MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has abruptly reshuffled several regional leaders and dismissed the ambassador to Ukraine in a substantial shake-up that also included the removal of the country's longtime customs chief.
Putin replaced four governors and appointed new presidential envoys to three of Russia's sprawling "federal districts," drawing heavily on former top security-services personnel in what analysts saw as a continuation of a push to tighten his grip on power since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accepted the resignation of Federal Customs Service chief Andrei Belyaninov, a former KGB officer who served alongside Putin in 1980s East Germany and fell under the spotlight when his home was searched as part of a corruption probe on July 26.
Belyaninov was named as a witness in an investigation into the smuggling of high-end alcohol, but photographs of his opulent residence featuring bundles of cash laid out in piles had been leaked to local media, prompting speculation of his imminent dismissal or arrest.
The official is seen by analysts as a casualty of intensifying rivalry between government agencies -- particularly those that oversee lucrative business -- as they battle for control of shrinking resources amid Russia's longest recession in decades.
Putin replaced the governors of Kirov Oblast, Kaliningrad Oblast, Yaroslavl Oblast, and Sevastopol, a naval port city in Russian-annexed Crimea, and appointed new presidential envoys in the Northwestern, North Caucasus, and Siberian federal districts.
Putin formally dismissed Nikita Belykh, the jailed governor of Kirov Oblast, citing a "loss of trust." Belykh, once a liberal opposition leader of the Union of Rightist Forces party, was arrested in June for allegedly taking a bribe -- allegations he vehemently denies and has protested by going on a hunger strike.
Putin also abolished the Crimean federal district and folded the peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, into the Southern Federal District under the helm of powerful presidential envoy and former Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov.
And he fired Mikhail Zurabov, Russia's ambassador to Kyiv since January 2010 -- a ruinous period for mutual relations in which a Moscow-backed Ukrainian president was pushed out by pro-Western protesters. Russia responded by taking over Crimea and backing separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Several Russian media outlets called the shake-up the "largest in years," while Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described it as a "normal rotation."
As the stream of appointments and dismissals emerged one-by-one in terse statements on the Kremlin website, photographs began to circulate of a casual, outdoor breakfast meeting Putin held with workers in a field in Tver Oblast on July 28 -- images that appeared aimed to show that Putin was in control, conducting business as usual and taking care of ordinary Russians.
The reshuffle came ahead of September parliamentary elections that will set the stage for a 2018 presidential vote in which Putin -- in power as president or prime minister since 2000 -- could seek a new six-year term.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician and former deputy energy minister, linked the reshuffle directly to the upcoming vote, saying Putin replaced governors in regions where the ruling United Russia party is polling particularly badly.
Sergei Toropov was appointed interim ambassador in Ukraine. Peskov told journalists that Zurabov's successor would be chosen soon and said the reason for his dismissal was that Zurabov had served an unusually long term as ambassador -- seven years.
Moscow-based analyst Nikolai Petrov, however, said the move could indicate an intention to change policy toward Ukraine. "If there is to be a shift in relations with Ukraine, it is pretty logical to start by replacing the guy who was responsible for [implementing] the politics of the previous stage," he said.
Writing on Twitter, Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny criticized the series of appointments, noting the prevalence of high-ranking former members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Interior Ministry.
Medvedev appointed Vladimir Bulavin, who holds a colonel general's rank in the FSB and until now was Putin's representative in the Northwestern Federal District, to head the Federal Customs Service. Putin appointed Yevgeny Zinichev, the head of the FSB branch in the western exclave of Kaliningrad, to be its governor. And Dmitry Mironov, a lieutenant general in the Interior Ministry, was named governor of Yaroslavl Oblast.
Peskov defended this trend, saying: "This was specifically a personal decision of the head of state. In this way, he has shown his faith, and, in the opinion of the head of state, it is precisely these people who have the required potential to continue to develop these regions."
Petrov had a different explanation, suggesting that Putin must pick from a shrinking circle of candidates for top posts because his top-down rule has not produced a vibrant field of talented politicians and administrators.
"When you don't have public politics, you are very limited looking for possible candidates to appoint," he said.