Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday gave his strongest hint yet that he would seek a new six-year term in March 2018 elections, but stopped short of announcing his candidacy in a carefully choreographed ceremony.
A glitzy event for volunteers in Moscow seemed the ideal platform for the former KGB officer, who has been in power for the last 18 years, to announce a long-expected re-election bid that would extend his rule to 2024.
Asked by a volunteer about his future plans, Putin said: "I am always with you."
However he was evasive when prodded by the volunteer to say whether he would run next year.
"There is always a great deal of responsibility involved in this decision for any person, because the motive must be the desire to make life better in this country," he said.
"And this can be achieved only with people's trust and support. And now I want to ask, do you trust and support me?"
"Yes!" the audience chanted.
"The decision will be taken and announced in the near future," Putin said with a smile, declining to provide a more detailed answer.
Ahead of the announcement prominent figures, including athletes and Soviet-era celebrities like 83-year-old actor Vasily Lanovoi, took to the stage to extol the country's successes, such as Soviet victory in World War II.
Cosmonaut Sergei Ryazansky addressed the audience via video link from the International Space Station.
Putin has sought to appeal to the country's youth after thousands of young Russians took to the streets earlier this year to protest corruption among the elites, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The demonstrations were sparked by a documentary fronted by top Putin critic Alexei Navalny.
Putin, who first became president after Boris Yeltsin sensationally resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, handed power to ally Medvedev in 2008 at the end of his second term, in line with the constitution.
Putin briefly served as prime minister -- though few doubted who was really in charge -- and duly returned as president in 2012.
He is widely expected to run against token opposition figures and sail to victory next year.
If he extends his rule to 2024, Putin will have led Russia longer than Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over an era of stagnation between 1964 and 1982, and would be the country's second longest-serving leader after Joseph Stalin.
Despite a litany of mounting problems in the country including corruption, poverty and poor health care, the 65-year-old leader enjoys approval ratings of 80 percent.