Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced he will seek a new six-year term in a March 2018 election, taking a widely expected step that is likely to prolong his rule into a third decade.
"I will put forth my candidacy for the post of president of the Russian Federation," Putin said in Nizhny Novgorod on December 6.
The announcement confirmed widespread assumptions that Putin, who has held power as president or prime minister since 1999, would seek a fourth Kremlin term.
His popularity, control over the levers of power, and years of steps to suppress dissent and marginalize political opponents virtually ensure that he will win the March 18 election.
His fourth term could potentially be his last: Putin, 65, would be barred from seeking reelection in 2024 because the constitution prohibits presidents from holding more than two consecutive terms.
For that reason, the approach of the March election has already generated speculation about Putin's future beyond 2014, including whom he might pick as a favored successor and whether he will change the rules in a bid to maintain power.
Putin made the announcement at a rally and concert marking the 85th anniversary of the Gorky auto factory in Nizhny Novgorod.
He said there was "probably no better place or better occasion for an announcement about this" -- a nod both to the blue-collar voters that are a major bulwark of his support and to the Soviet era.
INFOGRAPHIC: 18 YEARS OF PUTIN (click to view)
Putin had strongly hinted earlier in the day that he would run, fielding what appeared to be a scripted question by asking the members of a young audience at an televised awards ceremony in Moscow whether they would support his candidacy.
After shouts of "yes" came from the crowd, Putin said: "In that case, a decision will be made in the nearest future, taking into account the support from society."
Several other Russian have announced their intention to run, but some have openly praised Putin, and some hopefuls are seen as supported or engineered by the Kremlin to put a veneer of competition on the election.
Prominent hopefuls include Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, flamboyant ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky -- all perennial candidates -- as well as business ombudsman Boris Titov and Ksenia Sobchak, an opposition-minded journalist and TV personality who is the daughter of Putin's former boss, the late St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
Fierce Putin critic Aleksei Navalny, whose reports alleging corruption in Putin's inner circle have rattled the Kremlin, has been campaigning for a year after announcing his intention to run in December 2016.
But the Central Election Commission has said a financial-crimes conviction for which he is serving a suspended sentence makes him ineligible to run for president.
Navalny and supporters say his convictions in two high-profile trials since 2013 were politically motivated and aimed at keeping him out of elections.
"Don't let the swindler Putin trick you," Navalny tweeted shortly after the incumbent's announcement.
"He wants to be in power for 21 years," Navalny wrote in another tweet. "I think that's a bit much."
Russians who are 18 years old, the minimum voting age, cannot remember a time when Putin was not president or prime minister.
Putin and his allies say he brought stability to Russia in the wake of an economic crisis in the late 1990s and two devastating wars against separatists in the Chechnya region from 1994 to the early 2000s. Backers also say that with actions such as the military intervention in Syria, where Russia has given President Bashar al-Assad crucial backing in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Putin has restored the global clout Moscow lost when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
Critics say he has rolled back the advances in democracy and human rights that were made in Russia after the Soviet collapse. Detractors also say that the longtime former KGB officer has returned to Soviet-style methods of stifling dissent and has needlessly stoked confrontation with Washington and the West.
President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly named Putin to replace him on the last day of 1999, and Putin was elected president in March 2000.
Running up against the two-term limit, he tapped protege Dmitry Medvedev as his favorite in a 2008 presidential election and served as prime minister for four years before returning to the presidency in 2012.
Dismay over his decision to return to the Kremlin, in addition to anger over evidence of widespread fraud in favor of the ruling United Russia party in parliamentary elections, prompted a wave of large street protests.
Human rights and civil society activists say Putin has clamped down further on dissenting voices during his third term, which has also brought severe tension in Russia's ties with the United States, the European Union, and NATO.
Western governments have imposed sanctions on Russia -- and on allies of Putin in particular -- in response to Moscow's armed takeover of Crimea and its role in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
The United States has also imposed sanctions over what U.S. intelligence officials say was a concerted campaign, ordered by Putin, to influence the U.S presidential election in 2016.
Putin's announcement came amid tension over a decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to bar Russia from the Winter Olympics in February, one month before the presidential election, following a determination that it operated an elaborate state-sponsored doping program at the Winter Olympics it hosted in 2014.
At the same time, the IOC left the door open for Russian athletes to compete under the Olympic flag.
The Federation Council, Russia's upper parliament house, must announce the start of the presidential campaign between December 7-17. After that, candidates will have 20 days to submit their registration documents to the Central Election Commission.
With reporting by TASS, Reuters, AP, and Dozhd