Most of the commentary on Putin's widely expected move has centered on his desire to distance himself from the deeply unpopular ruling party.
That's certainly true as far as it goes. The fact that United Russia is in crisis, and has been for some time, is not exactly news. Ever since Putin announced the creation of the All-Russia Popular Front last year, it was clear that he no longer intended to use United Russia as his main political vehicle.
But what is going on here is actually bigger than that. By chance or design, or by some combination thereof, Russia's entire party system -- that charade of pluralism that functioned as the facade for Putin's system of managed democracy -- appears to be falling apart at the seams.
Witness the turmoil in what was once the other pro-Kremlin party, A Just Russia. Formed under the leadership of longtime Putin crony Sergei Mironov in 2006, it was supposed to be a housebroken center-left party that would siphon votes from the Communists, do the Kremlin's bidding in the State Duma, and not make any trouble.
But as soon as cracks began appearing in Putin's power vertical, A Just Russia went off the reservation. Leading members like Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov, Ilya Ponomaryov, and Oksana Dmitriyeva want it to go into full-throttled opposition, and Mironov is struggling mightily to stay in tune with his party's mood while maintaining some semblance of his old loyalty to Putin.
"Mironov has found himself 'between a rock and a hard place,'" political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote on Politkom.ru. "The opposition is accusing him of political conformism, while the Kremlin is pushing him to play by the old rules of 'managed democracy' where the main actions of the systemic opposition were reconciled and controlled."
A Just Russia member Oleg Shein's hunger strike over alleged vote fraud in Astrakhan and the recent walkout by the party's parliamentary faction during Putin's address to the State Duma highlighted these tensions.
The party now appears either on the verge of a split, collapse, or having much of its membership swallowed by the nascent Social-Democratic Union -- a project being spearheaded by Gennady Gudkov to unite the center-left.
The Communists likewise are struggling with rising discontent over the colorless Gennady Zyuganov's leadership and firebrand Sergei Udaltsov emerging as the far left's rising star.
The party chaos even extends to parties that are not even yet formed. Billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov announced this week that he is delaying the formation of his much-anticipated center-right party and would focus on starting a more broad-based social movement instead.
The turmoil in the party structure is symptomatic of larger turbulence in Russia's overall system of managed democracy. And that turbulence has its roots in the political demise of Vladislav Surkov, the former deputy Kremlin chief of staff.
As the regime's main ideologist, Surkov had a clear strategic vision of where he wanted to take the political system. It wasn't always a vision everyone liked -- least of all the opposition -- but it was a vision nonetheless. Surkov's replacement in the Kremlin, Vyacheslav Volodin, on the other hand, is a talented tactician who appears to lack any sense of a larger strategy.
Surkov oversaw and guided Putin's consolidation of power, the establishment of the power vertical, and the fake parliamentary pluralism of managed democracy.
But in recent years, particularly during Medvedev's presidency, he understood that the system needed to be opened up. He pushed for Medvedev to serve a second term as president with Putin assuming the informal -- but powerful -- role of national leader. He also advocated opening up the Duma to new political parties, albeit in a controlled and tightly managed way.
Surkov had the backing of the technocratic wing of the elite, but was overruled by key players in Putin's inner circle who feared losing their positions and their access to oil rents in a second Medvedev term.
Gleb Pavlovsky, who himself was dismissed as a Kremlin strategist in April 2011 for being too vocal in support of a second Medvedev term, told the British daily "The Guardian" in March that Surkov understood "the limits of the system" and didn't want Putin to "experiment" with a return to the presidency.
"He was the last person in the Kremlin who understood what the system could withstand and what it couldn't. And now there is no one left to feel that," Pavlovsky said.
Ever since Putin's return to the presidency was announced at last September's United Russia congress, the Kremlin has been all tactics and no strategy.
Every one of Volodin's projects -- from the formation of the Popular Front to the "managed chaos" of letting hundreds of parties, many of them Kremlin "clones," register and compete in elections, to the Putin presidential campaign's decision to play to the economic and social resentments of the disaffected -- have been about short-term survival.
And on this score, with Putin about to be reinaugurated, Volodin has been successful. It's just unclear where things are supposed to go from here.
-- Brian Whitmore