The admission came Friday during an annual meeting with Western journalists and Russia experts called the Valdai discussion group. Asked whether he would run in 2012, Putin said, "We'll think together and consider the realities of our time, our personal plans, the political landscape… and we'll come to a decision," news agencies reported.
Putin served eight years as president before his two-term limit expired last year, when his handpicked successor Medvedev took over. Since then, Russia has amended its constitution to increase the presidential term to six years, prompting many to believe the Kremlin was preparing the way for Putin to return to a dozen more years in office.
Medvedev's chief public role has been to make pronouncements that sound presidential: excoriations about labor productivity or alcoholism, grand pronouncements about Russia's future as a land where rule of law and technological advances are the world's envy, and liberal-sounding promises to root out corruption.
Today the president led an international conference in the city of Yaroslavl, where he repeated his call for a major new security agreement to supersede NATO and the OSCE. On Thursday, Medvedev published an open letter criticizing Russian corruption, economic backwardness and alcoholism, vowing to transform the country into a technological leader and an open and democratic society.
At the same time, Putin has been at pains to show himself the more active and decisive of the country's two leaders. When asked last Friday who was running the country, Putin said it was Medvedev -- but in a manner of someone who's really in charge.
"We have nothing to prove to anyone," Putin said. "If someone is living in a dream, he needs to wake up, take a shower and look at reality. If you want to cooperate with Russia you need to know that it's the president who heads Russia."
But the events of the past several days indicate otherwise. They echo the dynamic of last January's natural gas standoff with Ukraine: Putin was busy negotiating a deal with his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko while Medvedev was off hosting a conference on energy security ignored by almost everyone.
If Medvedev often appears stiff and professorial despite his dandyishly fitted suits and broad ties, Putin's image has been crafted to appeal to Russians' emotions. He's shown bare-chested on horseback, criticizing the West at international events Medvedev would be expected to attend, and making the kind of practical decisions that affect how the country is really run -- such as whether he'll return to the presidency in two and a half years. That pronouncement has further undermined Medvedev's authority only halfway into his term.