On February 21, Russian journalist Yelena Yegorova published an article in the Russian media outlet Moskovskii Komsomolets, titled "What Happened To Vladimir Putin: Presidential Campaign Is Sluggish". In the article, Yerogova compares Putin's active participation in the 2004 and 2012 elections with the current election. She calls the 2018 campaign "sluggish" and low key and explores the reasons for this..
The first explanation, that Yegorova considers quite exceptional, is that Putin was physically indisposed and this was even publicly acknowledged. In February, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin would cancel some of his appearances, because: "The president has a cold."
The other reason that Putin slowed down his public appearances is that the Russian president does not like the election campaign script, and all those "repetitive formulas and talks" with workers where the "same questions" are asked over and over again.
Yegorova also notes that until February Putin's electoral program was not published in his official presidential campaign website putin2018.ru. However, the voters were not left in the dark about Putin's ideas for his next term of office. On March 1, during the president's address to the Federal Assembly, Putin gave a two-hour televised appearance explaining his economic goals, his program for improving living standards, infrastructure, health care and education. He also unveiled Russia's nuclear weapons that can evade the U.S. missile defense system, in an attempt to awaken feelings of unity and national pride.
Trying to salvage his "sluggish campaign", on March 3, Putin has held a campaign rally, dubbed "For a strong Russia," at the Luzhniki stadium, Moscow's major sports arena. According to Sputniknews.com, 130,000 people gathered in the capital city of Russia to support Putin. Addressing the rally, Putin promised: "We have clear, coherent, noble goals. We want to make our country vibrant, a country that's looking forward to the future, because our ancestors lived here, we live here, our children live here, and our children and grandchildren will live here. We will do everything to make them happy. Nobody can do this for us but us. And if we do this, the nearest decade, the whole 21st century will pass under the sign of our bright victories. We will do it." Putin also sang the national anthem surrounded by Russia's gold-medal-winning hockey team, Russian TV stars and pop singers.
It is worth noting that the day before the rally, on March 2, during the Truth and Justice media forum organized by the Russian Popular Front (an organization that was set up by the ruling United Russia party in 2011 to broaden its support base), Putin stated that if he had an opportunity to change history, he would prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Below are excerpts from Yegorova's article:
Caption: "Strong president – strong Russia"
(Source: Official website of Putin's electoral presidential campaign putin2018.ru)
Caption: Proud of my President! (Source: Vk.com/politics_today)
Putin at the rally on March 3 (Source: Themoscowtimes.com)
'Does [Putin] Not Consider The Electoral Agenda Important Enough?'
"It's less than a month till the election, and Vladimir Putin's campaign has virtually stagnated following announcement about his cold. This situation is in stark contrast to 2004 and 2012, when by the end of February all the voters knew the key points of the leading candidate's program, and he himself was constantly travelling the country. What happened to Vladimir Putin? Does he not consider the electoral agenda important enough, is he really sick, or is he just tired? Together with political analysts, we tried to get to the bottom of it.
"In 2004, the active phase of the campaign started on 12 February, when Vladimir Putin met with his election agents. That meeting was a far cry from this year's, when the leading candidate listened more to his supporters than he spoke himself.
"VVP [Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin] delivered a big speech, in which he made a number of policy statements. Formally, they were meant for the election agents, but thanks to a TV broadcast they were addressed to all voters.
"In his speech, Putin declared it was necessary to adopt a legislative package to 'launch' an affordable housing market, decrease the unified social tax, and simplify tax administration, as well as attain full convertibility for the ruble. Pensioners were promised a program that 'does not only guarantee savings but helps to increase them'.
"In addition, Putin spoke against increasing the presidential term, explaining his position by the fact that responsible performance of duties by the head of state for a long time would be extremely physically demanding for any leader.
"Practically immediately after that speech, Vladimir Putin's election site (putin2004.ru) published his program, which listed as its chief priorities doubling the GDP over the next 10 years, boosting the standard of living, modernizing the army, and consolidating the society around core values and goals.
"On 24 February 2004, the president took the step that many expected in 2017 as well: he dismissed the prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, saying that 'the citizens of the country have the right to know the proposals on the government's composition in case I am elected to this post'. After this decision, Putin, in fact, didn't have to do anything else: political analysts and the mass media had enough food for thought right up to the elections, and other candidates hurriedly altered their election campaigns to bring them in line with the new agenda. But the president continued his report cum campaign trips to regions and meetings with voters.
"It is noteworthy that Putin's next campaign — in 2012 — also began with the nomination of a candidate for the office of prime minister. This time, Dmitry Medvedev was announced as the future PM almost six months before the election. And although the nature of this decision was quite different from Kasyanov's dismissal, the fact remains the same: 6 years ago, VVP also considered himself duty bound to delineate the country's course after the voting day. 'For it is on the government that the advancement of all national and socio-economic changes depends to a significant degree', he said.
"There was no separate programmatic address by Putin in 2012. But his position and proposals on key areas of domestic and foreign policy were outlined in a number of articles published in the Russian media in January and February: 'Russia in focus — the challenges we must face' (16.01.2012), 'Russia: the ethnicity issue' (23.01.2012), 'On our economic objectives' (30.01.2012), 'Democracy and the quality of our state' (6.02.2012), 'Building justice. A social policy for Russia' (13.02.2012), 'Being strong: national security guarantees for Russia' (20.02.2012), 'Russia and the changing world' (27.02.2012).
