President Vladimir Putin has engineered a surprise shake-up of Russia's leadership, proposing changes to the constitution that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024.
Hours after he made the proposals, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet resigned and Putin named the little-known head of Russia's tax service, Mikhail Mishustin, to replace him.
Putin kept his longtime ally Medvedev in the Kremlin's leadership structure by appointing him to the newly created post of deputy head of the presidential Security Council. But the duties and influence of that position are unclear.
The shakeup sent shock waves through Russia's political elites who were left pondering what Putin's intentions were and speculating about future Cabinet appointments.
Putin's proposed constitutional reforms, announced in a state of the nation address, indicated he was working to carve out a new governing position for himself after his term ends, although the suggested changes don't immediately specify what path he will take to stay in charge.
Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, tweeted that Putin's speech clearly signalled his desire to continue calling the shots even after his presidential term ends.
"The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends," Navalny said.
The move is the third time in the Putin era that major leadership changes have come suddenly from the top. Putin came to power in the first one, when he became acting president after Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation on New Year's Eve 1999.
In 2007, as his second term neared its end, he anointed Medvedev to succeed him. Medvedev then said Putin should be prime minister - moves that critics decried as an imposed job-swap without input from the electorate. Medvedev was president in 2008-12, but Putin, as premier, appeared to be effectively in charge.
Under Medvedev, the constitution was amended to lengthen the president's term from four years to six, although it limits the leader to two consecutive terms.
In televised comments Wednesday, Medvedev said he needed to resign in light of Putin's proposed changes in government.
Putin emphasised that the constitutional changes must be put to a nationwide vote.
Political analyst Kirill Rogov said that Putin intends to stay in charge while redistributing powers between various branches of government.
"Such a model resembling the Chinese one would allow Putin to stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors," Rogov observed.
In 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had term limits abolished, which would effectively keep him in power for life. Putin appears to favour more intricate ways of staying in charge than abolishing term limits.
Australian Associated Press