The 36-year-old Ksenia Sobchak has cast herself as a "candidate against all" in the March 18 vote. She's seeking to reach out to those who have grown tired of President Vladimir Putin's domination of the political scene and a familiar cast of token contenders who challenged him in past elections.
"I'm joining the campaign in order to reach out to millions of people in our country and to show what democracy in action means, to show that the state could be shaped differently," Sobchak told The Associated Press. "I want to say: 'Friends ... I want you to vote against this system that suppresses people, cheats us and always places the state above an individual.'"
Putin hasn't said whether he would seek re-election, but he's widely expected to run. Sobchak said she would formulate her election platform based on discussions with experts to include some of the most burning issues on the national agenda.
She began a series of such meetings with a panel to discuss how to make the Russian society more tolerant and inclusive. Among other things, she called for a drastic reform of the nation's psychiatric hospitals, saying they are effectively prisons.
Sobchak also argued that non-governmental organizations should play a greater role in Russia and distribute government funds for social projects. She particularly emphasized the need to provide the necessary conditions for people with disabilities to help them integrate into society.
"One of the most important problems of today's Russia is that society is extremely intolerant," she said. "Combating xenophobia, fear of others is one of the most important goals for us." She scoffed at the Kremlin's allegations of U.S. meddling in Russian politics, saying that any foreign interference can't make any significant impact.
Putin accused the U.S. of instigating massive protests in Moscow against his rule in 2011-2012. Without naming Putin, Sobchak ridiculed "the KGB mindset to believe that some foreign enemy has incited anti-government sentiments among our 'poor stupid folks.'"
"People in our country are smart enough to understand themselves what's going on," she said. "Problems in our country haven't been caused by Donald Trump, America and its ambitions or CIA spies. Our problems are rooted in a bad government system, the lack of free elections, independent courts and freedom of speech."
She said that while she dislikes Trump and found it "weird" that he won the 2016 presidential election, American democracy is strong enough to overcome any challenges. "The system is stronger than Trump," she said, adding that Russia also needs a political system that would ensure a regular change of leaders.
Sobchak is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the reformist St. Petersburg mayor in the early 1990s who once had Putin as his deputy. She avoided criticizing Putin, but denounced Russia's political system, arguing that the country is tired of stagnation and needs change.
Political consultant Vitaly Shklyarov, who advises Sobchak, worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. He also organized a successful campaign for liberal candidates in Moscow's municipal elections in September.
"We are going to use every channel of communication — online, digital, offline in order to talk to people in Russia about problems of government, about problems of election," Shklyarov said. "We have software, we have IT solutions how to manage the campaign. We have a lot of experience and the team is great."
Putin has been in power since 2000. He served two presidential terms in 2000-2008, then shifted into the prime minister's seat because of term limits, but continued calling the shots while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, served as placeholder president. Medvedev stepped down to allow Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 after initiating a change in law that extended the presidential term to six years.
Putin is poised to easily win another term with his approval ratings now topping 80 percent, but he wants his victory to look as impressive as ever and voter apathy has been a top concern for the Kremlin.
Pundits saw Sobchak's involvement in the race as a trick by the Kremlin to help draw young voters to the polls and make Putin's victory more impressive. Some said that her bid would also serve Kremlin goals by further splitting Russia's fragmented opposition.
One veteran Putin challenger, the liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, argued that Sobchak now plays a role similar to billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who challenged Putin in the 2012 election, posing as a voice of Russian liberal circles. Putin won nearly 64 percent of the vote, while Prokhorov got 8 percent and vanished from the political scene.
"The time has shown that the involvement of people without any past experience in politics carries little meaning in our country," Yavlinsky said Friday in televised comments when asked about Sobchak's bid. "A person makes a bid and then just let it go and disappears."
Russia's most popular opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, also has declared his intention to join the race, even though a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated bars him from running. The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organized a grassroots campaign in support of his bid and staged waves of protests this year in the hope of forcing the Kremlin to let him join the campaign. He had warned Sobchak that she would only serve the Kremlin's goals by running for president, but later took a neutral tone and avoided direct criticism of her bid.
Sobchak has angrily denied any collusion with the Kremlin. She said Friday that she wants to be a voice of "the people who want to destroy the system they consider unfair."