MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed the head of Russia's accident-prone navy and named a new air force chief on his last full day in office on Sunday as he prepares to take the No. 2 post under Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev, who is on track to become prime minister after Putin returns to the presidency on Monday for a six-year term, has replaced the heads of the army, navy and air force in the past two weeks.
In a decree announced by the Kremlin, he dismissed Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, whose nearly five-year stint as navy commander included a fire aboard an atomic-powered submarine in December and a deadly accident on another submarine in 2008.
Authorities initially said all nuclear arms aboard the Yekaterinburg had been unloaded long before a fire broke out aboard the docked vessel on December 29, but a senior official later suggested it may still have been carrying the weapons.
The official spoke after the respected magazine Vlast quoted Russian navy sources as saying the submarine was carrying 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with four nuclear warheads, during the fire set off by welding sparks.
"After something like that, the head of the navy in any functioning state would have been sacked," said Ruslan Pukhov, director of Moscow-based defense think tank CAST.
He said the decision was probably made by Putin, who becomes commander-in-chief of the armed forces when he is sworn in as president on Monday.
Medvedev replaced Vysotsky with a vice-admiral, Viktor Chirkov. In another decree, he named General Viktor Bondarev to replace former air force chief Alexander Zelin, who had grumbled about military restructuring and was dismissed on April 27.
Medvedev also dismissed the commander of the army in late April, but appointed him to a high-level post as deputy head of the military general staff. On Sunday, Medvedev named Zelin as an aide to Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Russia's military branches have been weakened by the growing power delegated to its geographical military districts, and the air force has lost some of its functions to the Aerospace Defence Forces, said independent military analyst Alexander Golts.
But Medvedev's main aim of the last minute announcement may have been to show "that he must be taken seriously", Golts said.
Steered into the presidency by Putin, who faced a bar on a third straight term in 2008, Medvedev has been seen as the junior partner in Russia's "tandem" leadership and may face trouble commanding authority as prime minister.
He seems determined "to demonstrate that he is staying on - that the tandem still exists and that he still exists as the No. 2 leader of the state," Golts said.
Sunday's decrees came three days before Russia celebrates the World War Two victory over Nazi Germany, a source of great pride for a country that suffered millions of deaths, with a military parade in Red Square.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; editing by David Stamp