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Whatever the origins of Serdyukov’s success, it’s clear that he made a profound impact on Russia as its military chief.

Serdyukov’s reform led to the dismissal of 200,000 officers, disbanded nine out of 10 military units and turned over once untouchable military assets to civilian hands.

Serdyukov’s reform marked a break with the Russian military culture,” said Golts. “Russian military officers simply can’t imagine a different military model.”

Under Serdyukov, the military purchased amphibious assault vessels from France, bought Israeli drones, Italian armored vehicles and other foreign weapons in an unprecedented slap in the face of Russian military industrial complex.

“He has made powerful foes by ending purchases of obsolete weapons,” said Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of Russia’s military general staff who is now editor of National Defense magazine.

He said that a battle for the distribution of 20 trillion rubles ($635 billion) that the Kremlin plans to spend on buying new weapons through 2020 was likely a key reason behind Serdyukov’s firing.

Speculation about Serdyukov’s possible downfall has floated around for years, but he had received Putin’s staunch backing until now. Putin authorized and publicly praised Serdyukov’s reforms, and some observers expect that they will continue, although perhaps at a slower pace, under his successor.

“The continuation of the military reform is inevitable,” Korotchenko said. “Radical changes that have been made in the command system and the structure of the military can’t be reversed.”

But others warned that Shoigu, who had served as the nation’s Emergency Situations minister for two decades before being appointed regional governor half a year ago, would likely face a strong pressure from the top brass to take a less radical approach to military reform.

“The new boss will have to take a new approach differing from that of his predecessor,” said Golts, “and that would create a good opportunity for those who want to stop this reform.”

Jim Heintz and Laura Mills contributed to this report.