Has Putin Already Decided He Will Win Next Year's Election?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, September 28, 2017. Umit Bektas/Reuters

With less than six months to go until Russia's presidential election, the Russian media are still trying to trick the overwhelming favorite—Vladimir Putin—to even confirm he will take part in the vote that has not been competitive for over a decade.

But after repeatedly dodging the question of Putin's participation and likely win, the Kremlin was almost caught out on Monday. Instead of asking again if Putin will run for a record fourth presidential term next year during the daily briefing by Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, state news agency RIA Novosti asked him about the president's schedule in the coming year.

Peskov confirmed that currently the Kremlin is working on hosting a presidential tete-a-tete with France's Emmanuel Macron next summer, possibly at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum—an annual staple of Putin's presidential calendar.

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Asked if this meant Putin would once again attend the event in June, given that the elections are in March—three months earlier—Peskov seemed to confirm it, saying: "The Russian President will participate in the next Petersburg economic forum."

The claim generated some excitement in the room as one journalist asked a smiling Peskov if this then confirms Putin's participation in the March election.

"I can announce that the president of the Russian Federation will take part in the next St. Petersburg International Economic Forum," Peskov said, underlining that he did not announce who this president will be.

Although Russian state media has not made any noticeable effort to groom a particular figure to succeed Putin, the president maintains he has not made up his mind about his next term. With all of his most vocal and prominent opponents long sidelined from the running, Putin is arguably in the strongest position he has ever been going into an election.

Russia expert Mark Galeotti has concluded that Putin's re-election strategy now is to keep the election out of the headlines for as long as possible, so as not to go through the motions of a campaign. This is not because he doubts he will win, but rather he does not want to make promises on domestic issues.

"The moment he confirms he is running, then in effect Russia goes into campaign mode," Galeotti says. This is a far cry from reports earlier in the year that Putin's team is eyeing a sweeping and much publicized victory with over 70 percent of both the vote and the national turnout.

Lawmakers even launched an official bid to move the date of the vote to fall on the anniversary of the single biggest popularity booster Putin has had as president—the annexation of Crimea in 2014. "Given that I think they have abandoned their grandiose early 70/70 strategy and now just want to get through the tedious necessity of an election with the least fuss and embarrassment as possible, there's no incentive to pull that trigger any earlier than they need to."