If Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was hoping time and cold weather would wear down the opposition to the election-rigging and corruption that has come to characterize his regime, protesters deeply disappointed him over the weekend. The large turnout at Saturday's demonstration for free and fair elections bodes ill for Putin even if he does return to the presidency in March's elections.

A rival pro-government (or anti-protest) demonstration, attended largely by employees of state enterprises and people bused in from the provinces, probably didn't attract the same crowd. While police estimated the turnout at 138,000, independent observers put it closer to 90,000, according to Vedomosti. The programmers didn't have an estimate.

If the protesters won’t go away of their own accord, Putin is left with two options. He can cede to their demands by allowing legitimate candidates to run in fair elections, in which case he stands a good chance of getting voted out of office. Or he can resort to direct conflict and even violence, an approach that will almost certainly make the opposition stronger. One thing he can’t do is build a genuinely strong and just state himself: The power and wealth of his ruling elite is too dependent on its own ability to break the rules.

(Mark Whitehouse is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)