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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Astonisher in Chief

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Charles de Gaulle offered the following counsel: "A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless."

Surprise is also an integral element in any attack. President Vladimir Putin's replacement of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov with Viktor Zubkov caught Russia and the world by surprise, exactly as intended. That display of skill and dominance proved that Putin is still the astonisher in chief.

The timing of certain other events may also have been calculated as a prelude to the government shake-up. The resumption of bomber flights and the submarine dive under the North Pole --both projections of national and presidential power -- came within weeks of the reshuffle. Later, other events will no doubt also be revealed as part of a series of intricate moves with a twofold goal: to ensure a smooth transition after the election of a new president in March and to ensure a smooth transition for Putin as well, though exactly to what remains unclear. The biggest surprise is still up his sleeve.

It is unlikely that Putin will choose either of the two most extreme choices facing him: to remain in power despite the Constitution or to fade off into domesticity and philanthropy. So, assuming that he wishes to remain among the power elite and even run for president again in 2012, when he will be only 60, where would Putin most likely seek a position of power that doesn't depend on vagaries like loyalty?

There are really only a few choices. Private business in Russia has wealth but no power. That has been true since Putin himself broke Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky for impudently challenging his political monopoly. State-dominated businesses that can function as instruments of state policy offer greater opportunities. When offered the prime minister slot by Yeltsin and Berezovsky, Putin reportedly responded: "I am not sure that I am ready for that. ... Why don't you guys offer me Gazprom to run? I could handle that."

Now, after the Kremlin, Gazprom might seem too small.

Putin must be considering appointing himself head of the Federal Security Service. It's his home territory and offers a power base that combines intelligence and influence like no other. Nearly all the contenders for president and many of the key figures in government are from the KGB/FSB fraternity, which serves as a sort of personnel department. For that alone, the FSB would be worth controlling.

Polls of Russian society show that the three most respected institutions are the church, the army, and the intelligence services. Putin has done much to heal the rifts within the Russian Orthodox Church, but only a post-Soviet Dostoevsky could imagine the KGB colonel-turned-president forsaking power for the cross.

That leaves the military. Sergei Ivanov, one of the two leading contenders to be Putin's successor, was defense minister until he was named first deputy prime minister. He was replaced by Anatoly Serdyukov. But Serdyukov had to hand in his resignation when his father-in-law, Zubkov, was named prime minister.

Or was that the game all along? "Promote" Ivanov from defense minister to first deputy prime minister, where he looked like a candidate, then replace him with Serdyukov, who was automatically knocked out with the appointment of his father-in-law. Zubkov might be a perfect interim president because he is loyal and compliant to Putin and does not have any ambitions for a second term. In the meantime, as defense minister, Putin could rebuild the army into a formidable force, a worthy achievement to trumpet when elections roll around again in 2012. And when it comes to raw power, it's hard to match a million bayonets.

Those seem to be the main possibilities. But who knows? Some men have deep pockets, and some have roomy sleeves.

Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: A Biography" and "A Hatred for Tulips."