Why Putin Won't Confirm Whether He Is Running For President Next Year

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks in the Galerie des Batailles as he arrives for a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron (not pictured) following their meeting at the Versailles Palace, near Paris, France, May 29. Stephane De Sakutin/Pool/Reuters

With less than a year from the election that Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win, he is still refusing to confirm whether he will even run. Speaking to French daily newspaper Le Figaro during his visit to France this week, Putin once again parried questions about whether or not he will run for a fourth term as president come next March.

"As far as candidates are concerned, well, it is too early to talk about that," Putin said. His ruling, catch-all United Russia party and the heavily state-dominated media in Russia have entered the final year of Putin's current term with few clues as to who could potentially succeed the man in power, suggesting Putin's road to a fourth term is paved.

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On the face of it, Putin's refusal to make his bid for a new term may seem strange. If in good health and humor, it would be highly unlikely he would not be celebrating six more years at Russia's helm next spring.

Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin's plummeting approval rating peaked and has stayed above 80 percent ever since. Russian lawmakers have already endorsed moving the election to the anniversary of the day that is personally important to Putin's legacy. In January, his own press secretary Dmitry Peskov said he hoped Putin would run again. These seem to be auspicious signs for a fourth Putin term and it is not as if there are major rivals or heirs apparent threatening to offset the current order in the near future.

Last year's parliamentary election saw United Russia win a record number of seats in parliament, beating the parties of two of the major candidates who also ran in Russian presidential elections—Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov. United Russia's popularity is strongly dependent and tied to Putin's own. Besides, Putin's most popular critic, Alexey Navalny, had a controversial fraud conviction upheld last year, meaning legally he is not allowed on the ballot in March.

According to Mark Galeotti, Russia expert and senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, Putin's coyness about his future plans does not stem from doubts about his chances of victory. Rather, recent signs suggest a Putin victory may not bring high turnout and represent a triumphant coronation that the president would prefer to carry him into his unprecedented fourth term. Putin may now seek victory with fewer fanfare than usual and without risk of denting his public persona of a leader adored by his people.

"The moment he confirms he is running, then in effect Russia goes into campaign mode," Galeotti says. "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."

Putin does not need adulation to win votes. But after 17 years in charge he wants to keep the apathy rampant across Russian politics as far away from his own political brand as possible. He will have already seen alarming signs. In parliament, United Russia's record high share of seats last year came with a record low turnout of 48 percent. Earlier this month, independent pollster Levada Center found that only the same number—48 percent—would now vote for Putin in a presidential election, meaning he risks not winning the election outright for the first time. This is hardly a fatal problem for any presidency, but he will want his six-term mandate to run on a full tank of legitimacy.

Further, the slow recovery from Russia's recession is a top priority for Russians and the earlier Putin announces he is running, the sooner he will have to answer questions about pensions, welfare spending and cuts.

Putin's one-time successor Dmitry Medvedev's campaign-style public events last year saw him repeatedly confronted by people about pensions and teacher's pay. His unconvincing responses went viral on two occasions and triggered a backlash against him. Last year hundreds of thousands called for his dismissal as prime minister, his approval rating slipped to an all-time low last month and Navalny rallied the biggest protests in half a decade in Russia against him in March.

"I suspect they will wait as long as they feel is plausible and then use some suitable date for it," Galeotti says. "Maybe 12 June, to eclipse Navalny's planned protests, but just as likely some later date, such as the next 'Direct Line'."

Putin's Direct Line program, in which he answers phone call queries from all over Russia, is often the setting for grand presidential gestures, including ordering the mending of country roads or sending gifts to children. It has also been postponed this year.

The Kremlin has denied that it was moved so as to avoid coinciding with Navalny's anti-Medvedev protests in March. There is no date set for it now, though Kommersant reports that it will take place this summer, and will be the occasion where Putin confirms his candidature.