President Vladimir Putin has kicked off his reelection campaign by calling for the protection of Russia's "freedom" and "stability," suggesting the country needs to ward off influence from abroad and attempts by the domestic opposition to shake up politics.
Putin's remarks came in a speech to a loyal support group on December 19, a day after the formal start of the campaign for the March 18 election.
As he has in past campaigns, Putin painted a picture of a strong and self-reliant Russia pursuing its path from hardship to success -- with him at the helm.
"Following the breakup of the Soviet Union we heard a lot of sweet talk and nice speeches, but nobody actually helped us," Putin told the All-Russia Popular Front (ONF). "And we have never counted on anyone's help as we do not need any outside assistance."
Putin also suggested he inherited a country that was on its knees and turned it around after he came to power 18 years ago, asserting that in 2000 "many forecast the collapse and death of Russia."
"Indeed, the situation was very difficult -- even critical at times -- but we not only preserved Russia's territorial integrity and sovereignty, not only successfully passed through the renovation stage, but took real breakthrough steps in the most important directions of our development," Putin said.
"Today we must protect our statehood and freedom, and stability and harmony in society," he said. The words echoed past statements in which Putin has portrayed Russia as facing threats to its sovereignty from outside, particularly from the United States and the West, as well as dangers from domestic opponents he frequently says are out to cause chaos.
At an annual press conference he held on December 14, Putin accused opposition politician Aleksei Navalny -- a vocal Kremlin critic who has staged demonstrations and published reports alleging corruption among Putin's closest allies -- of "attempts to destabilize the country and foment social discord."
Navalny has been campaigning for the presidency since December 2016, but election officials said in June that he was ineligible to run due to a financial-crimes conviction that he contends was politically motivated and baseless. Supporters are planning rallies in 20 Russian cities including Moscow on December 24.
Putin announced his decision to run for a fourth term on December 6. His high approval ratings and control over the levers of power make his victory a foregone conclusion in Russia, where government critics say election campaigns and results are manipulated by the authorities.
Analysts say Putin is eager to score a strong win in a vote with a high turnout in order to make his mandate as strong as possible in what could be his final term as the constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.
The ONF was created in 2011, before Putin announced he would seek to return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister, and provides Putin with a pillar of support that is separate from the ruling United Russia party. At the press conference, Putin said that he would run as an independent candidate rather than being nominated by United Russia.
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.
Critics say he has rolled back the advances in democracy and human rights that were made 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.
Putin was first elected in March 2000, after President Boris Yeltsin stepped down on the last day of 1999 and put him in charge as acting president.
More than 20 people have declared their intention to run in the March election, including Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, business ombudsman Boris Titov, and journalist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak.
Presidential hopefuls have 20 days from December 18 to register for the election, and the Central Election Commission will later decide who gets on the ballot.