- - Sunday, December 10, 2017

MOSCOW — The suspense was killing no one, but what Vladimir Putin plans next is a much bigger question.

Mr. Putin’s expected but belated announcement last week that he will seek yet another six-year term in March puts him on course to become Russia’s longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin, a record regretted by a few even as many welcomed the announcement as a force against perceived Western aggression. For now, at least, it is the country’s hard-liners who are cheering the loudest.

“He is the only one who is capable of resisting the massive, ruthless and unprecedented attack organized by our cruel friends from the U.S. and Western Europe,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, wrote on Instagram.

Few doubt Mr. Putin will win the election easily. Speaking to a crowd of young charity volunteers in Moscow on Tuesday, Mr. Putin blandly said he hoped to “improve the lives of the people in our country and make our country stronger, safer and forward-looking.”

He formally announced his candidacy for another six-year term a day later at an automobile factory in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 260 miles east of Moscow, where he basked in the rapturous applause of the blue-collar workers.

As president, prime minister and then president again, the 65-year-old former KGB agent has towered over Russian politics for nearly two decades. Mr. Putin’s current term of office, which began amid mass opposition protests in Moscow in 2012, has been marked by a dramatic decline in relations with the West over Ukraine, Syria and reports of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Those favoring a tougher line with the West and a more aggressive foreign policy welcomed Mr. Putin’s decision to seek a new term, one that would keep him in office until 2024. They said Western attempts to contain Russia will only get worse in the coming years.

“The confrontation with the West will only intensify during Putin’s fourth term,” Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist writer who is believed to be close to high-ranking members of the Russian security services, told The Washington Times. “The government has prepared a plan of mobilization in the event of military hostilities with the West.”

Mr. Putin in November ordered all major companies, both state-owned and private, to ensure they have the capability to switch rapidly to wartime operations, including the production of military equipment and services.

Meanwhile, a leaked document indicated that educational facilities in Siberia had been told to make sure they would be able to continue teaching in wartime conditions. Education officials later confirmed the document was genuine. It is unclear whether the order is to be implemented on a regional or national level.

Despite his long tenure, Mr. Putin still enjoys remarkable freedom to maneuver in a political system he dominates. After announcing his plans, the president revealed that he was still unsure whether he would run as the candidate of the ruling United Russia party or as an independent. Mr. Putin is far more popular personally and may not want to be tied to corruption scandals that have hurt the party’s standing with voters.

If both he and President Trump win re-election, it would open a four-year window after 2020 in which the two leaders could seek a new bilateral relationship without having to worry about the repercussions at the ballot box.

Economic hardship

Russia’s standoff with the West, twinned with a slump in global oil prices, has caused massive economic hardship in Russia. Some 20 million Russians — about 14 percent of the population — are living beneath a poverty threshold defined as $171 a month.

Almost 40 percent of Russians say they struggle to feed and clothe themselves properly on their incomes, and a third say they cannot afford to buy anything but food, according to a report by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

Real incomes have been falling for 36 months in a row.

In an embarrassment for the Kremlin, the document on wartime planning for educational facilities was leaked as government statistics revealed that almost 3,000 primary and secondary schools in Russia, including in deepest Siberia, have no interior restrooms.

Although polls say Mr. Putin remains popular with millions of Russians, rising poverty has sparked social tensions, including nationwide protests over high-level corruption with hundreds of people arrested. Mr. Putin said this month, shortly before he announced his candidacy, that the government would spend $8.6 billion on a host of measures to help alleviate financial hardship, including mortgage subsidies and payments to new and growing families.

But perhaps a more illuminating sign of the unease lurking beneath the surface in the Putin era was a series of measures the president recently floated to encourage Russians to have more babies in an attempt to tackle demographic decline that could slash Russia’s population from 143 million to 107 million by 2050. The need to halt Russia’s steady population decline has been a running theme throughout Mr. Putin’s time in the Kremlin.

“This tendency was predictable and is linked to the consequences of previous, overlapping deep demographic declines,” he told a meeting on child policy in Moscow last month.

But the pre-election sweeteners also betray a least a slight strain of nervousness in Mr. Putin and his aides, after the government failed to increase pensions and other social spending in line with inflation for several years in a row. “There’s no money. But you hang in there. Best wishes! Cheers!” Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, told senior citizens last year in comments that were widely mocked.

While Mr. Putin is all but assured the presidency come March, the election is likely to have large protests led by Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader. Mr. Navalny, who calls Mr. Putin a thief and his ruling United Russia party crooks and swindlers, is barred from standing for public office because of a conviction for embezzlement that he says was trumped up to stifle his political ambitions.

“An election without the main rival candidate is not an election,” said Mr. Navalny.

As Mr. Putin prepares to enter what is, barring a change to the constitution, his final presidential term, some analysts say the Kremlin has already begun to think about life after the ex-KGB officer who has already ruled Russia for 18 years.

“Most discussion within the ruling elite focuses not on the next stage of the Putin era but on what will constitute the post-Putin era,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, wrote in an article published by the Moscow Carnegie Center. “The start of the 2018-2024 presidential term will be the occasion for deal-making at the highest level.”

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