MOSCOW - The day after President Vladimir Putin threw his colossal political weight behind a loyal aide in the 2008 presidential race, the aide returned the favor Tuesday, urging Putin to accept the post of prime minister.
After a series of improbable twists, Russia's political course , for years the source of speculation and uncertainty , suddenly seems to have been carved in the red granite on Lenin's Tomb.
If he chooses, Putin appears ready to retain effective power for the next several years , and possibly far beyond that.
On Monday, Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister who has faithfully served Putin since the Russian leader's days in St. Petersburg city hall, in the March 2 presidential contest.
With the Kremlin's money, media and political machinery behind him, Medvedev seems assured of victory.
On Tuesday, Medvedev pressed Putin to accept the post of prime minister , although Putin, who always seems to be testing the political waters, has pointedly not yet accepted.
The final piece of Russia's political jigsaw puzzle , acceptance of the offer , seems likely to fall into place in the next few days.
If Medvedev becomes president and Putin prime minister, Medvedev would hold the more powerful office , under the constitution. Putin has spent nearly eight years expanding the Russian president's already considerable statutory powers.
But that could change. Following Dec. 2 elections, Putin's United Russia party controls 70 percent of the seats in parliament, more than enough to muster the two-thirds majority needed to alter the constitution.
Putin has said in the past he would consider accepting the prime minister's post, but would oppose increasing its powers at the expense of the president.
Some analysts point out, however, that tinkering with the constitution might not be necessary.
Andrei Kortunov of the Eurasia Foundation in Moscow told AP Television News that if Putin becomes prime minister, "the center of gravity will readily shift" away from the president's office to Putin.
There has also been talk, among analysts and insiders, that Putin's successor would resign within a few months of the presidential election, enabling Putin to run again.
Any independent new president might find it difficult to fill Putin's shoes.
With approval ratings of over 80 percent, nobody in Russia comes close to matching his popularity.
He presided over Russia's energy-dependent economy at a time when oil prices were doubling and tripling. His successor could face more moderate growth.
Nor would it be easy to manage the Kremlin that Putin built. Putin has filled key positions with fellow veterans of the KGB or other Russian security services, whom analysts say rely on Putin to divide up power and settle disputes.
Medvedev is a political outsider. He has spent most of his working life as Putin's aide, has never run for office and has no power base aside from Putin's patronage.
His image is mostly that of a creative problem solver, but essentially a technocrat , good at figuring out how to achieve his boss' goals.
In his televised speech proposing Putin as prime minister, Medvedev suggested that he does not think he could run Russia as effectively as his mentor has.
Putin, Medvedev said, prevented Russia's economic collapse and averted civil war.
"Having expressed my readiness to run for president of Russia, I appeal to him with a request to give his agreement in principal to head the Russian government after the election of the new president of our country," Medvedev said.
President Bush did not want to comment directly on Putin assuming the prime minister post, saying he does not have firsthand knowledge of Putin's plans and cautioning: "We just better let the elections play out and see what happens." But he seemed dismissive of the idea.
"Just let me say this: It is not something I would want to do," Bush said in an interview with ABC News. "I want to serve my time as president of the country and move on and let somebody else take the helm and that is exactly what is going to happen here."
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a scholar who studies Russia's political leadership class, told The Associated Press the Kremlin's current political maneuvering bore similarities to one of Shakespeare's political dramas.
Medvedev may have the leading role, she said, but "the author is Putin and his Politburo," she said, referring to the ruling body of the Soviet Union's Communist party.
She described the relationship between the 55-year-old Putin, a tough former intelligence officer, and the 42-year-old Medvedev, the scholarly son of university professors, as that of a father and son.
Putin, she said, "will show the way and take key decisions."
When the late President Boris Yeltsin named Putin as his successor in 1999, some analysts point out, Putin was expected to remain loyal to Yeltsin. Instead, he pushed his former mentor to the margins.
Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank, told the AP Putin may continue to rule at first but "gradually cede power" to Medvedev.
But Kryshtanovskaya predicted Medvedev will have neither the inclination nor the opportunity to claim Putin's authority. "As to real power, he won't have much," she said. "He can't have his own view separate from the general line."
Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center told the AP that she was not certain Putin will accept Medvedev's offer.
"To say 'done deal' when everything is moving and changes every minute , let's wait and see," she said.
For Putin to accept the premiership under Medvedev, she said, would be "humiliating" and destabilizing. "What there would be is a paralysis of power, and the elite and society would not know who the real boss is," she said.
In some of his first public comments since Putin backed him, Medvedev struck a firm tone, but did not stray far from his mentor's shadow.
Echoing Putin's rhetoric, Medvedev declared Tuesday that Russia would no longer tolerate being patronized or ignored by the West.
"The world's attitudes toward Russia have been changed," he said. "They don't lecture us like schoolchildren. They respect us and they reckon with us. Russia has regained its proper position in the world community."
In the past, Medvedev has served as Russia's softer face, especially for foreign investors.
He is often described as liberal because he has occasionally defended Russia's democratic institutions, which have been weakened under Putin. But some analysts say that he has no discernible political positions of his own.
Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib, a Russian investment bank, said in a statement Tuesday that the combination of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin was a "dream team" for investors.
He predicted the Kremlin's political moves should ensure a smooth transition of power.
But, he added, recent events "prove yet again the folly of trying to second-guess developments in Russian politics."