"As far back as 12 January, the putin2012.ru website published the election program, where Putin put special emphasis on infrastructure development and proposed to create at least 25 million jobs in hi-tech over 20 years, as well as to secure conditions for investments growth to the 25% of GDP level by the mid-2010s.
"From December to mid-March, he made 21 trips to Russian regions, and conducted pre-election meetings with representatives of various social groups – fishermen, car enthusiasts, football and hockey fans, political analysts, soldiers of the Taman motor rifle brigade, etc.
"On the whole, the campaign was quite eventful and, if you take into account the rise in protest sentiment, even nerve-wracking: in the meeting after the election, many noticed tears in Putin's eyes…
Putin Does Not Like The Election Campaign Script
"The campaign for the new presidential term also seemed to start with a bang. Since the spring of 2017, VVP started to pay a lot of attention to youth policy and the image of Future Russia. Political analysts predicted that, using his experience as the key competitive advantage, he would appear before the voters not as 'protector' (as he had 6 years before), but rather as 'the wise man' and 'the leader of the nation', ready to lead the people into a better tomorrow.
"'I think that Putin wants to repeat his campaign of 2012. Then he relied on the support of the Uralvagonzavod workers, now he's focusing on the GAZ automobile plant. The location is different, but the pattern is the same', said Vladimir Soloveichik, political scientist and chairman of the Citizen Initiatives Movement, after the president's self-nomination.
"But the mechanism, well-oiled by the experience of previous years, malfunctioned very quickly. The leading candidate's electoral program still has not been published anywhere. The headquarters promised that Putin will 'say something' during the meeting with his election agents, but in the end, there was nothing specific there apart from an appeal to take a quantum leap.
"Entrepreneurs changed the date of their annual congress especially for VVP; the All-Russia People's Front and the Agency for Strategic Initiatives organized a number of forums promoting traditional values, ideas of mentorship, effective upward mobility, volunteer work, etc., but the president did not use any of these platforms for campaign purposes.
"The putin2018.ru website is currently festooned with the candidate's portrait and the main slogan 'Strong president – strong Russia'; the 'Campaign Diary' section describes how volunteers baked 2018 pancakes for the Maslenitsa festival, with fillings brought from regional campaign headquarters. Apparently, the Kremlin is not at all concerned with the fact that real work in the regions has been phased out, meetings with voters are half-hearted, and chairmen have major recognition problems.
"The icing on the cake is the cancellation of Putin's planned and prepared trips to regional centers because of his 'health problems', which is an exceptional phenomenon in itself. The president never used to be sick before, and if he did, it was never publicly acknowledged.
"It is no wonder that in the absence of any movements on the part of the leading candidate, everybody is actively discussing his favorite TV anchor's suspension from the evening show. And the principal intrigue of the election campaign turned out to be the date of the address to the Federal Assembly. Even though formally, this event has nothing to do with the election, it is now regarded as the last opportunity to learn what VVP's program is, after all. It is not accidental that the first to announce the date of the address – 1 March – was not the presidential administration, but Rumyantsev, the co-chair of Putin's campaign headquarters.
"Our sources in the know say that Putin is indeed not feeling well, and further travels could transform a common cold into a more serious disease. Additionally, it was necessary to focus on foreign policy issues, particularly on the situation in Syria, which, as the latest events have shown, can easily slip out of control and bring problems from an unexpected quarter.
"An opinion exists that Putin does not like the election campaign script — all those repetitive formulas and talks with workers where the same questions are asked over and over again.
"However, according to our sources, the president will soon renew his trips to the regions and his meetings with voters. Political analyst Abbas Galyamov thinks that Vladimir Putin's tactic in this campaign is easily explicable: 'He is not endeavoring to win this election. His primary objective is not to promise too much. It is evident that complex and painful reforms are in store for this country, in particular, increasing the retirement age… Talking about them before the election is stupid, but denying them means deceiving people. That's why we have such a sluggish campaign based on the slogan 'Strong president – strong Russia'.
"The leading expert of the Center for Political Technologies, Aleksei Makarkin, points out that other candidates have not been particularly active so far either. 'If they could really pose a threat, an intensification of the leading candidate's campaign would be needed. But [Communist Party of Russian Federation candidate Pavel] Grudinin is busy with his own niche, [Yabloko party candidate Grigory] Yavlinsky and [Civil Initiative Party candidate Ksenia] Sobchak are rivals within the liberal niche and cannot go beyond it — their electorate would not vote for Putin in any case. [Liberal Democratic Party candidate Vladimir] Zhirinovsky's goal is to accumulate the protest voters', says the political analyst, adding that this situation allows VVP to 'deal with current problems that are under the president's purview'…"
 Tass.com, February 13, 2018.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7363, Putin After Unveiling The Revolutionary Hypersonic Sarmat ICBM: 'Nobody Wanted To Listen To Us – So Listen Now', March 5, 2018.
See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7367, Reactions To Putin's State Of The Union Address: If What The U.S. Wants Is The Cold War, So Let It Be The Cold War – Part I, March 6, 2018.
See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7372, Russian Commentators Criticize Putin's State Of The Nation Address For Strengthening U.S. Hawks Rather Than Paving Way For Negotiations Part II, March 8, 2018.
 Sputniknews.com, March 3, 2018.
 Themoscowtimes.com, March 5, 2018.
Tass.com, March 3, 2018.
 Mk.ru, February 21, 2018.
See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7362, Russia This Week – The Presidential Election In Focus – March 2, 2018, March 2, 2018.