Shaken by the largest wave of protests since 1991, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stepped up his campaign for a third presidential term as the March 4 elections draw near.

Putin is working harder than he expected to have to in order to win the election, but it is not clear whether Russians will respond to his campaign strategy.

He has refused to take part in public debates, and instead relies on state television to promote his propaganda as news; despite all the talk of reforms, the state still maintains a monopoly over television. State coverage allows Putin to appeal to rural, blue-collar workers, his traditional support base. The state media pays only token attention to the opposition.

Putin also penned five articles in the mainstream Russian press over the past two months, outlining his economic and political vision, his plans to increase Russia’s low birth rate, and even hitherto taboo topics such as minorities and nationalism.

He has argued that his stewardship has seen Russia rise to success and that he wants to achieve more. On January 30, he bragged in the powerful national business daily Vedomosti — a joint venture with the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sanoma, the largest Russian publishing house — that he had enabled Russia to integrate itself into the world economy. In a February 6 article in Kommersant, another respected business daily, he wrote that he has seen Russia through a difficult maturing process, bringing the country out of the anarchic conditions that existed before his rule and restoring “popular sovereignty — the basis of true democracy.” “I won’t talk about successes,” he wrote in the popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on February 13, as he proceeded to boast about alleged improvements in poverty reduction, education, and health care. “Today we need to talk about problems.”

About the future, Putin suggests he is open to more transparency, including broader Internet access for the general public, and that he will combat corruption, diversify the economy, and offer cash incentives for families to have more than two children.

While Putin’s promises may sound good on paper, Russians simply don’t believe them any more. Nor do Putin’s promises address the core demand of the protesters in December — a Russia “without Putin.”

Increasingly, Russians ridicule their strongman. They scoff at his offer to pay families to reverse Russia’s dire population decline, and they describe their leader as a man who “demands more sex.”

When Putin invited Russians to make suggestions to him online, one person wrote, “Please leave politics.” Perhaps showing that it is easier to speak about change than to internalize it, Putin’s campaign scrubbed the website of criticism, and let only praise stand, along with innocuous suggestions on topics such as pet care and agriculture.

As Putin loses credibility with the urban, educated middle class, he becomes more dependent upon rural supporters, who rely on state-controlled television for their news. He fans the flames of Russian class warfare — which is far more severe than its American counterpart — as he portrays pro-democracy protesters and their organizers as American agents who seek to weaken Russia, and as urbanites who look down on simple, salt-of-the-earth workers. “Never before has Putin taken the desperate step of stirring up confrontation in society under the slogan ‘Russia against Moscow,’” said Liliya Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow.

Perhaps the real reason so many Russians no longer believe Putin is that, despite the changes in his tone and rhetoric, his actions suggest that he cares only about winning, and that he might not shrink from cracking down harder to retain power. While the tone of his recent articles diverges from the usual Putin, his themes remain constant: “enemies” colluding to destroy Russia, the triumph of Russia over external threats, and the need to take reform slowly, since the experience of revolutions “all over the world” shows the “malignancy [of] hysterical dashes.” 

Even so, Putin is still likely to win in March. The anti-Putin vote will be divided among four candidates, none of whom is particularly strong. Among the challengers, the only liberal — a newcomer to Russian politics, billionaire New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov — has only a limited support base among the urban elites, and, more important, has yet to criticize Putin directly.

Still, one thing is clear: Russia cannot become a true democracy or a country with a diversified, developed economy so long as Putin remains in power. It is unfortunate that as Russians come to understand this, so many Americans refuse to.

Anna Borshchevskaya is the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. This essay was originally published on National Review Online.