Speaking at a congress of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party on October 1, Putin dropped two verbal bombshells: that he would head the party's list of candidates for December's elections to the State Duma, and that he would consider becoming prime minister in the future.
"Heading the government is quite a realistic proposal, but it's too early to think about it because at least two conditions must be met for that," Putin told applauding delegates. "First of all, Unified Russia must win the December 2 parliamentary elections. And secondly, a decent, capable, efficient, modern person should be elected president."
"It seems to me that the Russian political system has come to a very serious turning point." -- analyst Stanislav Belkovsky
Given the financial, administrative, and media resources at the Kremlin's -- and Unified Russia's -- disposal, meeting those two conditions should not pose much of a problem.
Analysts say the twin announcements are the clearest signal yet that Putin plans to keep power -- in one form or another -- after his second term as president ends with elections in March 2008.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service shortly after Putin's shock announcements, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said the president's move solved the succession problem that has been vexing Kremlin strategists for months.
"It appears that President Vladimir Putin has decided not to become a world-renowned pensioner," Belkovsky said. "He has decided to stay on for a third term, and even for a fourth, fifth, and sixth. He didn't see any peaceful scenario for the transfer of power in Russia after his departure. He didn't see a possibility for consolidating the elite around a successor. So what has happened has happened."
Putin's announcements fit a scenario Kremlin-watchers have been speculating about for months: that Putin would continue to dominate Russian politics as prime minister after turning over the presidency to a loyal, and weak, successor -- possibly even the man he recently installed as prime minister, the heretofore unknown Viktor Zubkov.
Belkovsky said such a move would mean a complete overhaul of the Russian political system.
"It seems to me that the Russian political system has come to a very serious turning point," Belkovsky said. "'Operation Successor' has turned out to be absolutely technical. It is possible that the successor will be Viktor Zubkov. And it will be comfortable for the future Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to work with him."
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the head of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, says the next steps in the succession plan are becoming clear.
Putin, she says, will try to lead Unified Russia to an overwhelming majority -- possibly more than 70 percent of the vote -- in December's parliamentary elections. The State Duma will then amend legislation on the government's powers, giving the prime minister significantly more power.
Specifically, Kryshtanovskaya and others say the so-called "power ministries" -- Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and the Federal Security Service -- will be transferred out from under their current presidential control. "When Putin becomes the leader of the victorious party, they will change the law on government. The power ministries will be turned over to the prime minister," Kryshtanovskaya says.
The way the prime minister is appointed could also be changed. Under the current system, the president nominates the prime minister and the State Duma confirms the choice. Analysts say this could be changed so the leader of the largest party in the Duma automatically becomes the head of government.
The idea, says Kryshtanovskaya, is to create a sort of super-prime-minister role for Putin, similar to the post of chancellor in Germany. Putin can then turn over the diminished presidency to Zubkov or another compliant successor.
Some have even suggested that the prime minister's office could be moved to the Kremlin, further underlining where true power lies.
Will Putin walk into a new job? (ITAR-TASS)
"It would be logical that Putin stays in the same office he is working in now," Kryshtanovskaya says. "And this means that there needs to be some serious changes in the law."
One unanswered question that remains is whether Putin would want to keep such a system in place for the long term, or if he might want to return as president in 2012.
If Putin wants to make a new, beefed-up premiership a permanent fixture of the Russian political system, then the constitution will need to be changed to reflect this. Most significantly, the clause in the constitution making the president the commander in chief of the armed forces will need to be amended.
"It isn't clear whether Putin wants to return to the post of president," Kryshtanovskaya says. "If he wants to do so, he needs to keep the constitution as it is, with a strong presidency. If he wants to stay in power in another way, the constitution will get in the way."