MOSCOW -- There was a sense of inevitability as Igor Sechin, the powerful CEO of Russia's sprawling state oil giant and a trusted lieutenant of President Vladimir Putin, failed to turn up in court this week -- not once, but twice.
The 57-year-old St. Petersburg native had been summoned to testify as a witness in the landmark corruption trial of the first serving minister to be arrested since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Sechin has a fearsome reputation within a shadowy political system where power often trumps process and political heavyweights can wield more clout than the courts.
For a second time, Judge Larisa Semyonova told a packed Moscow courtroom on November 15 that Sechin had been formally summoned to testify -- this time by post, fax, and e-mail. She added that he would be called by the court a third time to testify, on November 22.
In a hint that law enforcement agencies might be prepared to act on the matter, a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General’s Office then told state news agency RIA Novosti that it "hopes" Sechin will attend this time, adding that he "doesn’t think any of the trial’s participants intend to insult the court."
It is just the latest intrigue in an opaque and potentially explosive extortion trial that appears to pit formidable Kremlin clans against each other and has been watched closely by Russia’s business and political elite for clues as to which faction might be gaining the upper hand.
The twists and turns could be more than routine jockeying, with some analysts saying they signify a broader battle for rival visions of Russia’s future ahead of a presidential election in March.
Sechin is associated with the so-called silovik factions dominated by security-service veterans. He backs greater state control over the economy -- in particular, energy resources -- and tighter domestic political control.
The 61-year-old former economy minister on trial, Aleksei Ulyukayev, was a member of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet until his arrest and sacking a year ago. He is accused of soliciting a $2 million bribe from Sechin in return for approval of that company's acquisition of oil major Bashneft.
Ulyukayev is accused of demanding the payoff at an encounter with Sechin in Goa, India. He was arrested a month later, at Rosneft's Moscow offices, in an apparent sting operation with Sechin's cooperation.
[Sechin] is experiencing extreme discomfort because the case against Ulyukayev, which was meant to confirm his power, has exposed the schemes of his presence...And he is trying any way he can to step back into the shadows.”-- Gleb Pavlovsky, former Kremlin adviser
But the pushback against Sechin has been clear since the trial began, and the order for him to appear to testify in court surprised many.
"This is not just a personal conflict between Sechin and Medvedev. It's more systemic," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Moscow-based Mercator think tank.
"Sechin wanted to turn everything to the advantage of the siloviks: full control over Russia and its resources, isolation, and other Soviet things. But it turns out that there is a force that allows itself to resist. A systemic force."
The first arrest of a sitting federal minister on Russia's territory since around the time of Josef Stalin's death in 1953 sent shock waves through the elite.
There was speculation that it marked the ascendancy of Sechin and his group of associates in the battle for influence under Putin, who has steadily consolidated his grip on power since 1999.
But Ulyukayev launched an extraordinary attack against Sechin from the dock in August as the trial began, alleging that the Rosneft head had fabricated the case and set him up and saying he had been lured to their meeting to discuss innocuous corporate matters.
The trial has produced other awkward moments for Sechin.
A purported transcript was read out in court in which Sechin could be heard offering Ulyukayev a "little basket of sausages." It emerged that Sechin often gifts friends and business partners baskets of meats from animals he has hunted himself, and the basket rapidly became an online meme at Sechin's -- and occasionally Putin's -- expense.
Later, an anonymously sourced story in RosBalt, an outlet that regularly publishes leaks touching on sensitive cases, suggested that Sechin had made a crucial misstep during the sting because it wasn't clear from the transcript that Ulyukayev knew he was receiving a bribe. The source also said he was astonished the trial was open to the public, potentially favoring Ulyukayev.
A former Kremlin adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, has argued that the court summonses have been particularly uncomfortable for Sechin, who emerged as a loyal deputy to Putin during the latter's rise from St. Petersburg deputy mayor to Russia's ruler of 18 years.
Pavlovsky told Ekho Moskvy radio station that "of course he is experiencing extreme discomfort because the case against Ulyukayev, which was meant to confirm his power, has exposed the schemes of his presence, his mode of operating, his political and bureaucratic know-how. And he is trying any way he can to step back into the shadows."
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says he thinks the very fact that Sechin was summoned to court indicates there is a powerful "systemic" force challenging him. He also speculates that the confrontation cuts along ideological lines at an important juncture for Russia.
Russia holds a presidential election in March that Putin is widely expected to run in and win for a fourth term, extending his rule until 2024.
Russia is slowly emerging from a two-year recession aggravated by waves of Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for annexing Ukraine's Crimea, backing separatists in eastern Ukraine, and allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Oreshkin says pushback against Sechin could indicate resistance to his more isolationist vision of Russia and doubt among the elite at a continuation of the current course. "There is discord," he says. "The Putin consensus that was built in the 2000s is still maintained; it is not collapsing. But certain tensions have been delineated."
He suggests decision makers in the Kremlin are struggling to find a way forward. "Should they tighten the screws and therefore lose investments and come under further sanctions?" Oreshkin asks. "Or should they loosen them and demonstrate a certain openness, and observe Western standards to at least a moderate extent, and so on? This strategic line hasn't been decided, and these doubts are reflected in the Ulyukayev trial."
Putin has remained publicly neutral about the case.
The Kremlin did not appear overly concerned with Sechin skipping his first summons date on November 13, as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the same day that Sechin would later be taking part in Putin's meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the southern resort city of Sochi.