Vladimir Putin has given Russia's farmers, blue-collar workers, soldiers, parents and retirees good reasons to want him back in the Kremlin.
In a four-hour nationally televised appearance, the prime minister said not a word Wednesday about his plans for next year's presidential election. The topic has been a subject of fervent debate in recent weeks as President Dmitry Medvedev has shown a desire to stay on for another term.
But by portraying himself as the defender of a strong Russia and making a string of campaign-like promises to improve the lives of ordinary people, Putin sent an unmistakable signal that he intends to reclaim the presidency.
"The nation needs decades of stable and calm development without any sharp movements and ill-conceived experiments" based on liberal policy, the 58-year-old leader said during his annual address before parliament.
Putin, Russia's president from 2000 to 2008, was barred by the constitution from serving a third consecutive term and groomed Medvedev to succeed him. Both men have said they will decide together which one of them will run in March 2012, but the decision is understood to be Putin's.
The uncertainty seems to suit both of them. The debate over which one will run serves to stimulate interest in the presidential election by creating a pretense of political competition.
The uncertainty, which leaves open the possibility that Medvedev will remain in the Kremlin, also helps him carry out the mission that Putin set for him and encourages those in the West who have worked to improve relations with Russia.
Putin chose the tech-savvy Medvedev, 13 years his junior, to lead the drive to modernize the Russian economy, still based largely on exports of oil and gas, and tackle spiraling corruption. Medvedev also presents a friendlier face to the West, as Russia seeks to attract much-needed foreign investment.
Medvedev's liberal pronouncements have helped to bring back on board the business community and educated urban elite, who had become disillusioned with Putin as he established greater state control over the economy and politics. Even though Medvedev has brought little real change, his presence gives hope to those who want to see a more democratic Russia.
Putin remains the more popular leader. His tough language and anti-Western tone plays well with most of his countrymen, who see him as the defender of Russia's great-power status and the guarantor of their security and future prosperity.
Putin on Wednesday took credit for Russia's rapid emergence from the global financial crisis, which he said could have threatened the sovereignty of a weaker state.
"In the modern world, if you are weak, there will always be someone who wants to come in or fly in to give you advice as to which direction to take, what policy to conduct, what path to choose for your own development," he said. "And behind such seemingly well meaning and unobtrusive advice, which could seem good, in fact stands a rough diktat and interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign states."
The key lesson from the financial crisis, he said, was for Russia to be self-reliant and strong enough to resist outside pressure.
Putin said Russia's economy grew 4 percent last year and would reach pre-crisis levels by 2012. He promised that Russia, now the world's sixth-largest economy, would move into the top five by 2020.
He took a swipe at the United States, where lawmakers are battling to trim the budget deficit.
"We see that everything is not so good for our friends in the States," Putin said. "Look at their trade balance, their debt, and budget. They turn on the printing press and flood the world with dollars."
Medvedev has grown increasingly assertive in recent weeks, even seeming to rebuke Putin on occasion. Most see the disagreements as stage-managed, part of both men's strategy to maintain the loyalty of their different constituencies. Medvedev may also be trying to persuade Putin that he has what it takes to stay president for a second term.
Some Kremlin watchers believe Medvedev is attempting to break free, but even they acknowledge that to do so he would have to fire Putin, which no thinks is likely. At the least, Medvedev would have to keep Putin off of national television, where he has become a screen star.
"He has to stop Putin from having tame TV channels extolling him on a daily basis as they have been doing," New Times editor Yevgenia Albats wrote this month in the weekly political magazine. "It is his only chance in the battle for the Kremlin."
Television regularly shows Putin demonstrating his power, whether he is berating officials as he travels around the country or displaying his athletic skills. He has been shown driving a race car, swimming the butterfly in a Siberian river and showing off his black-belt judo moves.
Just last week, padded out in hockey gear, he skated onto the ice to practice with a junior team. Next to the teenagers, the 5-foot-7-inch (170 centimeter) prime minister looked imposing. They even let him score a couple of times for the television cameras.
Although opinion polls show that support for both leaders remains high, Putin's appeal seems to be beginning to fade. To some, his television stunts look increasingly desperate, even ridiculous.
Putin's power, however, remains unchallenged. Russia's military, security services and government are top-heavy with men Putin appointed. After three years as president, Medvedev has little power base of his own.
No one rules out that Medvedev could be the chosen presidential candidate, but that would be unlikely to mean that Putin was stepping down.
His speech Wednesday, full of self-praise and ambitious goals for the future, showed he still intends to be the one Russians look to for assurances that their lives will get better.
Putin promised to stem Russia's population decline by supporting young families and improving health care, while acknowledging that 30 percent of Russian hospitals have no hot water and 9 percent are even without sewage systems.
He said the government would increase funding for education and most sectors of the economy, including agriculture and especially the military.
Putin also made specific promises to his core supporters, for instance announcing that fishing would remain free despite a government proposal to introduce licenses.