Andrei Kozyrev's departure as Foreign Minister removes one of the leading pro-Western voices from the Russian government and, without provoking a radical change in Kremlin policies, may herald a subtle shift to a more assertive line.
In particular, the West may find that Russia takes a stronger stance on issues such as arms control treaties and Nato's proposed expansion into central and eastern Europe.
Under Russia's constitution, the President picks the Foreign Minister and holds primary responsibility for the direction of foreign policy. Major policy changes are therefore unlikely, since Mr Kozyrev's successor cannot stray too far from the wishes of President Boris Yeltsin.
However, some hardline ministers may try to exploit Mr Kozyrev's removal to press for a more robust anti-Western policy. Only last Thursday the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, warned the West that Nato's expansion might cause Russia to rethink its approach to short-range nuclear arms and to deploy a new range of weapons "consistent with new real threats". Mr Grachev has also said that Moscow may review its adherence to the Start-1 and Start-2 treaties on limiting intercontinental nuclear weapons.
One obvious candidate to succeed Mr Kozyrev is Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to Washington, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee and leader of the liberal Yabloko political movement.
Though no hardliner, Mr Lukin has often accused Mr Kozyrev of presiding over a decline in the international prestige of Russia, and if chosen he might present less of a pro-Western face to the world.
Others tipped to replace Mr Kozyrev include two career diplomats, Vitaly Churkin and Igor Ivanov, and Mr Yeltsin's chief foreign policy adviser, Dmitri Ryurikov. The first two men are closely identified with Mr Kozyrev's policies, but Mr Ryurikov is thought to have viewed Mr Kozyrev as too conciliatory to the West.
Communists and nationalists had long sought Mr Kozyrev's dismissal on the grounds that his policies were excessively pro-Western and not geared to the vigorous promotion of Russian interests. They complained that Mr Kozyrev was allowing Nato to set the pace of events in former Yugoslavia and that he was doing too little to prevent the Atlantic alliance's expansion eastwards.
In fact, whereas Mr Kozyrev was an enthusiastic advocate of Russia's integration with the West in 1991 and 1992, he changed his tune somewhat in the next three years.
Aligning himself with a group of "pragmatic nationalists", he continued to develop a constructive partnership with the West but contended that Russia had its own distinctive traditions and interests and should drive a hard bargain when necessary.
Where he parted company from the Communist and nationalist opposition was in his refusal to accept that the West was just as "threatening" to Moscow as it had been in Cold War times.
In a Russian television interview on 27 December, he condemned his critics for "a wish to go over in one way or another to the concept of an enemy, whether in respect of Nato or someone else in the West" and declared firmly that "Nato is not an enemy".
Like virtually all Russian politicians, Mr Kozyrev opposed Nato's plans to embrace countries that once belonged to the Soviet- led Warsaw Pact. However, he said he regarded these plans as "the mistake of a friend" rather than "a plot by an enemy".
Mr Kozyrev also denounced his opponents for "a neo-imperialist policy under cover of various kinds of demagogy towards the former Soviet republics". Many Communists and nationalists have refused to acknowledge these republics, some of which have large ethnic Russian minorities, as fully independent states.
Mr Kozyrev is not the only relatively liberal minister to have resigned in the aftermath of the Communist victory in last month's elections. Sergei Shakhrai, a deputy prime minister who was once one of Mr Yeltsin's most influential advisers on legal and nationality matters, left the government yesterday to take up a seat in parliament.
The Communist Party had long sought Mr Shakhrai's removal, arguing that he bore heavy responsibility for the Soviet Union's disintegration in 1991. However, Mr Shakhrai had also gradually grown distant from Mr Yeltsin, a trend underlined when he broke away from the pro-Yeltsin government party last year and formed his own party to contest the December elections.
Taken together, the departures of Mr Kozyrev and Mr Shakhrai leave the government with a less reformist profile. The most important progressive politician still in the government is Anatoly Chubais, the minister in charge of economic reform.Reuse content