Less than six months before Russia's next election, President Vladimir Putin says he has not yet decided whether to seek a new six-year term.
Putin, who is widely expected to seek and easily secure his fourth term as president of a country whose tightly-controlled political system leaves little room for surprises, suggested on October 4 that he will announce a decision by early December.
"Not only have I not decided who I will run against, I have not decided whether I will run at all," Putin said during an international energy conference in Moscow, when asked whom he would run against in the March 18 election.
"By law the [start of] the presidential election campaign must be announced in late November-early December, I think," he said. "I think that by that time the main contenders will officially announce [their candidacies] and publicize their campaign platforms."
No Mention Of Navalny
He made no mention of Aleskei Navalny, an opposition politician and staunch Putin critic who is campaigning for the presidency despite a statement from the Central Election Commission saying that he is ineligible to run because of a financial-crimes conviction.
Navalny, who is currently in jail for 20 days after being found guilty of a separate infraction, contends that the conviction was politically motivated. He has called on supporters to protest nationwide on October 7 -- Putin’s 65th birthday.
Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, would be constitutionally barred from seeking a fifth term in 2024 if he is elected in March.
Critics say he has maintained power in part by muzzling the media, tightening Kremlin control over electoral politics, and employing the police, security services, and court system to suppress dissent.
After four years as prime minister, he returned to the presidency in 2012 after weathering protests sparked by allegations of electoral fraud and dismay among opponents about his decision to take back the Kremlin helm.
Severe Tension With U.S.
Putin's current term has been colored by severe tension in relations with the United States and other Western countries, which have imposed sanctions on Russia over its seizure of Crimea in 2014 and role in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine.
The United States also imposed sanctions in response to what the U.S. intelligence community says was an "influence campaign" targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in which U.S. officials believe that Putin's government favored Donald Trump over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton
Russian officials initially voiced confidence that Trump’s election would help improve ties, but those hopes appear to have faded substantially as the U.S. Justice Department and congressional committees investigate Moscow’s alleged interference in the election and seek to determine whether associates of Trump colluded with Russia. Putin denies that Russia meddled in the election and Trump denies there was any collusion.
Asked about the Russian-U.S. ties by a panel mediator at the energy conference, Putin said that relations "have become a hostage of the domestic political situation in the United States" and added: "We are patiently waiting for this process in the domestic political life of the United States to end."
However, when asked whether Trump has become a hostage of the U.S. political system, Putin answered that "Trump is not a man who could be anyone's hostage."
He also said that he has no personal relationship with Trump, stating that he has only met Trump in person once -- referring to a Group of 20 (G20) summit of leading industrialized nations in Germany in July.
Syria, North Korea Crises
Putin asserted that Russia and the United States are cooperating in resolving the ongoing crisis in Syria and have "managed to reach good results despite some differences."
While Russia and a U.S.-led coalition are both targeting Islamic State (IS) fighters with air strikes in Syria, Russia has strongly backed President Bashar al-Assad's government throughout the six-year war there while the United States backs rebels.
Turning to North Korea, which Trump has threatened with the potential use of force in response to nuclear-device and missile tests that violate UN Security Council resolutions, Putin said the pressure imposed on Pyongyang may only deepen the confrontation.
"Those who want to talk with North Korea by force are making the North Korean regime stronger," Putin said.
With reporting by TASS, Interfax, and Reuters