Putin hints at favoured successor by promoting defence minister

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President Vladimir Putin has unexpectedly promoted one of the two men tipped to succeed him next year, fuelling speculation that the next occupant of the Kremlin has already been chosen.

In a stage-managed ceremony echoing Russia's Soviet past, Mr Putin promoted his hawkish Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, to Deputy First Prime Minister, a role which puts him in charge of the military-industrial complex.

The reshuffle will see Mr Ivanov, 54, give up his job as Defence Minister, leaving a relative unknown, Anatoly Serdyukov, formerly the head of Russia's tax service, in charge of maintaining one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals.

Crucially, it frees Mr Ivanov to orchestrate his election campaign in the approach to a presidential ballot in March next year.

So far, he has been coy about declaring his interest. His sudden promotion and the way in which Mr Putin publicly praised his record are undoubtedly meant as a sign that his candidacy is favoured by the Russian leader. "Sergei Borisovich coped with all the tasks that were put before him... and dealt with them successfully," Mr Putin said, using Mr Ivanov's patronymic.

Mr Putin has already served two consecutive terms as President and cannot stand for a third under the constitution.

The promotion puts Mr Ivanov, a former KGB spy like Mr Putin, on a par with the other man widely seen as a serious contender, Dmitri Medvedev.

* President Putin yesterday dismissed the president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, and named its prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov as acting president. Mr Kadyrov is alleged to be responsible for the abductions of civilians and suspected separatist rebels.