It might seem strange for a country's prime minister to emerge as a political heavyweight only after having occupied the post a few months. While Vladimir Putin seems to have done just that - much to everyone's surprise - analysts say he will not be able to build a consensus among the country's warring political groups because his popularity is tied exclusively to the fate of the country's military campaign in Chechnya.
"The nature of Putin's relatively high popularity now almost unavoidably carries with it an inevitable fall as soon as it becomes evident that the strategy in the North Caucasus won't achieve its expected aims," said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "That might happen within the next month."
No one expected Putin to rank so highly in public opinion polls in the first place: He soared in one survey from 1 percent to 15 percent in a matter of weeks. He now stands third, just behind popular former Premier Yevgeny Primakov and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
Astonishment on all sides is perhaps not so unexpected in a country in which President Boris Yeltsin fires and hires prime ministers with seeming irrationality and whose candidates are seen as yes-men to the presidential administration.
Putin emerged as the Kremlin's policy front-man after his appointment last August, when he was serving as the obscure chief of the Federal Security Service (successor to the KGB).
As Yeltsin stays out of view in his country residence recuperating from a hospital stay for what the Kremlin called the "flu," Putin is the one leading Russia on its warpath, making hard-line statements about the breakaway republic of Chechnya and Russia's anti-terrorism policy.
Moscow began bombing Chechnya before sending in troops more than three weeks ago. That came after Islamic militants operating from Chechnya briefly overran several villages in the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, and a series of apartment building explosions in Russia, blamed on Chechens, killed about 300.
Russian troops now occupy the northern third of Chechnya, above the Terek River, and are carrying out artillery and air bombing in the renegade republic. More than 155,000 refugees have fled the region as Russian shells continue to take civilian lives daily.
Putin now famously said Russia would wipe out Chechen terrorists even in the "outhouse" if they were found there.
Russian troops are fortifying their positions behind the Terek while the military has not dismissed the option of an all-out attack on the Chechen capital of Grozny.
Putin has also pledged $1 billion for the Russian military to boost its support while clamping down on the already largely uncritical Russian media coverage of the conflict. He has also issued military doctrines that, smacking of Soviet rhetoric, announce that one of Russia's chief military threats most likely comes from the West.
Fifty percent of Russians now approve of the way Putin is doing his job. The prime minister is now seen as being able to deal with the problem - real and perceived - of terrorism in Russia.
But Petrov says Putin is doomed in part because he will never be able to balance the warring groups occupying center stage in Russia's pre-election season. "He's not seen in that role, and he doesn't try to occupy it," Petrov said. "He is only playing the role of a strict, decisive politician taking a very hard line in the Caucasus, and only because the Chechens haven't yet retaliated."
Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst at the Panorama political research group, says Putin will remain popular until the first major casualties in Chechnya. "If the army crosses the Terek, then major losses are most likely unavoidable in the near future," Pribylovsky said. "If it doesn't cross the Terek, it will be possible to avoid major losses for some time."
Some of Putin's success comes from having largely managed to avoid political infighting, partially a result of his popularity with the electorate. The bickering includes a battle between NTV and ORT television stations. Independent NTV is controlled by an ally of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov (who called himself the Kremlin's "No. 1 enemy" last spring). State-run ORT is influenced by controversial tycoon Boris Berezovsky, seen as a top Kremlin insider.
"Neither NTV nor ORT are waging a war against Putin," said Fond Politika think tank president Vycheslav Nikonov, a board member of Luzhkov's Otechestvo (Fatherland) political movement. "If it does affect him, then it does so in a positive way. Putin looks squeaky clean compared to other politicians."
But Putin's political future remains unclear. Yeltsin is widely expected to reshuffle the Cabinet after parliamentary elections Dec. 19. Analysts say Putin will be sacked then, giving politicians reason not to stake their chips on him as a realistic Yeltsin heir, even though the president said he wants to see Putin succeed him.
Putin, by all accounts, currently has the support of the Yeltsin "family" of insiders, seen as being hind the formation of the new Yedinstvo (Unity) regional political bloc. Yedinstvo is currently stumbling in its negotiations to build a political bloc.
"There's a reorganization going on inside the 'party of power.' Agreement on Putin's future will depend on the basis of some kind of reshuffle," Pribylovsky said. "For the time being, it's unclear what Putin can offer and what might be demanded from him."
Meanwhile, Yeltsin won't fire Putin "for the time being," Nikonov says. "At least not while he's sick - he never does that. On the other hand, when Yeltsin emerges, then he often acts in an irrational way."
Until then, Putin's immediate future depends on the situation in Chechnya. "While the negative factors haven't begun to undermine the effects of successful war propaganda, the situation won't change," Petrov says.