SOCHI, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin, the presumed favorite to win a new six-year term in March, offered a message of renewal in a marathon address Thursday. But he failed to deliver the news that Kremlin watchers have been waiting for: whether he will seek reelection.
Addressing a conference on international policy at a Russian resort, Putin said that today's leaders have a responsibility to make sure young people's lives "will be better, fairer and safer."
“Our job is to make those dreams come true,” Putin told the Valdai forum of international policy experts, set in a Sochi spa hotel perched among the white-tipped pyramids of the Caucasus Mountains.
Russia’s next president should ensure that the country becomes an economically competitive, modern society with a strong defense and a stable political system, Putin said. But he did not come out and say he should be that president.
Putin was asked whether the next Kremlin leader could be a woman, a day after the announcement by Ksenia Sobchak, a celebrity television journalist and the daughter of Putin’s political mentor, that she would run for president.
“Everything here is possible,” Putin said.
Putin took questions for more than two hours, but when the election was brought up again, he said with a little smile, “Okay, time to finish.”
The Russian leader dedicated a large portion of his speech and responses to questions to Russia’s grievances against the United States. He asserted that Washington has failed to fulfill the terms of nuclear and chemical weapons treaties. He repeated his long-standing accusation that U.S. leaders have displayed double standards with their interventions in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia while slapping Moscow with sanctions over its annexation of Crimea. Instead of helping create a safer world after the Cold War, Putin said, the United States is “trying to return us to the 1950s.”
Putin also noted the possibility that U.S. authorities might force the U.S. branch of Russia's state-funded RT television channel to register as a foreign agent. The Russian news media has reported that the upper house of the Russian parliament has drawn up a blacklist of at least five U.S. media outlets whose activities in Russia could be restricted in response.
“As soon as we see any efforts to limit our mass media, we will reciprocate immediately,” Putin said.
Russian Kremlin watchers had expected Putin to announce his candidacy Thursday, but the president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters in a conference call that the Russian leader planned to concentrate on his current term.
“Putin himself has not yet aired his intention to run, and said there is still enough time before the election campaign,” Peskov said.
Putin, who enjoys a seemingly unbeatable 80 percent approval rating, faces a conundrum as the leader who has run Russia for longer than anyone since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The Kremlin leader sees a new term as a chance to solidify his legacy as a historic figure for Russia, the one who dragged the country from the ruins of the Soviet Union into modernity and prosperity. He has focused on establishing Russia's newly assertive place in the world order, leading its as-yet successful military campaign to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He has offered Russia's support for established leaders in the Middle East and Europe as an alternative to what he calls U.S.-sponsored regime change.
But Russian voters have shown signs of fatigue with the current system: Anti-corruption protests twice have brought out larger numbers of protesters across the country than at any time since Putin last election victory, in 2012.
Russia's rising voters are of particular concern. Young people in high school and college have flocked to protests inspired by anti-corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny, who has been disqualified from running by a felony conviction that he says is politically motivated.
The Kremlin has been looking for ways to interest young people in loyal political movements. Some see the candidacy of Sobchak as a Kremlin-devised diversion toward that end, although spokesman Peskov curtly dismissed the suggestion in his daily briefing with reporters Thursday.
Putin is part of the problem, according to political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya.
"After almost 18 years in power, he sees himself as more accountable to the judgment of history than to the needs of the people," Stanovaya wrote in a recent report for the Carnegie Moscow Center. "This abstract approach to politics means that the will of the people (and the role of elections) are further diminished in Russia and are no longer the source of his legitimacy."
It has fallen to the Kremlin official in charge of domestic politics, Sergei Kiriyenko, to drum up interest in the vote. Kiriyenko reportedly has the task of topping Putin's best election result, in 2004 — 49.5 million yes votes from 71 percent of the turnout. In 2012, Putin collected 45.6 million votes, or 64 percent of the turnout.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, recently suggested that anything more than 60 percent would be pushing the upper limits of Putin’s real electoral rating, even though he rules unchallenged by a political system almost entirely subordinate to him.
Candidates such as Sobchak have no chance of upsetting Putin, but they offer voters a choice and give the election the look of a European-style democracy. Communist and ultranationalist candidates also are expected to win a small percentage of the vote.
Kiriyenko has been involved in another effort to give the Russian polity a new face: Putin's recent replacement of 11 of the country's 85 governors with officials widely described as technocrats with few ties to the country's traditional regional elites or security services. Several of the new appointees graduated from a Kremlin program to produce effective officials. The RBC news site recently published a video of a training exercise that showed one of the new governors jumping into the sea from a 23-foot cliff along with other members of the program.
Putin's appearance in Sochi coincided with the World Festival of Youth and Students, which RBC described as a move in line with the Kremlin's increasing interest in communicating with the younger generation.
"It is a group of people which the authorities want to be loyal, since it will have to vote in the future, probably, for the same old leader," the RBC report said.
Andrew Roth and Natalya Abbakumova contributed to this report from Moscow.