton, a high-ranking member of the Bloods gang, orchestrated the abduction from behind bars using a cellphone, the indictment said.

Court: You have to be blitzed on pot for DUI

Arizona prosecutors cannot charge pot users for driving under the influence of marijuana simply because traces of the drug remain in their bloodstream, without evidence of actual impairment, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 4-1 decision by the Arizona Supreme Court comes as states are increasingly moving toward liberalizing marijuana rules following voter initiatives in Colorado and Washington state in 2012 that legalized the drug for recreational purposes.

In yesterday's ruling, the Arizona Supreme Court found in favor of a driver, Hrach Shilgevorkyan, who was pulled over in Maricopa County and later admitted to smoking weed the night before. A blood test revealed he had the cannabis metabolite Carboxy-THC in his system.

That chemical does not cause impairment. Nevertheless, Maricopa County prosecutors charged Shilgevorkyan with driving under the influence in line with the state's zero-tolerance rules on drug-impaired driving.

College grads to fare better, but not great

WASHINGTON - With college commencement ceremonies nearing, the government is offering a modest dose of good news for graduating seniors: The job market is brightening for new grads - a bit.

But finding work - especially a dream job - remains tough for those just graduating. Many are settling for jobs outside their fields of study or for less pay than they'd expected or hoped for.

The Labor Department said yesterday the unemployment rate for 2013 college graduates - defined as those ages 20 to 29 who earned a four-year or advanced degree - was 10.9 percent. That was down from 13.3 percent in 2012 and was the lowest since 7.7 percent in 2007. But unemployment for recent grads was still higher than the 9.6 percent rate for all Americans ages 20 to 29 last October. "I'm finding that all these entry-level jobs are requiring experience I don't have or degrees that are just unattainable right out of college," said Howard Rudnick, 23, who graduated last year in political science from Florida Atlantic University and wound up earning $25,000 a year working for an online shoe company.

- Daily News wire services