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Russia’s Putin, bidding to cement his legacy, will seek re-election as president

This pool photograph distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik shows Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Bishkek on Oct. 12, 2023. (Pavel Bednyakov/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)  (Pavel Bednyakov/Pool/AFP)
By Valerie Hopkins and Ivan Nechepurenko New York Times

President Vladimir Putin said Friday that he would run for re-election in March, seeking a fifth term that would extend his rule to 2030 and, if served to completion, make him Russia’s longest-serving leader since Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.

In the absence of genuine political opposition, Putin is all but assured of winning another six-year term that will prolong his authoritarian grip. There had been next to no doubt that he would run: Perhaps in an acknowledgment of his expected candidacy, Putin declared his intentions not at a podium, but in a conversation with soldiers that was recorded on camera.

Still, the exchange was laden with symbolism, coming after a military awards ceremony at the Kremlin that underscored his standing as a wartime president overseeing a brutal invasion of Ukraine.

The interaction appeared to be highly choreographed, though the Kremlin later denied that was the case. A Ukrainian-born Russian military officer and official from Donetsk, a Russian-occupied city in eastern Ukraine, approached Putin and expressed gratitude that its residents now had the opportunity to vote for the first time in Russian presidential elections, and they wanted to cast their votes for Putin.

“I won’t hide it; I had different thoughts at different times,” Putin responded solemnly, flanked by army officers and their relatives. “But now you are right; the time is such when a decision needs to be made,” he said, according to a video of his remarks posted by the Kremlin. “I will run for president of Russia.”

Russian lawmakers had amended the constitution in 2020 to effectively allow Putin, 71, to stay in power until 2036. He has led Russia as either president or prime minister since New Year’s Eve in 1999, promising Russians stability and a higher standard of living in exchange for their not getting involved in politics.

While Putin’s re-election is nearly certain, analysts see the March 17 presidential vote as a means for him to further legitimize his rule: With high turnout, elections in Putin’s Russia are a grand spectacle meant to showcase his popular support.

The vote, however, carries special significance because it is the first presidential election since Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Since then, the West has hammered Russia with sanctions, hundreds of thousands of Russians have left the country, and at least 300,000 men have been mobilized to fight in the war. Russia has become a pariah to much of the world, and Putin has been declared a war criminal by the International Criminal Court, accused of unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children.

But as the Russian economy remained stable and Ukraine failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough on the battlefield, Putin has remained consistently popular. A poll released Thursday by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, showed that 58% of Russians would support Putin in the election.

Putin’s approval rating received a boost after the invasion of Ukraine, though polling is notoriously complicated in Russia because of a climate of repression. The poll, of 1,625 people, had a margin of error not exceeding 3.4%.

While many Kremlin observers did not expect that the war would play a prominent role in Putin’s campaign, it was front and center in his announcement.

“Putin picked the war, and the war picked Putin,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis firm R.Politik, wrote on Telegram.

Putin approaches the next election in much better shape than expected a year ago. His army is on the offensive along almost the entire front line in Ukraine’s east and south, at a time when Western support for arming and aiding Ukraine is becoming increasingly shaky. The war between Israel and Hamas has lifted Putin’s international standing by deepening divisions between Western countries and states sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

And the Russian economy has largely adapted to Western sanctions by keeping trade open with China, India and countries in the Middle East, allowing Putin to keep Russia’s coffers full.

“His confidence levels are going through the roof,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

Putin is expected to face only a handful of contenders, likely picked by the Kremlin itself to serve as foils and to provide a semblance of legitimacy. So far, three Russian politicians have announced their intention to run against him, but they face a daunting task to even register, as they would need to collect thousands of signatures from supporters.

They include Boris Nadezhdin, a municipal deputy in suburban Moscow, who has said the end of the war was his top priority; Igor Girkin, a nationalist warlord and blogger in jail while awaiting trial on extremism charges, who has argued for a tougher approach in Ukraine; and Yekaterina Duntsova, who has campaigned against the war but has garnered limited national appeal.

“This is not an election; this is the reelection of the same leader,” said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with a German think tank.

“Mr. Putin is essentially competing with himself – with the younger Putin,” Petrov added. “It is important for him to show that he is not in a worse place than he was 25 years ago.”

Putin has gone a long way since he entered he Kremlin’s walls as its master at the very end of 1999. He has evolved from being a pro-Western modernizer with a preference for a strong state to a traditionalist fighter against what he sees as the corrupt political, cultural and moral hegemony of the United States.

While at the beginning of his rule, Putin was willing to tolerate a certain degree of opposition in the Russian parliament and media, he approaches what will likely be his fifth term as president with many of his critics either in jail or in exile and no openly oppositional media working in its territory.

Putin has orchestrated his leadership of Russia with care. After winning the presidency in 2000 and then getting reelected in 2004, he was prevented by constitutional term limits from running for a third time. Instead, he nominated Dmitry Medvedev, his loyal ally, to run. After winning the election, Medvedev appointed Putin as the country’s prime minister, but many believe Putin effectively held control throughout Medvedev’s tenure.

At the beginning of Medvedev’s presidency, the presidential term was extended from four years to six. At the end of 2011, Putin announced his intention to run for the presidency again, using a loophole in the constitution that prevented people from running for more than two terms “in a row.”

At the time, Putin’s announcement – and a subsequent parliamentary election that was widely seen as rigged – ignited mass protests in Moscow and many other major Russian cities. But the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 gave Putin a boost, and opposition activity became increasingly constricted, leading to an easy reelection to another six-year term in 2018.

In 2020, Putin orchestrated an overhaul of the constitution, arguing that the changes had allowed his term limit clock to reset and pave the way for another presidential run.

In the intervening years, the Kremlin has sought to militarize Russian society and instill “patriotism” in all levels of education. Before Putin’s announcement Friday, Russian policymakers have focused on building support for what the Kremlin sees as “traditional” values.

Last week, the Russian Supreme Court labeled the “global LGBTQ movement” as “extremist,” effectively banning any public LGBTQ+ activities. It has also outlawed gender-affirming surgery.

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have also floated restrictions on abortion next year, also under the guise of promoting “family values.”

“The Kremlin thinks social conservatism will be popular with a much broader base than the actual nationalist scene,” said Alex Yusupov, director of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Russia program.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.