The news from Russia

Maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't as cunning and calculating as he's made out to be.  If he were so crafty, he wouldn't allow two major stories to get out in the same day and compete for the world media's attention.

First came the news that the Russkies have exploded what they claim is the biggest non-nuclear explosive device ever — a so-called "fuel-air" bomb:

Russian TV showed a Tupolev bomber dropping the bomb over a test range, a powerful explosion and a four-storey building reduced to rubble.

Claims it is bigger than the Moab, a US device of similar destructive power, seem plausible, analysts say.

From a media-spin standpoint, this is a bigger deal than Putin's previous attempts to demonstrate his unwillingness to go along with an American-dictated world order — such as the threat to re-target missiles on Europe, or the resumption of stragtegic bomber flights far beyond Russian territory.  Moves like that aren't accompinied by big honkin' visuals of stuff gettin' blowed up that can be repeated in an endless loop on 24-hour news channels.  So it was a pretty significant move.

But then Putin went and upstaged his own publicity stunt by replacing his prime minister (and likely successor as president):

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted the resignation of PM Mikhail Fradkov and nominated a financial crime investigator to replace him.

Victor Zubkov, head of the federal financial monitoring service, is a relative unknown in Russian politics…

Mr Putin is barred by Russia's constitution from running for a third term as president in elections in March.

Whoever becomes the new prime minister gains a strong platform from which to campaign to replace Mr Putin, correspondents say.

None of Russia's political heavyweights has yet declared his candidacy and Mr Putin has not yet publicly endorsed anyone.

Leaving aside the obvious jokes about putting a "financial crimes investigator" in such a key position in the Kremlin kleptocracy, this is a big deal because of who Putin did not appoint:

Russian media had been speculating that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov – long considered a frontrunner for the presidency – could have been about to be made prime minister.

Actually the picture is more complex than that.  As our friends at Stratfor explain in a special report prepared for readers of Whiskey and Gunpowder, there's another deputy prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, who happens to be chairman the state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom.  Putin had set up a sort of rivalry between Medvedev and Ivanov, who has a major hand in the state-owned oil giant Rosneft. 

Now instead of choosing a potential successor from those two, Putin has thrown a change-up… and he's kept the rival power centers dispersed.  So the question is: What's motivating Putin to make this move?  And why now, just hours after he'd already made big headlines?

Update:  This doesn't really answer my question, but one Kremlinologist seems to believe the answer doesn't matter:

…the main features of the post-Putin regime are becoming slightly clearer. There will be a rotation of personalities at the top, but the positions of power will remain in the hands of a small group of people closely associated with the outgoing president. It is also clear that Putin will continue to exercise enormous influence after the formal handover of the presidency.

Whatever the personnel or structural changes in the Russian system of government, Russia’s foreign and security policy is likely to be shaped by the approach developed during Putin’s last three years. To wit: A great power seeking to enhance its international weight by means of stressing its comparative advantages (energy, arms, strategic military power); a ruthless competitor that believes cooperation is the product of successful competition; a lonely figure on the world scene that keeps a safe distance from the other major players in order to escape both entangling alliances and fatal attractions. The message to the West, specifically, remains: Accept us as we are; treat as equals, and let’s do business when and where our interests meet.

That's a message sure to infuriate the neocons, but that's the way it goes with an empire in decline.

The Daily Reckoning