After months of speculation about how and when he would declare his candidacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday announced his intention to run for reelection in March 2018.
Putin, 65, is widely expected to win what will be his sixth term, extending his rule until 2024. He has been either president or prime minister since 1999, so reelection would make him Russia's longest-serving leader since the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Putin made the announcement at the GAZ automobile factory in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 260 miles from Moscow. He was there to celebrate the factory's 65th anniversary, but a question from a factory worker prompted what seemed like a rehearsed answer about his candidacy, ending months of hints at the obvious.
"Today in this room, everyone supports you without any exception," said Artyom Baranov, the factory's senior site master, during the ceremony, portions of which were aired on state television. "Make us a gift. Announce your decision!"
Putin said he "couldn't find a better place and moment" to announce he would run again.
"Thank you for your support, I will be running for the office of president of the Russian Federation," Putin said as he addressed a cheering crowd of GAZ's factory workers. "I'm sure that everything will work out for us!"
At an earlier ceremony in Moscow to present the "Volunteer Russia" award, Putin dodged the question of whether he would run. When asked directly, Putin said he would run again "only on one condition, if people trust and support this."
The fact that Putin waited until early December to publicly announce his reelection bid fueled many conspiracy theories, including the idea that Putin was secretly planning to step down after this year and appoint a successor.
Putin has previously only hinted at the idea that he would consider running again, despite an almost certain win. During his annual public call-in show, which ran four hours this year, he dodged the question, saying that he had until December to decide.
Putin's approval rating is somewhere around 80%. But voter turnout could prove to be a major challenge for the Kremlin during the 2018 campaign. Russia's economy is emerging out of recession, but poverty and unemployment are fueling discontent. In addition, Russian voter apathy is growing. Putin will need high voter turnout in March to ensure his mandate.
With the Kremlin's tight grip on Russia's political process, Putin does not face any serious challengers. Gennady Zhuganov of the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhironovsky, a boisterous nationalist with a penchant for making crude comments about women and Jews, will run again as what is generally seen as Kremlin-approved opposition.
In October, Ksenia Sobchak, a wealthy Russian socialite turned opposition journalist, announced that she would challenge Putin in March. Sobchak has a long history with the Russian president, dating back to her youth in St. Petersburg, where her father was the first elected mayor and a mentor to Putin. Sobchak gained fame as the host of a popular reality television show, and later became a political talk show host on TV Rain, one of Russia's only independent news outlets.
Sobchak, 36, has said her presidential bid is meant to be an "against all" option for voters. She is running a campaign that she says will be a "referendum on Putin" to show that Russians no longer believe in the political process that the Kremlin has built in the last 20 years.
Her critics — and there are many — believe hers is a Kremlin-orchestrated candidacy to distract attention from Russia's strongest opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, 41, is an outspoken anticorruption crusader whose popularity among Russia's younger generations has become a thorn in the Kremlin's side. Last year, his anticorruption organization published videos to his popular YouTube channel's investigation of large-scale corruption schemes benefiting Russia's political elite. His video accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of using charity organizations to hide his wealth has been viewed more than 25 million times.
After he released the video in March, Navalny called for a series of anticorruption protests across Russia, which have seen tens of thousands come out to the streets, despite harsh police crackdowns. Many of the protesters were teenagers and young adults.
Navalny is now traveling around the country to hold campaign rallies to build support in his run against Putin next spring. Young people who follow his YouTube channel, as opposed to watching the state-run news channels as their parents do, make up a large portion of his followers. His campaign offices and volunteer staff have faced continued repressions across the country, while his campaign rallies have been blocked by local authorities. The state television and news programs ignore him.
The Russian election commission has said Navalny may not run, however, because he has a criminal record.
Navalny and his brother were convicted of embezzlement in a case they say was politically motivated. The European Court of Human Rights declared his conviction "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable" in October, a ruling Navalny says he will use to argue that he should be allowed to run in 2018.
He has also been detained several times and sentenced to days or weeks in jail on lesser charges for organizing unapproved mass demonstrations. The commission, however, points to the more serious embezzlement charge as the reason he should not be allowed to run.
Navalny ran for Moscow mayor in 2013, when he received an impressive 30% of the vote against a Kremlin-favored candidate.
Ayres is a special correspondent.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting and more details.