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Putin announces sweeping changes in Russian Cabinet

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin on Wednesday made his most sweeping Cabinet changes since becoming Russia's president a year ago, naming a KGB veteran as the country's first civilian defense minister and strengthening his control over the military.

The changes came amid a growing climate of distrust with the United States as well as signs that Russia's modest economic upswing is slowing down. They were likely to further consolidate Putin's power after a year in which he has brought freewheeling regional leaders to heel and seen the end of major parliamentary opposition to the Kremlin.

Changes in Putin's Cabinet, which is made up largely of holdovers from former President Boris Yeltsin's administration, had been expected. However, Putin did not remove Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, whose position has long been reported in doubt.

Putin put close allies in charge of two key security positions: the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police and a special force of ministry troops.

In the most crucial move, Putin replaced Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev with Security Council chief Sergei Ivanov, a longtime KGB veteran and a former general in the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service. Putin, also a former KGB agent, removed Ivanov from his post as general in November to make him a civilian.

Putin touted Ivanov as someone who will be able to "demilitarize" Russia's public life.

"While conducting military reform it's necessary to appoint a civilian to the job of defense minister," Putin told a government meeting in the Kremlin. "The time has come for personnel changes, which would be a logical conclusion of the modernization of the military structure."

Critics have accused Sergeyev of lagging on reforms of the 1.2 million-strong Defense Ministry force, which has suffered from funding shortages, dismal conditions and low morale since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Sergeyev had also been mired in a bitter dispute with the chief of the general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, over the course of military reform. Sergeyev advocated spending more defense funds to maintain Russia's nuclear forces, while Kvashnin aggressively pushed for more funds for the conventional forces.

Putin also said the shake-up is linked with the changing situation in and around breakaway Chechnya, after car bombs in southern Russia this weekend killed at least 23 people. Putin recently put the Federal Security Service — which is similar to the FBI in the United States — in charge of running the military operation in Chechnya, and Ivanov's appointment was likely to strengthen that.

Ivanov, 48, who was posted to several foreign countries during his KGB career and speaks fluent English, has long been close to Putin. As head of the Security Council — an influential advisory body roughly similar to the National Security Council in the United States — he is broadly considered the No. 2 figure in the Russian political establishment and has played a key role in shaping Russia's foreign and security policy.

His appointment came amid a tit-for-tat spy scandal with the United States in which up to 50 diplomats from each country are being expelled.

"Putin wants to place his people in key positions in order to strengthen control over the situation to a much larger degree," said Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. "Putin wants the military to be led by a person who is fully loyal to him and would not allow any hesitation or discord."

In a surprise announcement, Putin named Boris Gryzlov, a leader of the pro-Kremlin Unity party and a newcomer to Russia's political elite, as the new interior minister. He replaces Vladimir Rushailo, was named chief of the Security Council.

The other changes included replacing embattled Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov with Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Kurchatov Institute, the leading nuclear research center.

In an unprecedented move, Putin named a woman, former deputy finance minister Lyubov Kudelina, as deputy defense minister.

While the capricious Yeltsin reshuffled his governments and fired prime ministers with increasing frequency in the late 1990s, Putin has been praised for his predictability and for bringing a measure of stability to Russia for the past year.