By the end of 2009, the word on the Moscow grapevine was being picked up by pundits and journalists: Putin’s “return” is in the works, and the premier’s reoccupation of the Kremlin may take place sooner rather than later.  The tandem of Vladimir Putin and his handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, is said to be coming apart, unable to withstand the ambitions of its younger member to be a full-fledged president (and to be reelected in 2012), rather than continuing to play second banana to the inflated ego of Putin, jealous of his status and concerned about his future.

Premier Putin himself seemed to be signaling that he was not content to deal with technical economic problems—and that his return was very much on his mind.  At his carefully managed direct-line Q&A with the Russian population in early December, Putin told one caller “don’t hold your breath” waiting for him to depart the scene.  (The Q&A was an annual event during Putin’s presidency, so this episode was seen as a sign his presidential campaign was already under way.)  He reiterated that he was considering running again in 2012 and played the traditional Russian role of the “good czar,” pledging a grieving widow help in educating her children, reassuring factory workers about their jobs, and promising to “break the back” of terrorists, reprising his role as law-and-order strongman.

The direct-line performance was one of a seemingly endless parade of Putin photo-ops and encroachments on the president’s turf.  “Action man” Putin later displayed his prowess by throwing a judo champion in St. Petersburg, a follow-up to other tough-guy performances (flying on a fighter jet, taking a voyage on a mini-submarine to the bottom of Lake Baikal, sedating a Siberian tiger with a dart gun).  And according to Kremlin sources, Putin had violated an unspoken agreement with Medvedev, taking on a major foreign-policy issue in December when he warned that Russia would respond to U.S. missile-defense plans with new offensive weaponry.

Medvedev has responded to Putin’s direct-line performance with a series of public statements of his own, including some pondering his reelection.  The president had already sparked the hopes of those desiring liberalization with his September article “Russia, Forward!,” his annual speech to the Federal Assembly, and a number of public statements calling for “modernization,” “innovation,” an end to dependence on exports of raw materials (oil and natural gas, fields dominated by Putin cronies), as well as a campaign against corruption—all implicit criticisms of Putin’s presidency and work as premier.  Inside sources claimed friction between the Russian White House and the Kremlin last spring, with Medvedev being pressured to fire Putin cadres and install members of his lawyers/classmates clan.  (Medvedev, like Putin, studied law.)

Putin had fired a warning shot in the newspaper Russkiy Pioner, criticizing the turnover as disruptive.  Medvedev subsequently did something that Putin had been reluctant to do during his presidency: He fired high-level officials, including the head of the Moscow militia, a key post in the heavily centralized administrative system; a number of army generals, after an explosion at an arms depot; and several prison-system administrators, following the November 16 death of Hermitage Capital’s Sergey Magnitsky, who was incarcerated.  (Hermitage management had long been critical of the regime and had accused Ministry of Internal Affairs officials of embezzling state funds.)  Meanwhile, his administration called for legal and prison reform, even as Medvedev quietly placed some of his lawyers and classmates in positions in the holy of holies of the Putin entourage, the “power departments” (law-enforcement and security agencies).  Couple this with comments by Kremlin political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky that Putin should step back, since he is “obligated” to give Medvedev a chance to be a “great president,” and Medvedev’s audit of the state corporations (large holding firms headed by state appointees, often members of Putin’s entourage), and the “collective Putin” has cause for concern.

Igor Sechin, Putin’s longtime shadow, who now holds a cabinet portfolio for energy and industry, is said to be whispering in Putin’s ear that Putin cannot trust Medvedev and should therefore be concerned for his future, something that could only be secured by Putin reassuming the presidency.  Meanwhile, the opponents of the Putin/Sechin camp are awaiting further signals from Medvedev about his readiness to take full power, particularly the possibility of a pardon for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos Oil Company (largely absorbed by Rosneft, where Sechin serves as board chairman), now held on tax violations and undergoing a second trial on new charges.  Putin is apparently alarmed—or irritated—and has publicly bashed Khodorkovsky, hinting that he is guilty of dire crimes and should remain in jail.

More telling signals are being sent over the Russian internet, where an information war appears to be in full swing.  Medvedev has been the object of ridicule, with pictures circulating casting the president as weak and possibly a drunk.  (One picture was a freeze-frame of Medvedev apparently stumbling at a G-8 meeting last summer; the president appears intoxicated, but a viewing of the video shows that he suffered from jet lag at most.  Another, taken from behind, shows the diminutive Medvedev standing on an elevated platform to give a speech.)  Kompromat (compromising material) accusing members of Medvedev’s entourage of corruption has been making the rounds as well.

The blows directed against Medvedev have not been as nasty as the hints that Putin is a homosexual/pedophile.  (Aleksandr Litvinenko, poisoned in London in 2006, had made similar claims in August of that year.)  Equally vicious are the attacks on Putin’s marriage.  (Ludmilla Putina is unhappy, wants a divorce, and has taken to drink.  This story gained some standing after a lengthy Putina absence from public events, followed by a press interview in which, asked about happiness in family life, she commented that she did not think such a thing existed in general and that one must seek happiness inwardly.)  A rumor surfaced that Putin was having a child with Olympic rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, and a report in December claimed that she had given birth to a son, leading some Moscow observers to argue that these stories were meant to counter the rumors of Putin’s homosexuality and pedophilia.  As a bonus, Kabayeva is half Tatar, giving candidate Putin inroads into the Muslim vote in the next presidential election.

Few believe that Medvedev has the political clout at this point to take on Putin directly, and it appears that the cautious president is being prodded to move against the collective Putin.  In Russia, the intricacies of plot and counterplot make separating what is real from what is not a difficult assignment, but the evidence points to a rift in the tandem and a political battle going on under the carpet—a battle we get hints of in rumors, public remarks, media campaigns, and high-profile arrests and firings.  In a country where losing a political battle might mean prison or worse, and where assassination, intimidation, and disappearances are common tools in politics and business, both the Putin and Medvedev camps have reason for concern.