MOSCOW – Vladislav Surkov, a masterful political operative and propagandist known as the “gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, was fired Wednesday in a move that was widely seen as a reflection of a deepening rift in the relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
While the decree signed by Putin said that Surkov was being relieved of his duties at his own request, most Russian political experts agreed that the 38-year-old deputy premier was the unwilling victim of larger political forces.
“The bottom line is that the Kremlin no longer needs to rely on ideologues and propagandists,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent political analyst. “Putin needs butchers, not image makers anymore.”
Surkov’s ouster dominated radio and TV news and social media and was seen as a black mark publicly sent to Medvedev.
“Sometime soon,” Piontkovsky predicted, “Medvedev will be dumped too – but not yet.”
Surkov started his career as a bodyguard and then business associate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate who became Russia’s richest man and a potential rival of Putin’s before being arrested and jailed by the Kremlin in 2003.
By then, Surkov was on the other side, having become deputy head of the Kremlin’s staff in 1999, the year that Putin ascended to power. Operating largely behind the scenes, Surkov played what many considered to be a leading role in shaping and promoting the new post-Soviet authoritarian regime.
He also was believed to have played a key role in purging the main television channels and turning them into a powerful propaganda machine designed to promote Putin’s image.
It isn’t clear what caused Putin to cool on Surkov.
Surkov came under fire earlier this year when federal investigators began looking into an alleged $750,000 fraud associated with Medvedev’s brainchild, the Skolkovo international business school, intended to create a Russian Silicon Valley. Surkov was in charge of monitoring it.