Russia has been nothing if not full of (mostly unpleasant) surprises recently, from the resumption of bomber patrols to planting flags on the Arctic seabed. And while the collapse of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's government yesterday really came as no surprise, Russian President Vladimir Putin's pick for a successor certainly did.
In recent months, Putin has repeatedly - and sharply - criticized the Fradkov government for its poor performance across a broad range of policy issues. Experts have long believed Putin was eager to oust him - and replace him with a likely, handpicked presidential successor.
Indeed, when Putin accepted the resignation, he said the government should be restructured to "prepare the country for the period after the presidential poll." (Putin must step down next March.)
Conventional wisdom said Putin would anoint a successor to a position of leadership well in advance of the presidential elections - thus giving his heir-apparent exposure to the electorate, ensuring a smooth transition of power. (Indeed, in runup to the last transfer power, then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1999 named Putin prime minister a few months before he became acting president.)
But Putin's choice for a new PM will keep Kremlinologists divining the tea leaves: He didn't choose First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov - a fellow KGB veteran, close ally and presidential front-runner - as almost everyone expected.
Instead, he chose Viktor Zubkov.
The relatively unknown Zubkov was a stunner. He's now the director of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which is responsible for fighting money laundering/fraud. A former Communist Party agricultural apparatchik, he worked under Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor's office for the first half of the '90s.
But he's no Putin insider, never having served in the KGB, nor does he have top-level government or foreign-policy experience. At age 66, he's also much older than Putin and his crowd.
It's still unclear whether Zubkov is, indeed, Putin's choice for president - or just an obedient insider who'll keep things under control until the December parliamentary elections and March presidential polls. (In his former position as corruption fighter-in-chief, Zubkov probably gathered a fair bit of dirt on any number of Russia's elite - potentially giving him unique leverage in his new post.)
So what's really afoot?
Perhaps Putin just wanted Fradkov and his Cabinet gone - or saw them as convenient scapegoats. Putin's been grousing about economic-development and social issues for quite some time. (For instance, while Russia's GDP has been growing at a good clip for a while, male longevity has dropped from 65 to 60 years over the last 20 years due to alcoholism, disease, etc. That's unprecedented for a developed country.)
The shakeup also allows an expendable Zubkov to run the government until the elections, taking the heat for any government foibles - possibly keeping Putin's true heir clear of anything that might sully his election chances next year.
Alternately, it could also be a warning to potential successors and other politicos: a political power play demonstrating that Putin is still large and in charge - and in no way has entered a lame duck phase.
It's also possible that Zubkov is meant as another type of placeholder. Under Russia's Constitution, its president is barred from a third consecutive term. While there's been talk of changing the constitution, it's been generally frowned upon.
So perhaps Putin (who's only 55 next month) means to elevate a loyal Zubkov into the presidency - and then return to the job for a third term in 2012, which isn't prohibited by the constitution.
We're unlikely to get a good read on Putin's real motive for at least a few days. The naming of members of a new Cabinet, for example, might yield some insights into what's really going on.
Next year's presidential succession remains firmly at the center of Russia's political drama. Indeed, the machinations in the Russian Duma (parliament) are merely the first act of a political play that begins this fall with party meetings.
But one thing for sure isn't a surprise: Understanding Russia is no small challenge. In many ways, it remains what Winston Churchill famously termed it: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Peter Brookes is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in the New York Post