From the smoke of the wildfires engulfing the Moscow region and the embarrassment of this summer's spy scandal, Vladimir Putin is reemerging as Russia's most powerful man and, experts say, a candidate to reclaim the presidency a little more than a year and a half from now.
For more than two years since term limits forced him to give up office and take the prime minister's job instead, Putin and his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, have seemed to be in lockstep. One could see a television report on Medvedev meeting with business owners followed by one on Putin talking to children in a sports stadium. Or read about Medvedev signing a nuclear arms treaty with the U.S., and Putin promising grants for university research.
But many analysts long have predicted that one of the two eventually would elbow the other aside. And in the last month, the situation has changed.
While Medvedev appears mostly confined to his Kremlin office, Putin is rushing around the country with the news media in tow. He comforts fire victims, upbraids local officials — and publicly dictates to the president what should be done about the fires that have killed 40 people and ravaged more than 1.2 million acres.
Putin held an urgent meeting Monday with regional governors in Moscow and reprimanded them for not being ready for the fires.
On Friday, he flew to the Nizhny Novgorod region, where he visited a village that had been reduced to ashes. Dressed in a light blue shirt and dark blue jeans, Putin moved from one blackened ruin to another, shaking his head. He ended up surrounded by a big group of grieving residents.
"Before winter, all the houses will be standing," Putin said, raising his voice to be heard by the entire crowd — and by cameras of all the main television networks that broadcast the meeting across Russia.
"Do you promise us?" a woman asked. "Yes, I promise," Putin replied, adding that each family member will receive more than $6,000 in compensation.
"We will visit you with a huge bow [of gratitude] from the newly built village," said one woman. Putin hugged and kissed her; she kissed him back.
In the next televised report, Putin is standing in a picturesque birch grove, his cellphone to his ear as he talks to Medvedev, who is sitting at his Kremlin desk.
Putin: "All the necessary measures on the spot we have taken, and I think it is expedient and would ask you to sanction the use of additional Defense Ministry forces and means to combat the fire."
Medvedev: "As for the idea to use the Defense Ministry, I give such sanction."
Putin: "We need to talk with the governors of other regions and take children out to other regions not as smoky as this one."
Medvedev: "Yes, it is a good idea. Unfortunately we have casualties. Relatives of the deceased should be paid compensation."
Putin: "We have done that already."
Lilia Shevtsova, a Kremlin expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the conversation was about more than fire relief.
"It is quite obvious that Putin uses these difficult times to show the people who is the strong man in the country, who is the national leader, who is the can-do man — and who is just a Kremlin clerk," she said.
"It is clear to me that Putin started his presidential campaign now as Russia is passing through difficult times, she added. "He needs to unequivocally indicate to the country that he is in control, and not Medvedev, whom Putin never counted for much anyway."
A regional vice governor who spoke on condition of anonymity grumbled that Putin was overstepping his authority as prime minister.
"He needs to stay in Moscow and run the federal government, but instead he runs around everywhere intimidating governors and giving them orders on how to run things in their regions," the official said. "Governors among themselves call Putin 'the Commander,' and they can't ignore him, because they knew from the beginning who is really in charge in the country."
Igor Klyamkin, vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, said Putin's behavior indicates that he is worried about the falling popularity of his United Russia party and has decided to use his personal prestige to bolster it far ahead of the April 2012 election.
"The way Putin has been behaving recently sends only one signal: that he is set to run for his third presidency," Klyamkin said.
Medvedev told Russian news agencies Monday that he was already thinking about running for president again in 2012, but that he wasn't sure whether he, Putin or someone else would be the candidate. Speaking about his relationship with Putin, Medvedev added, "On the one hand, our relations haven't changed at all; on the other hand they have changed radically."
Putin hasn't limited himself to fighting fires. He was photographed driving to an international motorcycle show near the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Ukraine on a Harley-Davidson, wearing black boots, black pants and shirt, a black belt with a silver buckle and dark sunglasses.
"Putin loves to employ his favorite Benito Mussolini-the-father-of-the-nation image, wearing all black and looking tough," Shevtsova said.
But then he shocked reporters when he said that he had a party with the Russian spies who had been expelled from the United States, and they sang a song from his favorite Soviet World War II spy thriller.
Putin, a former spy himself, praised them for their professionalism and predicted bright futures for the spies.
That too was vintage Putin, said Shevtsova: "He thus took responsibility and demonstrated that he doesn't betray his own."
But Shevtsova cautioned that the behavior that helped Putin win reelection in 2004 might not work again. "Then the times were different, and Russia was on the rise, so now people may start saying, 'We don't believe you any more.' "
Vadim Adianov, a 47-year-old surgeon, his wife and son watched helplessly Friday as fire consumed their village, Izlegoshche, about 300 miles south of Moscow.
"Nothing was left, not even a single grass," Adianov said. "No firefighters came, nobody helped us and we couldn't do anything against a wall of fire." An old firetruck did come to a neighboring village, spent its water in 10 minutes, left and never came back.
"I heard what Putin said about compensation," Adianov said. "I doubt that we will get the compensation though.... I lived a long time in Russia, and I've learned to doubt everything."