The news was picked up late on June 19 by all the major Russian news agencies: ITAR-TASS, Interfax, RIA-Novosti. The Russian "Twittersphere" started blinking red.
This. Was. Huge.
And then, it wasn't. Russian Railways and the government quickly denied the reports. RIA-Novosti did some belated due diligence and determined -- and reported -- that the press release came from an IP address that didn't match the government's. Further digging revealed that the bogus press release was actually disseminated from a server in the Irkutsk Oblast.
Russian Railways spokesman Aleksandr Pirkov called the incident a "provocation" and a "cybercrime," adding "we still don't know who did this."
But this being Russia, we can be pretty confident that this wasn't just some random Siberian hacker playing a practical joke on the media. No, something is clearly afoot and somebody is clearly out to get Yakunin.
The case of the counterfeit press release appears to point to turbulence among the various clans that make up Putin's power elite as they realign and jockey for position amid political uncertainty. And the current tussle doesn't necessarily break down along traditional siloviki-technocrat lines.
The fake reports of the railway chief's dismissal came just days after photographs of what was purported to be his ornate mansion in the Moscow suburbs appeared on the Internet.
And they come just a few months after a think tank associated with Yakunin issued a controversial report claiming that the December 2011 State Duma elections were flagrantly falsified. Yakunin quickly distanced himself from that report, criticized its author, and claimed it had been unlawfully published.
In the aftermath, Russian media speculated that Yakunin may in fact have been on the verge of being sacked and that he talked Putin out of it. He was reportedly meeting with Putin as the initial reports of his sacking appeared.
Political analyst Aleksandr Morozov told Gazeta.ru that Yakunin may have become a victim of bureaucratic warfare between Putin's team and that of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
But in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Gleb Cherkasov, deputy editor in chief of the "Kommersant" daily, maintained that this is highly unlikely given the Medvedev team's weakness.
"Medvedev's people are so much weaker than Putin's circle," he said. "You can't even talk about any kind of resistance from them."
Cherkasov, I believe, is correct. Yakunin is a powerful figure who has been by Putin's side for a long time. A serious attack on him would come not from Medvedev's circle of technocrats, but only from among the siloviki, the security service veterans close to Putin.
And as political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky points out in a recent article, the Kremlin clans -- and particularly the siloviki groupings -- have undergone a significant realignment since Putin's return to the Kremlin last year.
Most significantly, the siloviki have split into three distinct groups: one centered around Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin chief of staff; one tied to Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin; and one connected to Yakunin, which Pribylovsky calls the "Orthodox Chekists" due to their close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and promotion of "traditional values."
Ivanov's group -- including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, and Sergei Chemezov, head of the state corporation Russian Technologies -- was instrumental in getting Anatoly Serdyukov sacked as defense minister last year.
Recently, they have been actively seeking to get Medvedev sacked as prime minister and replaced with Ivanov -- which would turn him into Putin's de facto heir apparent.
Sechin, who previously backed efforts to undermine Medvedev, has since withdrawn his support.
"Sechin is wary of Ivanov's power ambitions and cannot abide his ally Rogozin," Pribylovsky wrote.
"It seems that Sechin is [also] not too happy with the strengthened position of Bastrykin, another new ally of Ivanov's, whose Investigative Committee has become the Kremlin's chief tool of repression, having sidelined the FSB, headed by Sechin's friend Aleksandr Bortnikov, which has always been amenable to his requests."
Yakunin and his group have not really figured in this struggle so far. But citing anonymous Kremlin sources, Gazeta.ru reported that "one of the main benefactors" of Yakunin's demise would be Ivanov's ally Chemezov -- although the report does not indicate why this would be the case.
This story is still pretty fluid and opaque, but more will undoubtedly become clear as the drama surrounding Yakunin and the splits among the siloviki unfold.
"This shows the instability at the very top of the power structure," Cherkasov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Such things happen when the system is shaking. It is shaking not due to pressure from the outside, but rather, because of trouble on the inside. Too many interests are intertwined around the Russian authorities and the authorities are doing a poor job of managing them."
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on June 21 when I will discuss the issues raised in this blog post with co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service.