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NEWS

Exclusive-Russia’s Putin to stay in power past 2024, sources say

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Vladimir Putin has decided to run in the March presidential election, a move that will keep him in power until least 2030, as the Kremlin chief feels he must steer Russia through the most perilous period in decades, six sources told Reuters.

After defusing an armed mutiny by the leader of the Wagner mercenary group in June, Putin has moved to shore up support among his core base in the security forces, the armed forces and with regional voters outside Moscow, while Wagner has been brought firmly to heel.

Russian defence, weapons and overall budget spending has soared while Putin has made numerous public appearances, including the regions, over recent months.

“The decision has been made – he will run,” said one of the sources who has knowledge of the planning.

Another source, also acquainted with the Kremlin’s thinking, confirmed that a decision has been made and that Putin’s advisers were preparing for his participation. Three other sources said the decision to run in the March 2024 presidential election had been taken.

The sources spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of Kremlin politics.

One of them said a choreographed hint was due to come within a few weeks, confirming a Kommersant newspaper report last month.

While many diplomats, spies and officials have said they expect Putin to stay in power for life, there has until now been now been no specific confirmation of Putin’s plans to stand for re-election.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had not yet commented on the issue, adding: “The campaign has not been officially announced yet.”

RUSSIA AT WAR

Putin, 71, who was handed the presidency by Boris Yeltsin on the last day of 1999, has already served as president for longer than any other Russian ruler since Josef Stalin, beating even Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year tenure.

Diplomats say there is no serious rival who could threaten Putin’s chances at the ballot box, should the incumbent run again. The former KGB spy enjoys approval ratings of 80%, can count on the support of the state and the state media, and there is almost no mainstream public opposition to his continued rule.

Yet Putin faces the most serious set of challenges any Kremlin chief has faced since Mikhail Gorbachev grappled with the crumbling Soviet Union more than three decades ago.

The war in Ukraine has triggered the biggest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the resulting Western sanctions have delivered the biggest external shock to the Russian economy in decades.

Inflation has accelerated while the rouble has fallen since the war began, and defence spending will account for almost one third of Russia’s total budget expenditure in 2024, the government’s draft plans show.

But the biggest direct threat to Putin’s continued rule came in June, when Russia’s most powerful mercenary, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led a short-lived mutiny.

Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash two months to the day after the mutiny, and Putin has since used the Defence Ministry and the National Guard to extend his allies’ control over the remnants of the Wagner force.

The West casts Putin as a war criminal and a dictator who has led Russia into an imperial-style land grab that has weakened Russia and forged Ukrainian statehood, while uniting the West and handing NATO a renewed sense of mission.

Putin, though, presents the war as part of a much broader struggle with the United States which the Kremlin elite says aims to cleave Russia apart, grab its vast natural resources and then turn to settling scores with China.

“Russia is facing the combined might of the West so major change would not be expedient,” one of the sources said.

For some Russians, however, the war has shown the faultlines of post-Soviet Russia.

Jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny says Putin has led Russia down a strategic dead end towards ruin, building a brittle system of corrupt sycophants that will ultimately bequeath chaos rather than stability.

“Russia is going backwards,” Oleg Orlov, one of Russia’s most respected human rights campaigners, told Reuters in July. “We left Communist totalitarianism but now have returned to a different kind of totalitarianism.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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