Boris Yeltsin sought to shore up his struggling presidency yesterday by revealing that he plans to sack Andrei Kozyrev, his Foreign Minister and one of his most loyal allies, as soon as he can find a replacement.
It was the latest of several attacks on his increasingly powerless minister in an attempt to appease Russia's nationalists and other hardliners who accuse Mr Kozyrev of selling out to the West, particularly over Bosnia, and have long demanded his resignation.
With the Communists threatening to sweep parliamentary elections in December, and a presidential race in June, Mr Yeltsin's actions were clearly intended to try to improve his own dismally low popularity-ratings by decrying a figure who is widely scorned at home.
As political savagings go, it was nasty, making it hard to believe that Mr Kozyrev can last much longer. According to Mr Yeltsin, the Foreign Minister could not get on with other ministers, and had failed to co-ordinate his policy with the government.
The only reason he had not replaced him was because he had not found someone else to do the job. "Let him continue working," the President said. "Let us not make him knuckle under. But my decision will stay." Today the two men are due to visit Paris, where they will meet President Jacques Chirac.
If and when it happens, Mr Kozyrev's departure will cause some concern in the West, although little surprise. His demise has been predicted in Moscow almost weekly ever since he got the job in 1990. But it is questionable how much difference it will make to Russian foreign policy, if any.
The liberally inclined Mr Kozyrev has been derided as the West's "Mr Yes" - as opposed to the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, the "Mr No" of the Cold War. But recently he has sounded less pro-Western and increasingly nationalist. The major points of disagreement with the West - Nato enlargement, the bombing of the Serbs, and the inclusion of Russian troops in a peace-keeping force in Bosnia - seem likely to drag on, not least because Mr Yeltsin has been dictating foreign policy of late. Moreover, the West has been unwilling to compromise.
Mr Yeltsin seemed to signal that in broad terms Russia would maintain its relationship with the West. He also made a frank admission that the war in Chechnya had been a mistake, a point that Western governments have been making since the conflict began 10 months ago. "So many people have been killed there," he said. "This is the biggest disappointment of my entire presidency."
He talked hopefully about reaching an agreement with President Bill Clinton during his forthcoming trip to the United States over the possible deployment of nuclear weapons near the Russian border if Nato expands into Eastern Europe. He was determined to keep the US-Russian relationship on track; he and President Clinton "get on too well" to let it deteriorate, he said.
As he prepared for his news conference yesterday, Mr Yeltsin ignored the world's television cameras and shocked two women secretaries by pinching their backs. Appearing unsteady on his feet, he was filmed as he said "hello" and casually tweaked them between the shoulder blades. The first woman jumped in surprise at the gesture, seen as another public indiscretion by the Russian leader, while the second turned and stared at Mr Yeltsin, then made an inaudible comment.
The scent of ministerial blood yesterday set off speculation over who might succeed Mr Kozyrev. Among the names mooted was Vladimir Lukin, head of the State Duma's (lower house) foreign affairs committee, who has criticised Mr Kozyrev for incompetence. A more probable candidate is Anatoly Adamishin, Russia's ambassador to London.
Mr Adamishin was summoned recently to discuss the Balkan conflict with Mr Yeltsin, giving rise to suggestions that he might be destined for higher office (and supplying more evidence that Mr Kozyrev was doomed). Earlier this month he wrote an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda saying that co-operation with the West should not mean Russia's national interests are overlooked - a veiled attack on Mr Kozyrev.
Another possibility is Yuli Vorontov, the Russian ambassador to the US. Like Mr Adamishin, he is a career diplomat in his sixties with a long record in the Soviet Foreign Ministry.