(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin said he’ll run for a fifth term in Russian presidential elections, kicking off a widely expected campaign in which the Kremlin seeks to show he retains broad popular support for his war in Ukraine.

He made the announcement Friday to participants at a military awards ceremony in the Kremlin after a separatist official in Russian-occupied Ukraine urged him to take part in the vote. 

“I will run for the position of president of the Russian Federation,” Putin told battalion commander Artyom Zhoga, according to footage broadcast on state television. “Today there is no other choice.”

Others at the ceremony repeated the appeal for him to remain as president. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later claimed Putin’s reply had been “spontaneous,” the state-run Tass news service reported. 

Putin, 71, is certain to win the tightly-controlled election on March 17 to gain another six-year term and extend his nearly quarter-century rule. The Kremlin is determined to deliver an overwhelming majority in a high turnout to portray the vote as public endorsement of his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and cast Putin as defending Russia in a broader confrontation with the US and its NATO allies. 

Putin’s candidacy aims to “protect Russia in the current difficult time of challenges and threats,” Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, wrote on Telegram.

The campaign takes place as the war has hit a stalemate, with Moscow’s forces stalled and Kyiv struggling to regain occupied territory amid doubts over the future of US military aid. Russia’s economy is laboring under the impact of sweeping international sanctions imposed in response to the war. 

The Kremlin also wants to demonstrate that Putin has regained his authority after the mutiny in June by Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin that spiraled into the most serious challenge to his rule. Prigozhin died in a plane crash two months later.

Read more: Putin to Seek Reelection as Kremlin Culture War Rallies Voters

Officials are rallying public support for Putin by pitching him as the defender of traditional Russian values against the “liberal” West. That has translated into harsher persecution of LGBT people, growing calls for restrictions on abortion, pressure on women to focus on childbirth instead of careers and efforts to boost patriotic education in schools.

Putin’s decision to run reflects popular demand, Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house of parliament, said on Telegram. “Russians clearly understand that the current unique cohesion, trust and civil peace in society are formed precisely around the president,” she said. 

The Kremlin has waged a relentless crackdown on opposition activists, particularly since the invasion of Ukraine, to crush any prospect of protests against his rule. Putin garnered a record 77% support to win a fourth term in 2018 after barely campaigning before the election in which he faced no real challenger. 

His decision to announce his candidacy at a military awards ceremony for soldiers involved in the fighting in Ukraine shows how Putin has recast himself as a wartime leader, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. 

“Putin chose war and war chooses Putin,” she said on Telegram.

Read more: Putin Turns to Ruble and Ballot to Shore Up Shaken Authority

Putin has ruled Russia as president and for one term as prime minister since December 1999, when the country’s first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, stepped down. Already the longest-serving Kremlin ruler since Soviet leader Josef Stalin, he could remain as president until 2036 after revising the constitution to allow himself two more terms.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the date of the Wagner mutiny in the eighth paragraph)

(Updates with Volodin comment in sixth paragraph)

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