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Putin will seek another presidential term in Russia, extending his rule of over two decades

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MOSCOW -

Vladimir Putin on Friday moved to prolong his repressive and unyielding grip on Russia for at least another six years, announcing his candidacy in the presidential election next March that he is all but certain to win.

Putin still commands wide support after nearly a quarter-century in power, despite starting an immensely costly war in Ukraine that has taken thousands of his countrymen's lives, provoked repeated attacks inside Russia -- including one on the Kremlin itself -- and corroded its aura of invincibility.

A short-lived rebellion in June by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin raised widespread speculation that Putin could be losing his grip, but he emerged with no permanent scars. Prigozhin's death in a mysterious plane crash two months later reinforced the view that Putin was in absolute control.

Putin, who was first elected president in March 2000, announced his decision to run in the March 17 presidential election after a Kremlin award ceremony, when war veterans and others pleaded with him to seek reelection in what Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as "spontaneous" remarks.

"I won't hide it from you -- I had various thoughts about it over time, but now, you're right, it's necessary to make a decision," Putin said in a video released by the Kremlin after the event. "I will run for president of the Russian Federation."

Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center noted that the announcement was made in a low-key way instead of a live televised speech, probably reflecting the Kremlin's spin effort to emphasize Putin's modesty and his perceived focus on doing his job as opposed to loud campaigning.

"It's not about prosperity, it's about survival," Stanovaya observed. "The stakes have been raised to the maximum."

About 80% of the populace approves of Putin's performance, according to the independent pollster Levada Center. That support might come from the heart or it might reflect submission to a leader whose crackdown on any opposition has made even relatively mild criticism perilous.

Whether due to real or coerced support, Putin is expected to face only token opposition on the ballot.

Putin, 71, has twice used his leverage to amend the constitution so he could theoretically stay in power until he's in his mid-80s. He is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who died in 1953.

In 2008, he stepped aside to become prime minister due to term limits but continued calling the shots while his close associate Dmitry Medvedev served as a placeholder president. Presidential terms were then extended to six years from four, while another package of amendments he pushed through three years ago reset the count for two consecutive terms to begin in 2024.

"He is afraid to give up power," Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and professor at Free University of Riga, Latvia, told The Associated Press this year.

At the time of the amendments that allowed him two more terms, Putin's concern about losing power may have been elevated: Levada polling showed his approval rating significantly lower, hovering around 60%.

In the view of some analysts, that dip in popularity could have been a main driver of the war that Putin launched in Ukraine in February 2022.

"This conflict with Ukraine was necessary as a glue. He needed to consolidate his power," said commentator Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter now living in Israel.

Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill, a former U.S. National Security Council expert on Russian affairs, agreed that Putin thought "a lovely small, victorious war" would consolidate support for his reelection.

"Ukraine would capitulate," she told AP earlier this year. "He'd install a new president in Ukraine. He would declare himself the president of a new union of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia over the course of the time leading up to the 2024 election. He'd be the supreme leader."

The war didn't turn out that way. It devolved into a grueling slog in which neither side makes significant headway, posing severe challenges to the rising prosperity integral to Putin's popularity and Russians' propensity to set aside concerns about corrupt politics and shrinking tolerance of dissent.

For the first time, voting in the presidential election will take place over three days from March 15 to 17, 2024, including in four regions of Ukraine partially and illegally annexed by Russia. The election commission argued that the practice of multi-day voting, used in other elections since the COVID-19 pandemic, is more convenient for voters.

Putin's rule has spanned five U.S. presidencies, from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden. He became acting president on New Year's Eve in 1999, when Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned. He was elected to his first term in March 2000.

Although Putin has long abandoned the macho photo shoots of bear hunting and scuba diving that once amused and impressed the world, he shows little sign of slowing down. Photos from 2022 of him with a bloated face and a hunched posture led to speculation he was seriously ill, but he seems little changed in recent public appearances.

Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus and senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, noted that it was emblematic that a war veteran whose son was killed in the fighting set Putin's campaign in motion.

"This is taking place in the context of a major war that is imposing material and human constraints and stresses on Russia," Gould-Davies said. "So ultimately, it will be all about the war."

He noted that Putin has built "a system that has become more systemically corrupt, more repressive, and also in foreign policy terms - I think this is really the great historical significance - Russia now is more alienated, isolated from the West than at any time since at least the last years of Stalin."

The key lesson for the West is that "there can be no constructive relationship with Russia while Putin or anyone like Putin is in office," Gould-Davies said.

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Jim Heintz, who reported from Tallinn, Estonia, has covered Vladimir Putin for The Associated Press for the whole of his Kremlin leadership.

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Emma Burrows in London and Andrew Katell in New York contributed.

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