Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Friday that he would run for re-election in 2024, allowing the Kremlin leader to extend his decades-long grip on power into the 2030s.
The 71-year-old has led Russia since the turn of the century, winning four presidential ballots and briefly serving as prime minister in a system where opposition has become virtually non-existent.
The announcement came at a set-piece Kremlin event for army personnel, including those who have fought in the military offensive in Ukraine that Putin ordered in February last year.
“I won’t hide it: I’ve had different thoughts at different times. But this is a time when a decision has to be made,” Putin said at the ceremony.
“I will run for the office of president of the Russian Federation.”
He was speaking to Lieutenant Colonel Artyom Zhoga, a Russian military officer, who had moments before urged him to run.
“Thanks to your actions, your decisions, we have gained freedom,” Zhoga said, adding: “We need you. Russia needs you.”
Putin’s seemingly off-the-cuff announcement at a ceremony for veterans was unusual but laden with symbolism, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said.
“The (military) heroes — ‘fathers of the Donbas’ — want to see Putin as president again,” she said.
Putin will not face any major challengers in his bid for a fifth term and is likely to seek as large a mandate as possible in order to conceal domestic discord over the Ukraine conflict, analysts say.
– A ‘parody’ vote –
Following a controversial constitutional reform in 2020, he could stay in power until at least 2036.
Rights groups say that previous elections have been marred by irregularities and that independent observers are likely to be barred from monitoring the vote.
In November, Putin tightened media rules on covering the 2024 election, banning some independent media outlets from accessing polling stations.
The election will be held over a three-day period from March 15 to 17, a move that Kremlin critics have argued makes guaranteeing transparency more difficult.
Five major parties have been allowed to submit a candidate for the 2024 vote without collecting signatures.
They all support the Kremlin and the offensive in Ukraine.
Putin’s most high-profile rival, Alexei Navalny, is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence on charges his supporters say are false.
In a statement issued through his team on Thursday, Navalny encouraged Russians to vote for “any other candidate” but Putin and called the ballot a “parody” of electoral procedure.
Since launching its assault on Ukraine last February, the Kremlin has made a sweeping crackdown on dissent that rights groups have likened to Soviet-era repression.
Thousands of people have been detained and imprisoned for protests, and many thousands more have fled the country in fear of being called up to fight.
– ‘Love for country’ –
The Ukraine offensive has made Putin a pariah among Western leaders and his country has been hit by unprecedented sanctions designed to curb its funding for the conflict.
But while sanctions initially prompted an exodus of Western companies from Russia and turbulence in industry, the economy has proven resilient and Putin’s domestic approval ratings have remained high.
Moscow has re-oriented much of its energy exports to Asian clients including China, allowing it to continue pouring money into the offensive, now in its 22nd month.
Analysts say Putin has sensed a revival in his fortunes as Western support for Kyiv frays and Ukraine’s counter-offensive fails to pierce heavily entrenched Russian lines.
His re-election bid was immediately hailed by officials.
“His decision today speaks of his love for his country — his desire to make it strong and prosperous, to protect Russia in the current difficult time of challenges and threats,” the speaker of the lower house of Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said.
In a bid to boost turnout at the last presidential election in 2018, which saw Putin win by a landslide in every region, officials portrayed the vote as a pivotal battle against Western values.
The Kremlin appears to be employing the same strategy this time round.
In November it banned the “international LGBT movement”, claiming it was an “extremist” group, as part of a broader culture war with the West.