It’s official: the Russian presidential elections will have a new face. The election commission (a synonym for Vladimir Putin, of course) approved Mikhail Prokhorov’s presidential candidacy. Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, seems like an awfully safe choice for Putin to run against. He tried to run as the head of a pro-Kremlin party during the summer, but was ousted for crossing Putin’s inner circle well before the December Duma elections.

Having no real contrasting ideology to speak of, Prokhorov would not seem to be much of a threat to Putin. The public mostly sees him as a tool of the regime–just the fact that the Kremlin is allowing him to run would undermine any claim to legitimacy he might make, such is the state of affairs in Russia today. And the regime clearly sees him as a tool of the regime. Prokhorov is no Garry Kasparov, to be sure. But has Putin been too clever by half? Is it possible that Putin’s biggest threat comes from within his administration, not the protesters in the streets? Some think so:

Since his ascendancy over a decade ago, Putin designed and presided over a system of managed conflict within the elite in which various Kremlin clans and groups competed against each other — sometimes fiercely — for influence, access, and resources.

Putin kept control over the system by being a trusted arbiter who kept everything in rough balance. He was able to do this because while the clans tended to deeply distrust each other, they all trusted Putin. And the assumption was that without him, the various groupings would start fighting among themselves and bring the whole system crashing down.

That’s Brian Whitmore writing at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Whitmore notes that this system, in which Putin was “the indispensible man,” worked well because all the infighting was over the spoils of Russian governance–power and money. But the recent protest movement challenging the Duma elections, widely considered and in many cases proven to be fraudulent, has introduced a new element into the equation: the identity of the Russian state.

Prokhorov is telling reporters it is now fundamentally a battle between the liberal and more authoritarian wings of the government–a claim made more credible with the recent resignation of well-respected Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin over Putin’s planned return to the presidency and his promise that outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev would be Putin’s prime minister.

This shows just how much things have changed since the protests began. When I spoke to Kasparov before those December elections, he said the Kremlin was planning for Putin’s lifetime rule. Now he’s arguing that the insiders are planning for Putin’s exit:

It is all about the balance of power within the ruling elite, because now they all understand, if Putin goes, maybe 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of those who are surrounding him and making this core of the elite, they will be facing trial; they can lose money. But most of them — 80 percent at least, maybe more — will be making deals with the new government. Maybe giving up some money, but securing their fortunes. If they go into oppressive mode, then the numbers will change and any revolutionary explosion will blow them up.

Whitmore notes that other Russia analysts are thinking along the same lines. This is where Prokhorov’s political opacity actually helps him and hurts Putin. I doubt the Kremlin insiders would dare think this way if a true outsider were challenging Putin, because they couldn’t control him and could not guarantee their own safety. But Prokhorov has no desire to shake up the system, and therefore may be inspiring the insiders to consider the possibility that he could be their tool instead of Putin’s.