In his flat outside Moscow, Boris Nadezhdin can't quite believe he's made it this far in his attempt to run for president against Vladimir Putin.

The 60-year-old is campaigning with a risky message: end the Ukraine offensive.

He's surprised himself and much of Russia as his backers form long queues all over the country to provide the signatures needed to put him on the official ballot in the March presidential election.

The veteran local lawmaker -- thrust to nationwide fame in just over two weeks -- is unlikely to reach the Kremlin or stop Putin from prolonging his 24-year rule.

"But I hope that March 17, while it may not be the end of the Putin era, will at least mark the beginning of the end," he told AFP, referring to the date of the ballot.

Nadezhdin -- whose name has the Russian word for "hope" in it -- said he would end the "catastrophic" offensive and "free political prisoners."

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He said he wants Russia to be a country "that does not try to expand its territory with the help of the army."

It's an almost unthinkable public campaign in Russia, where dozens have been thrown in prison for making similar statements against the near two-year conflict.

While sceptical he will be allowed to run, Nadezhdin thinks his criticism is tolerated as he is a former insider of Russia's political system.

"I have spent the last 10 years criticising Putin," he said.

He met AFP as he returned from swimming in the Moscow region town of Dolgoprudny, where he has been a lawmaker since the fall of the USSR.

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Using Nordic hiking sticks as he trudged through snow and slush, he cut an unassuming figure for a man set on displacing Putin from the Kremlin.

Sporting a chequered blazer that has become his statement piece, he joked about his public image.

"My wife is forced to buy them for my public appearances."

- Window for legal protest -

Nadezhdin had waited for someone with a bigger name to announce their candidacy to oppose Putin.

"No one else went forward," so he decided to go for it, he said.

His team says he has collected more than the required 100,000 signatures for him to be able to officially run.

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"I did not expect such a crazy wave of support at this stage," he admitted.

The queues shattered the Kremlin's claims that Russian society is fully behind the Ukraine offensive and provided a rare window for critical Russians to safely express their views in public.

"People do not have the possibility for a peaceful protest. But you can still sign your name (legally)," he said.

Nadezhdin says "there was no demand" in Russia for Putin to launch the offensive in February 2022.

"People understand that their lives and the safety of their families is threatened by what Putin is doing," he said.

He paints the two-year military operation as pointless.

"I don't believe that any side could have a real decisive military victory. It's completely unrealistic."

At the moment, Nadezhdin's only communication with supporters is through social media.

If he were to be allowed on TV as an official candidate, he said: "I assure you my support would grow."

With a whole generation having grown up under Putin, he said most Russians "simply do not know anyone else."

- 'Known person' to Kremlin -

Many have been surprised that Nadezhdin was able to get even this far.

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He rubbed shoulders with Putin for years during the Russian leader's first term in office, before breaking ties after the 2003 arrest of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky that saw Putin decisively tighten his grip on power and begin to ruthlessly quash his opponents.

"For them, starting from Putin and other Kremlin bureaucrats, I am totally a known person," he said.

In opposition, he was an ally of Boris Nemtsov, the Putin critic killed in 2015, and aligned himself with various Kremlin-approved opposition parties.

"They do not see me as a terrible threat," unlike imprisoned Alexei Navalny, Nadezhdin said.

While he believes that Putin has "destroyed" public institutions in Russia and ended free elections, the longtime lawmaker strongly believes that change can only happen at the ballot box.

"All the other ways -- revolutions, whatever colour they are, or coups -- are much worse."

He said that if he will be allowed to run and manages to place second to Putin in the vote, it would have a transformative effect.

Russia would "still be a completely different country," he said.

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