By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Pro-war Russian nationalist Igor Girkin, who is in custody awaiting trial for inciting extremism, said on Sunday he wanted to run for president even though he understood the March election would be "sham" with the winner already clear.
Girkin, who is also known by the alias Igor Strelkov, has repeatedly said Russia faces revolution and even civil war unless President Vladimir Putin's military top brass fight the war in Ukraine more effectively.
A former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who helped Russia to annex Crimea in 2014 and then to organise pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine, Girkin said before his arrest that he and his supporters were entering politics.
"I understand perfectly well that in the current situation in Russia, participating in the presidential campaign is like sitting down at a table to play with card sharps," Girkin said in a letter published by his account on Telegram.
Girkin said that he did not think that he would be allowed to take part in the election, but hoped that his attempt to unite patriotic forces would disrupt the Kremlin's plan for a "sham election" in which "the only winner is known in advance".
"This is our chance to unite in the face of external and internal threats," Girkin said in the letter post entitled "I am going to run."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview published on Friday that he hoped Putin would run in the March election for another term as president, a move that would keep Putin in power until at least 2030.
Opposition politicians say Putin has built a dictatorial system since he first came to power in 1999 that mimics the institutions of democracy while preventing any true political competition or real dissent.
Supporters of Putin laud him for bringing order after the chaos that accompanied the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. They point to polls that show he has the backing of around 80% of the Russian populace.
Russia has cracked down on nationalist critics, who have called for a much tougher approach to fighting the war, including martial law and a country-wide mobilisation, after the failed June mutiny by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin was killed in August in a plane crash, the causes of which are unclear. Girkin, who has also served in Chechnya and Moldova, was arrested in July.
Girkin, a monarchist who wrote a dissertation on the "White Russians" who fought the "Red" Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, is one of the most prominent nationalists who has criticised Russia's execution of the war, which he casts as part of an existential battle with an arrogant West.
He has called the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union "positive" but says the post-Soviet Russian elite was corrupt and working for the West to weaken Russia.
Girkin said in May that despite his criticism of Putin's failings, "Putin is currently the only legitimate figure in the Russian Federation".
He said in August that he would make a better president than Putin, describing the Kremlin chief as "too kind" and "too trusting" of Russia's security and military chiefs.
Girkin was convicted last year in absentia by a Dutch court of murder for his role in the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 298 passengers and crew. He has denied he was involved.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbride; additional reporting by Elaine Monaghan in Washington; editing by Clelia Oziel and Barbara Lewis)