By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday told soldiers who had fought in the Ukraine war that he would run for president again in the 2024 election, a move that will allow the former KGB spy to stay in power until at least 2030.
Putin, who was handed the presidency by Boris Yeltsin on the last day of 1999, has already served as president for longer than any other ruler of Russia since Josef Stalin, beating even Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year tenure.
After Putin awarded the Ukraine war veterans with Russia’s highest military honour, the Hero of Russia gold star, Artyom Zhoga, a lieutenant colonel born in Soviet-era Ukraine who fights for Russia, asked the president to run again.
“I will not hide that I have had different thoughts at different times but it is now time to make a decision,” Putin told Zhoga and the other decorated soldiers. “I understand that there is no other way.”
“I will run for the post of president,” Putin was shown in television footage saying in the gilded Georgievsky Hall, part of the Grand Kremlin Palace.
Zhoga told reporters afterwards that he was very glad Putin had assented to the request, adding that all of Russia would support the decision.
Reuters reported last month that Putin had decided to run.
For Putin, 71, the election is a formality: with the support of the state, the state-run media and almost no mainstream public dissent, he is certain to win.
He has no discernable successor.
Opposition politicians cast the election as a fig leaf of democracy that adorns what they see as the corrupt dictatorship of Putin’s Russia.
A handful of other unthreatening candidates will be put up to run against Putin and lose as usual, they say, in what has become a carefully stage-managed imitation of democracy.
A years-long crackdown on opponents and critics bolstered by sweeping new laws on “fake news” and “discrediting the army” has seen critics handed long jail terms or flee abroad as the room for dissent has steadily shrunk.
Supporters of Putin dismiss that analysis, pointing to some independent polling that shows he enjoys approval ratings of above 80%. They say that Putin has restored order and some of the clout Russia lost during the chaos of the Soviet collapse.
While Putin may face no real competition in the election, he is confronted with the most serious set of challenges any Kremlin chief has faced since Mikhail Gorbachev grappled with the crumbling Soviet Union more than three decades ago.
The war in Ukraine triggered the biggest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; Western sanctions have delivered the biggest external shock to the Russian economy for decades; and Putin faced a failed mutiny by Russia’s most powerful mercenary, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in June.
Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash two months to the day after the mutiny. Since the mutiny, Putin has tightened his control.
The West casts Putin as a war criminal and a dictator who has led Russia into an imperial-style land grab in Ukraine that has weakened Moscow and bolstered Ukrainian statehood while uniting the West and handing NATO a mission again.
Putin, though, presents the war as part of a much broader struggle for a new world order with the United States which the Kremlin elite says aims to cleave Russia apart, grab its vast natural resources and then turn to settling scores with China.
While Putin’s bet on a short victorious war in February 2022 has failed, the West has also failed to meet its publicly stated aims: to defeat Russia on the battlefield, to drive Russian troops out of Ukraine and to stoke opposition to Putin.
Hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian men have been killed or injured in the war. Neither side publishes death tolls.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed this year to achieve any meaningful gains, Russia still controls about 17.5% of Ukrainian territory, and Putin is more secure than ever.
In Moscow, Putin has gloated over the failure of the West’s sanctions – which Western leaders said were the toughest ever imposed on a major economy.
Russia forecasts its $2.1 trillion economy will grow faster this year than the euro zone or the United States. The world’s second largest oil exporter sells its oil all over the globe.
RUSSIA AT WAR
Russia, though, has become a shriller place at a time of war – which critics say has exposed its faultlines under Putin: a sluggish bureaucracy ruled by one Kremlin chief and a crackdown on dissent that has scared some of its best brains away.
Almost 32 years to the day since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union stoked hopes that Russia would blossom into an open democracy, opposition activists and journalists spoke to Reuters of the fear they feel.
Jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny says Putin has led Russia down a strategic dead end towards ruin, building a brittle system of corrupt sycophants that will ultimately bequeath chaos rather than stability.
Yekaterina Duntsova, who presents herself as an opposition candidate for president, told Reuters she felt fear and wanted the conflict in Ukraine to end.
“When in Europe and the United States they say that Russia and the Russians are Putin – that is not right. I am not a supporter of collective guilt,” Duntsova said of the war.
“The decision was not taken by all the people who live in this country.”
Just how the Ukraine war will end is unclear.
(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)