MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin is all but certain to return to Russia's presidency with the same swagger, bravado and fighting talk against the West as when he entered the Kremlin 12 years ago.
But the country he will get the chance to lead for another six years after an election on Sunday has changed, and he is on a collision course with Western powers and a newly confident middle class demanding a freer and fairer Russia.
"The way he is conducting the campaign at the moment sends a signal reading 'I am sure of myself, I am the strongest of them all, I control everything, I am the leader, nothing has changed.' But this is not true," said Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre think tank.
A few months ago, the former KGB spy was a safe bet to win two more terms and rule until 2024, keeping him in power almost as long of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
All that changed when he bungled the announcement of his presidential bid on September 24 and allegations of fraud in a parliamentary poll on December 4 soured the mood, triggering the biggest opposition protests since he rose to power.
He may now struggle to see out even one full term.
Writing off the 59-year-old prime minister before he has even returned to the post he held from 2000 until 2008 would be reckless: Putin is a survivor and a pragmatist.
He still tops opinion polls as Russia's most popular politician, controls most media, has strong ties in business and the security forces, and many Russians credit him with overseeing an economic boom and making the country strong again.
Opinion polls suggest Putin will comfortably pass the 50 percent of votes needed for victory without a runoff. Political experts say he will reclaim the presidency regardless of whether the vote is clean and whatever the turnout.
Even foreign diplomats in Moscow see Putin as a safer option than the other candidates - billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov.
But one senior Western envoy said: "Six months ago diplomats talked about what Putin will do in 12 years' time. Now they talk about whether he will last for six years."
OUT OF TOUCH
The man once described in U.S. diplomatic cables as Russia's alpha dog looks more out of touch than at any time in his career. Tough-guy antics, such as shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer and horse-riding with a bare torso, are no longer guaranteed to impress voters and are openly mocked by some.
When he said on national television in December that he had mistaken the white ribbons worn by opposition protesters for condoms, a fake picture of him wearing a condom pinned to his chest went viral on the Internet within minutes.
"We will have a weak authoritarian national leader," said opinion pollster Lev Gudkov, describing what he saw as a "crisis of confidence" in the authorities.
When Putin was elected president in 2000, Russians craved a strong leader after the anarchy of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.
Now, he faces ever more frequent protests led by Russia's urban middle class who want to live in a modern country with independent courts and no corruption.
As one source close to the Kremlin put it, Putin has been slow to grasp the seriousness of the situation, certainly slower than his younger ally, Dmitry Medvedev, the iPad-carrying president with whom he is about to swap jobs.
"He is at a fork in the road and this situation is not entirely clear to him," said Igor Mintusov, a political consultant involved in several Russian election campaigns.
"Everything was clear to him at the beginning of the 2000s - to preserve Russia, to raise its ambitions and from this came liberal reforms. Now this clarity does not exist."
MAN OF ACTION
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin's domination of Russia began on December 31, 1999, when Yeltsin quit and asked him, as prime minister since August, to stand in until an election.
Putin quickly headed to Chechnya to visit federal troops he had sent to fight Islamist separatists in the southern region. The message was clear: Putin was a man of action determined to restore Russia's dignity, stability and global standing.
He wanted a clean break with an era marred by Yeltsin's erratic behavior, reports of drinking and ill health, as well as endemic corruption and lawlessness.
Russia had defaulted on its debt in 1998 but after Putin came to power, it recorded nine successive years of growth.
His popularity rose as a surge in the price of oil, Russia's main export, fuelled prosperity. Elected president in March 2000, he won a new term in 2004.
"One hundred years ago the sovereign said that Russia had just two allies, the army and the navy," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said, referring to Tsar Alexander III.
"But in the time since, Russia has increased its allies, doubled them in fact. Today Russia has four allies: The army, the navy, the military-industrial complex and Vladimir Putin."