For months now, the big question in Russian politics has been whether Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will run for president in 2012 and squeeze current president Dmitri Medvedev out of the race. Putin handpicked the younger, more pro-Western Medvedev as his successor in 2008 when he bumped up against a constitutional ban on serving three consecutive terms as president, but many still regard Putin as the most powerful man in the country. And, as The New York Times notes today, there are several signs that Medvedev could be out of a job come the spring. The paper points out that Medvedev hasn't made a concerted effort to rally the country after the recent plane crash that killed a Russian hockey team and notably failed to announce his candidacy during a major press conference in May, suggesting he needed Putin's permission to throw his hat in the ring. Putin, meanwhile, appears to be revving up his own campaign (and Harley) and amassing political support for a comeback. "The consensus on who will rule Russia next year has been moving slowly but surely in the direction of Mr. Putin," the Times writes. 

There are other indications that Medvedev's days as Russia's ruler are numbered. Reuters points out that Putin, not Medvedev, spearheaded a recent deal with ExxonMobil to extract oil and gas from the Russian Arctic. "Exxon is betting that the presidential election will put a formal seal on Putin's authority," Reuters writes, while Putin is asserting himself as the person in charge of Russia's energy policy and relationship with the U.S. Even the likely timing of the announcement about who will run for president--in December after parliamentary elections--favors Putin's candidacy, Bloomberg adds. If Putin's United Russia party retains its two-thirds control of Russia's lower house of parliament in December, Russian sources tell The Financial TimesPutin could even retain de facto power as prime minister since United Russia "would be able to block most decisions, impeach the president and change the constitution."

Still, it seems premature to write Medvedev off entirely. The Russian president is working on his own energy deal during a visit with his British counterpart David Cameron this week, and a Medvedev adviser said last week that Medvedev would seek a new term in March. But even if Putin extends the current arrangement with Medvedev, the Times writes, Medvedev "will assume a post weaker than the one he has occupied for the past four years." And what will Medevedev do if Putin unseats him? "Most likely he will join the growing speakers' pool of failed Russian reformers led by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev," Victor Davidoff at The Moscow Times predicts. Another Moscow Times op-ed suggests Medvedev could swap roles with Putin and become prime minister. Or he could take up fishing. The most recent photo-op of Medvedev and Putin "getting along" showed the two men fishing and diving in the Volga River.

As for Putin, he could serve as president until 2024 under new six-year terms, affording him, as Bloomberg puts it, a "quarter of a century in power" and ample time to take the country in the direction he--not Medvedev--wants.