Vladimir Putin’s maneuvers to restore power to the Russian presidency have earned him two new titles: protector of the strong and oppressor of the weak. In his determination to have no powerful enemies, the president-elect is moving quickly to embrace those he cannot crush and crush those he cannot embrace. But who is which? With Putin one is never sure.

The governor’s race in St. Petersburg provides a fine example of Putin’s political style. Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, in office since 1996, is a tough city boss who presides over Russia’s most thoroughly criminalized large city. During Yakovlev’s administration St. Petersburg’s once vibrant democrats and reformers have been ground down and marginalized. Reformist Mayor Anatoly Sobchak (who died of a heart attack last month) fled to Paris in 1997 after Yakovlev and others accused him of corruption. One of Sobchak’s deputies fled to political asylum in Poland; another was murdered. Also murdered, in November 1998, was Galina Starovoitova, then the city’s and the country’s leading democrat.

Putin is a native of St. Petersburg and knows the region well. He was a Sobchak deputy in the early 1990s and headed the Federal Security Service in late 1998, when it conducted the fruitless investigation of the murder of Galina Starovoitova. He has no reason to think well of Governor Yakovlev, who stands for re-election on May 14.

One potential challenger to Yakovlev was Putin’s predecessor as prime minister, Sergei Stepashin. Stepashin, who joined the pro-democracy Yabloko party after his dismissal from the government in September 1999, had strong backing from the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), the coalition founded by Anatoly Chubais, another Sobchak deputy. Stepashin was favored to win, but on March 2, a few days after a meeting with Putin, he suddenly withdrew from the race. The Unity party, which serves as Putin’s political arm, immediately announced its support for Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, and Stepashin and the Union of Right-Wing Forces all signed on to her campaign.

But Putin was never committed to Matvienko. The Kremlin’s political team, led by pollster and imagemaker Gleb Pavlovsky, told Putin that Yakovlev would be hard to beat. Tycoon Boris Berezovsky, another power dowser, met with Yakovlev in February, and apparently went over to his side; at least his media outlets stopped running stories attacking the governor as a friend of organized crime. Putin decided to embrace Yakovlev, making a publicized “unscheduled stop” in St. Petersburg to hold a long meeting with him. Matvienko then followed Stepashin into ignominy. She withdrew from the race on April 5.

The move against Matvienko completes a Putin trifecta against the Union of Right-Wing Forces. In January he dealt the SPS a doublecross to the chin, cutting a deal with the Communists in the Duma that kept right-wing and liberal deputies out of the leadership and important committee chairmanships. In the St. Petersburg contest Putin flipped the SPS twice more, dropping Stepashin for Matvienko and abandoning Matvienko for the incumbent Yakovlev. Putin’s mastery leaves the right exposed as not just weak but inept. The Union of Right-Wing Forces, divided and confused, seems bound for extinction.