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Kremlin shakeup raises questions about Putin's motives

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and now former chief of President's staff Sergei Ivanov
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and now former chief of President's staff Sergei Ivanov

Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, got a new, much less high profile job in the Russian cabinet on Friday, a move that some experts say is not entirely surprising but which is sparking speculation about what's going on behind Kremlin walls.

Ivanov, once thought of as a possible successor to the president, had served as Putin's right hand man for more than four years, and according to statements out of the Kremlin, Ivanov requested that he be moved out of the important post.

Vladimir Frolov, foreign affairs columnist for Russian magazine Slon and contributor to the Moscow Times, told CNBC that Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, was tapped by Putin because he had no ambitions of his own and isn't close with any of the country's politically powerful oligarchs. Vaino was deputy head of Kremlin administration.

"This guy is a quiet, efficient bureaucrat with no political agenda of his own and equidistant from all oligarchic clans," according to Frolov. Vaino is "here to implement Putin's decisions, not to provide counsel for policy making."

Frolov also mentioned that Vaino has little political clout outside of his access to the Russian leader.

Other Russian sources who spoke to CNBC but who asked not be named said the shakeup is typical for Putin, who is accustomed to re-shuffling his cabinet prior to parliamentary elections, which are set to take place in September.

'Ivanov was seen as a rival source of power to Putin'

But Timothy Ash, the head of emerging market strategy at Nomura International, said he sees the move as part of a larger trend. He cited Putin's creation in April of a National Guard security force whose stated job is to combat crime and terrorism but which, as an organization internal to the presidency, can act as something of a private military for the president.

"Ivanov's removal is significant because Ivanov was seen as a rival source of power to Putin," Ash said. "This concentration of state security and internal control by Putin is pretty incredible."

Donald Jensen, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, called the decision to replace Ivanov a surprise; however, he said the exact circumstances surrounding his departure are still unclear.

He cited economic uncertainty — the Russian economy has been crushed by Western sanctions and the plunge in oil prices from their 2014 highs — and possibly waning trust in Ivanov as Putin's motivations for shoring up internal control.

"Putin appears to be reformatting the elite basis of the regime," Jensen said. "He has elevated new people such as Zolotov and reorganized the security services, which Ivanov may not have supported."

Stratfor Senior Eurasia Analyst Lauren Goodrich told CNBC that sidelining Ivanov does not come as a surprise, and is a sign that Putin is trying to push Russia's most powerful officials away in order to protect himself from any threats they may pose in the political arena, especially from Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the old KGB which goes under the Russian acronym FSB.

She said the main question now is whether Putin will "go after" the most powerful leaders of the FSB.

"The struggle between the FSB and Putin with his loyalists will trickle into all parts of Russia: big business, energy policy, foreign policy (such as Ukraine) and even the upcoming regional and parliamentary elections," Goodrich said.