Because Russia's immense size precludes the Kremlin from running each region directly, the country was set up as a federation. Today's Russia is split into 83 regions of all shapes and sizes, categorized as oblasts, republics, krais, federal cities and autonomous okrugs. Historically, the leaders of the regions (mostly governors but also mayors, heads of regions or republic presidents) have been given the power to tailor the running of their own regions as long as they are loyal to the Kremlin and can ensure stability in their areas.
Reining in the Regions
The loyalty of the regions has been tested throughout history. Many regions have attempted to break away from Russian or Kremlin control in Czarist, Soviet and federalist periods. During the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin's government was in shambles, regional leaders became more important to each region than the Kremlin. Then in 1998, when Russia underwent a devastating financial crisis many regional leaders refused orders from Moscow, leading to the worst regional breakdown since the fallout after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Control over the regions was one of the first issues that Putin took on when he first came to power in 1999. In 2004, Putin began directly selecting governors under the guise of "protecting national security." After changing the relevant legislation, Putin replaced a wave of governors with his own loyalists, even if they were not from the region they were tasked to govern.
Imported governors did not sit well with many of the Russian people. At the end of 2011, there were massive anti-government protests across the country, unlike anything Putin's Russia had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands protested a string of issues, including the appointment of governors, electoral policies, Putin's taking a third term as president and the Kremlin's autocratic rule of Russia.
The Kremlin gave in to a few of the protesters' demands in an attempt to pacify them. Most important, the Kremlin amended the laws in January 2012 to allow for the direct election of regional heads. The protest movements welcomed the change, but the Kremlin inserted a series of loopholes to ensure some level of continued control over the process. One such loophole was that the governors were to submit to "voluntary consultations" with the president. Exactly what that meant was never clearly defined, but in the past few months its meaning has become more clear as several governors have been dismissed, regional leaderships have been reshuffled and titles have been changed — each taking place after the head of the region "consulted" with Putin.
Since mid-January, Putin has changed 18 governors. By comparison, he changed only three governors (outside of scheduled elections and nominations) in all of 2013.
Of the 18 changes, eight governors or heads of regions were dismissed and replaced with "acting heads" until elections take place near the end of the year. All but one of those dismissals were due to either a publicly stated "loss of trust" by Putin or the regional leader conflicting with Putin's loyalists. In short, the dismissals came after Putin could no longer ensure that the leaders would remain loyal to the Kremlin and its agenda. Their acting replacements are mostly proven Putin loyalists.
Aside from outright dismissal, Putin has also prematurely ended the terms of governors or heads of regions and named the same person "acting head" of the region to hold their place until elections can be held. Putin is essentially directly appointing the head of the region, going through another loophole in the electoral law. But the purpose of naming the same person to the same position is to bump up the election date to 2014.
The reasoning is twofold. First, the Kremlin is facing a spate of elections in 2015-16, ranging from the state Duma to most of the regions. Expediting elections in (at least) 18 regions enables the Kremlin to better focus on each election without being overwhelmed by so many at once.
More important, the Kremlin (particularly Putin) is currently riding a wave of popularity following the annexation of Crimea — popularity that Moscow knows will eventually fade. The earlier the election, the better the chance the Kremlin has of locking in a pro-Kremlin regional head for a five-year term through direct elections.
The dismissals and title changes for so many regional heads are Putin's way of ensuring that his loyalists are in place through the end of the decade. Putin is working around the electoral laws without directly repealing the concessions he made to the anti-Kremlin protest movements in 2012.
The Western Connection
The timing of Putin's regional maneuvers is important. The Russian government just watched large-scale anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine end with the overthrow of the government in Kiev. For Moscow, those protests were eerily similar to those Russia underwent in 2011-12. There were even some of the same Western institutions supporting the initial protest movements in Ukraine that support those in Russia. Moscow already believes that the West was behind the unrest in Ukraine and cannot be certain that anti-government protests will not return to Russia, supported by the West.
In addition, the government in Kiev is now stuck in a fight with separatists in the east and south, where some groups are attempting to secede — as many Russian regions have tried in the past. Russia is watching the country next door — a country imperative to its national security — destabilize due to conflicts among its regions. As big a crisis as it is in Ukraine, Russia's regional makeup is far more complex.
Before things can go downhill, Putin is once again firming up his control in Russia. The Russian government has already passed a series of laws further restricting Internet access in the country — a foundation for the organization of the protest movements and the primary means by which anti-Kremlin information is spread. Putin has also kept many of the Russian opposition and anti-Kremlin leaders locked down, including Alexei Navalny, who has been under house arrest for months. Putin is now focused on ensuring his ability to control and maneuver at a regional level to stave off the inevitable instability Russia will eventually experience.