President Vladimir Putin has abruptly sacked his longtime aide and confidant, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, amid what appears to be a major reshuffling within the ranks of Russia's ruling elite.
A stilted account posted on the Kremlin website says Mr. Ivanov asked to retire, and requested that his trusted deputy, Anton Vaino, replace him. Even if wholly accurate, it does little to explain the timing of the announcement, which comes amid a worrisome security crisis in Crimea that is escalating tensions with Ukraine, and a widening purge within Russia's upper elites that is starting to look like a major changing of the guard.
"Over the past year we've seen systemic replacements within key agencies and regional elites. It's not just bosses being replaced by their deputies, but deep changes often accompanied by criminal charges," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
Winston Churchill famously remarked that a Russian power struggle is like "watching dogs fight under a carpet," and little has changed since his time. Russia does hold elections – polls to choose a new State Duma, the national parliament, are barely a month away – and they are not meaningless. But real changes in national strategy and leadership still happen in the old-fashioned way: through tough, behind-the-scenes bureaucratic infighting that leaves observers scratching their heads and speculating, usually mistakenly, about what's really going on.
In recent months Mr. Putin has replaced governors and presidential envoys in eight key regions, as well as many mayors. He has also fired powerful former allies, including the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, and the chief of the troubled state bank Vneshekonombank, Vladimir Dmitriev.
Ivanov, a former KGB counterintelligence expert, was brought to Moscow from St. Petersburg by his friend Putin, and has served him closely ever since. Ivanov has worked as deputy chief of the FSB security service, deputy prime minister, defense minister and, for almost five years, as chief Kremlin aide. His successor, Anton Vaino, is a much younger former diplomat of Estonian descent who has worked for many years in the Kremlin.
Being a friend of Putin's no longer seems solid protection. Last month police raided the home of Andrei Belyaninov, chief of Russia's customs service and an old KGB colleague of the Kremlin leader. A hoard of allegedly illicit cash and rare art works, as well as Mr. Belyaninov's lavish Moscow home, were subsequently displayed on national TV.
One thing Russian experts do agree on is that generational change is driving the purge. In most cases older former KGB men who came to power with Putin 17 years ago are being replaced by much younger officials.
When he came to power in 2000, Putin created a top-down "power vertical" staffed largely by old KGB colleagues, which was quite successful in stopping the economic and political decay that beset Russia in the 1990s. The Kremlin also took over the commanding heights of the economy, and created huge state-run companies such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Russian Railroads to power economic growth.
But since Putin returned to power for a third term in 2012, Russia has been beset by economic stagnation and political drift. Many of the Kremlin leader's old friends have been exposed as deeply corrupt and, although Russia has survived two years of Western sanctions and a catastrophic plunge in oil prices, there is no sign of the economic revival Putin has repeatedly promised.
While the new officers, who also disproportionately hail from the ranks of the security services, are likely as loyal as the men they are replacing, Putin may be looking to them to bring fresh solutions to the problems that their predecessors were unable to resolve.
"Putin's psychology is to control everything, but of course that's impossible," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "Putin is tired of people who agree with him, are loyal to him, but who turn out to be mainly interested in lining their own pockets.
"He wants to see some dynamism, so he's shaking things up," Mr. Mukhin adds. "He's bringing in people who are young and energetic, who maybe have a different attitude, and hopes these personnel changes will bring results."
With the prospect of long-term low prices for Russia's main export, hydrocarbons, Putin may also be seeking to rein in the huge economic empires that characterized his first terms in office, and bring them under tougher central control.
"Some of these companies, like Gazprom and Russian Railroads, were like states-within-the-state," says Mr. Petrov, the professor. The extraordinary private wealth accumulated by supposed public servants like former Russian Railways head Mr. Yakunin, exposed by anticorruption crusaders like Alexei Navalny, proved shocking even for Russians – who are very accustomed to it.
Many of the firings of recent months have been accompanied by corruption charges, and experts say the campaign is likely to expand in weeks to come.
"Charges of corruption can be quite accurate, but they tend to be mainly a way of settling political scores in this country," says Petrov. "The changes that are unfolding now are not ad hoc; it's a very well-planned campaign."