Moscow: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced 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 some who fought in the 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 will not face any major challengers in his bid for a fifth term and will likely seek as big a mandate as possible in order to conceal domestic discord over the Ukraine conflict, analysts say.
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 will likely be barred from monitoring the vote.
Putin also tightened media rules on covering the 2024 election in November, banning some independent media outlets from accessing polling stations.
The election will be held over a three-day period from March 15-17, 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, all of which support the Kremlin and the offensive in Ukraine.
- 'Parody' -
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 Thursday, he encouraged Russians to vote for "any other candidate" aside from Putin and called the elections a "parody" of electoral procedure.
Since launching its assault on Ukraine last February, the Kremlin has waged 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.
The Ukraine offensive has made the Kremlin chief 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 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 revived fortunes as Western support for Ukraine frays and Kyiv's counter-offensive fails to pierce heavily entrenched Russian lines.
In a bid to boost turnout at the last presidential election in 2018, which saw Putin win by a landslide in every region, officials cast the vote as a pivotal battle against Western values.
The Kremlin appears to be employing the same strategy this time round, labelling the "international LGBT movement" as extremist in a November court ruling, as part of a broader culture war with the West. - AFP