Vladimir Putin's campaign chiefs are planning to bring out 200,000 supporters of the Russian strongman onto the streets of Moscow after an unprecedented outburst of protests against his rule.
Putin's campaign deputy chief Alexei Anisimov said authorities will bus up to 200,000 Putin supporters from the provinces to Moscow.
From there, they will march through the city centre and rally near the Kremlin walls on February 23, when Russia marks Defender of the Fatherland Day.
"We've received this request from the regions," Anisimov told AFP. "The main slogan of the rally will be 'We'll Defend our Fatherland'".
Putin, who is seeking to reclaim his old Kremlin job in presidential polls early next month, is wrestling with the most acute crisis of his 12-year rule as president and prime minister.
The country's budding protest movement, which includes opposition politicians and respected cultural figures, has organised three major rallies since fraud-tainted December parliamentary elections. It plans two more rallies before and after the March 4 election.
Its latest rally brought tens of thousands onto the Moscow streets despite temperatures of around minus 17 degrees Celsius (1.5 Fahrenheit) on Saturday, forcing authorities to stage a counter-rally that same day.
Estimating the turnout at 138,000, police said the pro-Putin rally far outnumbered the anti-Putin protest.
The nascent protest movement harnesses the energy of middle-class urban Muscovites, while Putin draws his support from blue-collar workers and employees of state companies.
Observers caution that by staging counter-rallies authorities are pitting middle-class Russians against the working classes, a move that may have far-reaching consequences.
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