MOSCOW — Boris Nadezhdin has promised to take on Vladimir Putin in the presidential election to be held next March. It’s a risky act in a country where many critics have ended up jailed, exiled or dead.
“It is a very strange election because there is no real choice,” Nadezhdin, a veteran politician and commentator, said. He understands the risks but he still wants to run, he told NBC News, to call out the president for undermining Russian democratic institutions, and air criticism of the war in Ukraine and Putin’s efforts at steering the country to greater authoritarianism.
“I am ready for everything,” he added.
Nadezhdin is one of only two people who have so far expressed willingness to square up against a leader expected to win by a wide margin. Russian elections are often mired in irregularities and claims of fraud. It is extremely difficult for challengers to get their names onto a ballot at any level. Critics say Russia’s elections are mostly just for show.
Nadezhdin, 60, has gone so far as to label the full-scale invasion of Ukraine Putin’s “fatal mistake” — a dangerous statement where talk of the invasion is so restricted that, legally, he is required to call the war a “special military operation.”
Russians today face up to 15 years in prison for falling off-message on the conflict in Ukraine, making public criticism, like Nadezhdin’s, rare. But the presidential election, no matter how spurious, is in three months, and Nadezhdin says someone has to speak up.
There are few other figures remaining who could do it. The regime’s loudest critics — including Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure — are either dead, jailed or in exile. The Kremlin is tolerating Nadezhdin’s relatively candid interviews with journalists, a potential sign of Putin’s rejuvenated confidence, something that would have been hard to imagine just six months ago.
In the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Putin’s forces on the front line appeared to be more prone to infighting than engaging the Ukrainians, culminating in an attempted mutiny this summer by longtime regime loyalist Yevgeny Prigozhin.
It was the most dire internal political threat that Putin has faced in more than two decades in power. Not only did he survive the crisis, but he appears to have been reinvigorated by it.
“The negative expectations that did not come true created a certain level of confidence in himself,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter.
A number of other things since then have also broken in Putin’s favor. Ukraine’s counteroffensive stalled, calling into question the West’s commitment to Kyiv’s victory. The Israel-Hamas conflict has also deepened Western divisions over support for Ukraine.
As the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is reduced to begging Washington and its allies for more weapons, Putin is projecting a public swagger he has not shown since before the start of the war in Ukraine.
“His activity is markedly up: He has several events a day, like in the good old times,” Gallyamov said. “Many more than last year or in the first half of this year when he looked half-dismantled. He sometimes disappeared [from public view] for days or even weeks. It looked like he was in complete decline. Compared to that, he looks much better now.”
Putin, 71, has been in power since 1999 — longer than any Russian leader since Josef Stalin. Constitutional amendments passed before Russia’s invasion pave the way for him to remain in power until his mid-80s.
He views stability for Russia as central to his legacy, and he has sought to ensure that for the majority of Russians, the war in Ukraine goes largely unnoticed, and that the economy is solid and life goes on as normal.
While the Russian economy took a hit from Western sanctions in the months after the invasion, the Kremlin has propelled the narrative that it has emerged unscathed, if not stronger.
Speaking at the Russia Calling! investment forum last week, Putin boasted an expected 3.5% GDP growth by year’s end, declaring that Russia is “now ahead of all the leading E.U. countries in terms of growth rates.”
According to official data, real wages in Russia have grown by 8.7% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2023, while real incomes increased by 4.9%.
The wartime economy is serving many in Russia, Nadezhdin said, bolstering the Kremlin’s narrative of a strong economy.
“In my city of Dolgoprudny, we have a big plant, military plant, and everything is very good. They work 24 hours a day and the salaries grow, and grow and grow,” he said, referring to a suburb of Moscow. But he noted that this could be a dead end in the long term.
“The Soviet Union … made very good tanks, very good rockets, very good missiles, very good nuclear weapons. But in the ‘80s, we had no food in shops,” Nadezhdin said.
On the snow-covered and festive streets of Moscow, Russians were out shopping for the holidays and, by most accounts, trying to move on with their lives. Many Western brands that closed shop in response to the invasion in Ukraine have been replaced with domestic alternatives, approximating a sense of normalcy.
However, prices are surging. Inflation in Russia is 7.4%, slightly higher than the global inflation rate of 7%.
“Expensive. Everything is so expensive, though there is anything you need,” a retired woman in Pushkinskaya Square in central Moscow told NBC News, though she did not want to give her name. She was near the first McDonald’s that opened in post-Soviet Russia in 1990. It is now a Russian-owned version of McDonald’s, which stepped in after the fast-food chain left the country last year. “I think there is no category that has not gone up in price,” she said.
“We have a big experience of surviving,” said Elena, 58, who also asked not to use her last name. “So we have just begun to buy less rubbish and more things that are really needed.”
NBC News also spoke with a young woman named Galina who says the economy feels stable to her, enough that she was on her way to buy a new iPhone 15. She works as a product tester, but acknowledges that not everyone may share her views on the economy.
“There are different situations,” she said. “Some people have debts, some have credits, others have kids. Some have their loved ones in the special military operation. Everyone’s in different moods.”
Those moods are harder and harder to gauge for public opinion pollsters. Amid an atmosphere of fear and crackdown on dissent, it’s hard to tell if people are speaking their minds truthfully.
But a recent survey by independent pollster Levada Center showed that the level of support for the Russian armed forces in Ukraine remains high at 74%, although nearly 60% of Russians want peace talks with Ukraine to commence. A recent Levada poll showed that 85% of decided voters would cast their vote for Putin.
And he is trying to project a global image. He made diplomatic visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, after appearing to have curbed his international travel after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest for allegedly taking Ukrainian children to Russia.
Millions of Russians traditionally tune into Putin’s end-of-year press conference, and this year is likely to be no different. Almost two years into the war, Putin appears to sustain genuine popularity and the state media’s narratives of the so-called special military operation have sunk deep in many quarters of society.
“What we report about the state of public mind in Russia is upsetting for lots of people,” the Levada Center’s Alexei Levinson said.
“We say that Russians support the warfare against Ukraine, we say that Russians do approve the activity of the Russian president,” Levinson said. “The beginning of the warfare did not affect the main conditions of life for Russians. And the more so the Russian popular mind did not react to these events. This is a really amazing, so to say, feature of this time.”
In the Russian psyche, Levinson said, the war is not about defeating Ukraine. “What is vital is not to be defeated by the West,” he said.
Putin has told his people their future lies in partnership with China, which has become one of Russia’s key trading partners and political allies since the war started. U.S. intelligence has also suggested China is providing crucial support for the war in Ukraine.
Nadezhdin, who leans progressive but has been endorsed by a more right-centrist party, says many Russians are resistant, with a long-standing fear of growing Chinese influence. Russia has historically been Europe-oriented, Nadezhdin says, and needs to stay that way, or risk becoming China’s “vassal” state — heavily economically dependent on Beijing. “We should return to the European community,” Nadezhdin said.
Keir Simmons reported from Moscow, and Matthew Bodner and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.