Something clearly went very wrong with Operation Yakunin. And this seems to indicate that something is not quite right with Team Putin.
Ever since Vladimir Yakunin resigned as head of Russian Railways in August, Kremlin-watchers have debated whether the move was a demotion or a prelude to a new political role.
Was one of the most powerful and influential members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle being kicked off the island? Or was his removal part of an elaborate operation to elevate him?
We appear to have our answer.
Yakunin announced today that he wasn't interested in the new job the Kremlin had lined up for him: a seat in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, representing Kaliningrad.
Few expected someone of Yakunin's stature -- someone who has been personally close to Putin for decades -- to settle for being a run-of-the-mill lawmaker.
Initially, press reports indicated that he would likely be named the Federation Council's deputy speaker -- or perhaps speaker. At the very least he would chair an important committee.
But Kommersant reported today, citing unidentified officials, that Yakunin would not be a member of the Federation Council's leadership at all.
"Moving Vladimir Yakunin to the Federation Council now indeed looks like an honorable resignation, and not the beginning of his political career, as it may have seemed initially," Ilya Karpyuk wrote in Polit.ru.
And then, hours later, Yakunin made it clear he wasn't going to follow the script. Rather than serve as a rank-and-file member of the Federation Council, he would prefer to spend more time with his...think tank.
"I hope I will be able to continue being useful to society by concentrating on academic and public activities, primarily in the area of international relations and intercivilizational dialogue," Yakunin said.
It's hard to look at all this and not come to the conclusion that Yakunin is either leaving or being banished from the "collective Putin," the dozen or so insiders who rule Russia.
And that is a very big deal.
The last time anybody of this stature left the Kremlin leader's inner sanctum was when Aleksei Kudrin resigned as finance minister in September 2011.
That happened just days after Putin announced he would return to the presidency, sparking the worst interelite turbulence of his rule.
It also happened just months before Russia witnessed its largest antigovernment street protests since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
It's also hard to not suspect that the Yakunin debacle indicates that the informal governing model that Putin has relied on for his entire presidency -- one based on a tight group of cromies -- is in serious flux, if not outright crisis.
Putin's team has mastered the art of government by spets-operatsiya, or covert ops. Significant personnel moves are planned out and executed with military precision.
And the fact that the Kremlin botched this one -- or Yakunin willfully strayed from the script -- seems to point to a regime that, despite outward appearances of omnipotence, is seriously losing its mojo.