Russian president Vladimir Putin has announced that he will run in elections next year to extend his two-decade hold on power, as the Kremlin said the prospect of peace talks with Ukraine on terms favourable to Kyiv was “absolutely unrealistic”.
Mr Putin (71) announced that he wanted at least one more six-year term, the day after Russia’s parliament set presidential elections for March 17th. He is already Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Josef Stalin, having been in power as president and prime minister since 2000, and ushered through constitutional changes in 2020 that allow him to govern until 2036.
After Mr Putin gave awards to Russians fighting in his invasion of Ukraine, a member of a militia in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region appeared to call out to him in a surely stage-managed moment that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted was “spontaneous”.
“Mr President, you have done so much for our Donbas . . . On behalf of our people, of Donbas as a whole and our reunified lands, I would like to ask you to take part in this election. After all, there is so much work that needs to be done,” said Artyom Zhoga, who is also speaker of a Russian-installed so-called parliament in occupied Donetsk region.
“It is thanks to your actions and your decision that we have obtained our freedom and the right to choose,” he added. “You are our president and we are your team. We need you and Russia needs you.”
Mr Putin replied: “Thank you very much. Make no mistake, I had all kinds of thoughts on this matter at different times. However, you are right – the time to decide has come. I will run for president of Russia . . . I realise that today . . . there is no other way.”
The Russian leader’s every public move is carefully planned for security and other reasons, but Mr Peskov claimed the exchange in a Kremlin hall was a complete surprise.
“He was asked a question and he answered it. Well, yes, it is completely spontaneous,” he said. “He reacted to the appeals of heroic people.”
Mr Putin has crushed all real opponents during two decades of increasing authoritarianism, and his main critics have been jailed, forced into exile or killed. Repression intensified when he launched the full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which Russians are banned from openly criticising or even publicly describing as a “war”.
US deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said on Thursday that in a year’s time, Washington wanted to see Russia facing a choice of peace talks on Kyiv’s terms or continued war with a Ukraine strengthened by more powerful US and European defence industries.
Mr Peskov said such a scenario was “absolutely unrealistic”. The Kremlin has repeatedly stated that peace talks may only be possible if Ukraine accepts Russian occupation of large parts of its territory.
Ukraine said it shot down 14 of 19 long-range missiles fired by Russia on Friday, but at least one person was killed, eight injured and power infrastructure damaged.