MOSCOW — Boris Nadezhdin has promised to take on Vladimir Putin in the presidential election to be held next March. It’s a risky act in a country where many critics have ended up jailed, exiled or dead.

“It is a very strange election because there is no real choice,” Nadezhdin, a veteran politician and commentator, said. He understands the risks but he still wants to run, he told NBC News, to call out the president for undermining Russian democratic institutions, and air criticism of the war in Ukraine and Putin’s efforts at steering the country to greater authoritarianism.

“I am ready for everything,” he added.

Nadezhdin is one of only two people who have so far expressed willingness to square up against a leader expected to win by a wide margin. Russian elections are often mired in irregularities and claims of fraud. It is extremely difficult for challengers to get their names onto a ballot at any level. Critics say Russia’s elections are mostly just for show.

Nadezhdin, 60, has gone so far as to label the full-scale invasion of Ukraine Putin’s “fatal mistake” — a dangerous statement where talk of the invasion is so restricted that, legally, he is required to call the war a “special military operation.”

Russians today face up to 15 years in prison for falling off-message on the conflict in Ukraine, making public criticism, like Nadezhdin’s, rare. But the presidential election, no matter how spurious, is in three months, and Nadezhdin says someone has to speak up.

There are few other figures remaining who could do it. The regime’s loudest critics — including Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure — are either dead, jailed or in exile. The Kremlin is tolerating Nadezhdin’s relatively candid interviews with journalists, a potential sign of Putin’s rejuvenated confidence, something that would have been hard to imagine just six months ago.

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