MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he would seek re-election next year in a race he is poised to win easily, putting him on track to become the nation’s longest-serving ruler since dictator Josef Stalin.

Putin’s approval ratings regularly top 80 percent, making him all but certain to win the March election by a broad margin. While few doubted the 65-year-old leader would run, the delay in his declaring so fueled some conspiracy theories and was seen as the Kremlin’s political maneuvering.

The 65-year-old Russian leader’s potential rivals include several luckless candidates from past contests and a notable newcomer – TV host Ksenia Sobchak, 36, the daughter of Putin’s one-time boss.

The president chose to make his re-election announcement at the GAZ automobile factory in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. The factory is a symbol of Russia’s industrial might, and Putin found an enthusiastic audience in the blue-collar workers who make up the core of his base.

“I couldn’t find a better place and moment,” he said to massive applause at the plant. “Thank you for your support. I will run for president.”

For months, Putin fended off questions about his plans for 2018, fueling speculation about why he would not say if he would seek re-election. Some theorized he might step down and name a preferred successor.

The Kremlin has been worried about growing voter apathy, and the uncertainty over Putin’s plans seemed intended to encourage public interest in the race.

“It was necessary to ensure electoral mobilization,” Dmitry Orlov, a political consultant close to the Kremlin, said in televised remarks.

Putin has been in power in Russia since 2000. He served two presidential terms during 2000-2008, then shifted into the prime minister’s seat because of term limits. As prime minister, he still called the shots while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, served as the placeholder president.

Medvedev had the president’s term extended to six years and then stepped down to let Putin reclaim the office in 2012. If Putin serves another six-year term, which would run through 2024, he could claim having the longest tenure since Stalin, who ruled for nearly 30 years.

A stream of fawning comments from officials and lawmakers followed his declaration.

Chechnya’s regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, hailed the president’s announcement, saying that only Putin can “resist a massive shameless and unprecedented” pressure by the West.

Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Putin’s decision helped end “anxiety and tensions in the society.”