Musical Chairs at the Kremlin

President Putin calls the tune.

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The suprise prime minister, Viktor Zubkov.

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However European governments choose to respond to Russia's more muscular foreign policy posture, they've got to factor in that they'll soon be dealing with a new leader in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin is due to leave office in March, after presidential elections.

Complicating matters for Europe is the uncertainty about who is likely to succeed him. That question only deepened last week when Putin dismissed Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his entire cabinet. While Fradkov's demise was anticipated, what followed came as a shock. Instead of installing the supposed heir apparent, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Putin selected little-known Viktor Zubkov, 66, head of a government financial-watchdog agency. He's a longtime Putin ally, but he was on no one's radar screen for the post.

Opaque as ever. That Putin was able to surprise even the most seasoned Kremlin watchers shows how the new, supposedly democratic Russia remains as opaque as the Communistold one.

So is Zubkov in line to succeed Putin? He doesn't rule out a run for office. One theory is that the 54-year-old Putin—who by law must step aside after two successive terms but could run again in 2012—sees the older, technocratic Zubkov as a one-term caretaker who will keep the seat of power warm for him.

Putin is biding his time, showing he's still very much in charge, says James Nixey of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. It's also clear that the popular Putin can pretty much pick his successor despite the trappings of an open election. Nixey expects that Ivanov will still get the nod to become president. If he's right, that can only add to Europe's anxieties: Ivanov is an antiwestern hawk.