This article was originally published in The Warsaw Institute Review by Jan Gajewski
What’s it going to be like? Almost certainly with Vladimir Putin. And there is no better confirmation of this than the president’s mass replacement of his highest officials and collaborators. A new generation of “Putinocrats” is entering the political scene and their characteristics unambiguously indicate that in the coming years, the Kremlin court will serve one, concrete ruler.
These aren’t changes that suggest Putin’s departure, as could be seen in 2007. The regime is becoming ever more personalized; it won’t be dominated by a caste of former KGB officers, but by a czar and his courtiers, ready to fulfill his every wish without question. This kind of absolutism strengthens Putin on the one hand, but threatens the state on the other, since it is dependent on the life and death of a single person.
When asked delicately by the moderator, during the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in October, whether he would consider retirement from politics, Putin decisively rejected such a possibility. He assured the audience that he had no plans to leave. The actions of the president are even more convincing than his words. Changes within the regime are determined by two external phenomena: a shrinking pool of resources exploited by the elites (the economic crisis in Russia) and international instability, along with the crisis of relations with the West. The regime’s “face lift” is characterized by a decrease in the political importance of the members of the ruling elite. It can be seen not only in the dismissal of the “old guard”, but also the replacement of the majority of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, in the September election. A pretext for making changes isn’t hard to find; it’s not an accident that law enforcement’s anti-corruption operations have clearly intensified in recent months, with the Federal Security Service (FSB) playing a key role.
Ever since he took power, Vladimir Putin has relied on a trusted group of people, including former KGB agents. The first to be removed from power was Viktor Cherkesov. The head of the influential FSKN (Federal Drug Control Service) lost Putin’s trust after airing dirty laundry to the press during the so-called “siloviki” war in Putin’s second term. In 2008, Cherkesov lost his position and was transferred to the Federal Agency for Armament Procurement, Military and Special Equipment and Logistical Resources (Rosoboronpostavka), and went into retirement several years later. Next in line was Vladimir Yakunin, also a former KGB officer, and someone particularly influential in politics as the head of Russian Railways, the largest employer in Russia, who was also the leader of the so-called “order of Russian Orthodox Chekists.” He fell into Putin’s disfavor and lost his positions in 2015.
The wave of compulsory retirements among the “old guard”, however, didn’t begin in earnest until the spring of 2016. In April, as a result of the liquidation of the FSKN and the Federal Migration Service, their long-serving leaders: Viktor Ivanov and Konstantin Romodanovski, linked to Putin from the beginning, were forced to resign. In May 2016, Evgeny Murov, head of the Federal Protection Service (FSO) was forced to retire. Putin also fired Evgeny Dod, head of RusHydro and Vladimir Dmitriev, head of Vnesheconombank (VEB). Last July, the FSB found a large sum of undeclared foreign currency in the apartment of the head of the Federal Customs Service (FTS). Andrey Belyaninov, who served in the KGB with Putin in the GDR, had to go. Finally, in August 2016, out of the blue, Putin dismissed Sergei Ivanov, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office, retired intelligence general, long-time Minister of Defense and a major candidate to succeed Putin. Only two Chekists remain from the “old guard”, operating in the business and political sphere: Sergei Chemezov (CEO of Rostec Corporation) and Igor Sechin (Executive Chairman of Rosneft). But they too, especially the latter, have to struggle to keep their heads above water. Those removed by Putin are usually assigned comfortable but minor positions. Vladimir Kozhin and Viktor Zubkov became presidential advisors, whereas Sergei Ivanov was appointed Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport.
Many of them are now on supervisory boards of state companies: Zubkov in Gazprom, Murov in Zarubezhneft, the former head of intelligence, Mikhail Fradkov, in Russian Railways and Almaz-Antey. Some of them have retired such as Vladimir Yakunin, Viktor Ivanov, Andrey Belyaninov and Konstantin Romodanovski. “Putin is forcing out his old comrades and replacing them with younger subordinates. Those people reminded him of times when he wasn’t the boss yet… Now he needs executives, not advisors,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. Some political scientists make comparisons to 2003–2004 (after Putin had taken office), during which time the last influential members of Boris Yeltsin’s team were resigning.
Putin is surrounded by two types of people: bureaucrats and businessmen. The former still want something from the president, they engage in political intrigues and battle with opponents. The latter stay in the shadows, focused on draining the Russian economy thanks to the Kremlin’s favorable attitude. Putin’s oligarchs, such as Kovalchuk, Timchenko or the Rotenbergs, are resistant to purges, because they will be needed in the coming years as Putin’s business associates. In the meantime, the second generation of Putin’s elites is entering into key positions in the administration. Those tied to the KGB, born in the 1940s and 1950s, are being replaced by younger people whose careers started to develop after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yakunin (born in 1948) was replaced by Oleg Belozerov (born in 1969), Viktor Ivanov (b. 1950) was replaced by Andrei Chrapov (b. 1970), Sergei Ivanov (b. 1953) was replaced by Anton Vaino (b. 1972), Evgeny Murov (b. 1945) by Dimitri Kochniev (b. 1964). The ministers of the energy sector (Alexandr Novak, b. 1971), communications (Nikolai Nikiforov, b. 1982) or industry and trade (Denis Manturov, b. 1969) can also be included in this new wave. From Putin’s point of view, these are the best people for hard times. They owe their entire careers to the system that he created, if not to him personally, and they do not know any president from the times before he took office, which is very important psychologically.
Putin had been planning the purge at the pinnacle of power for a long time; it was just a matter of finding a suitable pretext. The pebble that started the avalanche was the move against the head of customs, Andrey Belyaninov. The blow was spectacular, since never before in Putin’s Russia had the security services acted in such a harsh and demonstrative manner against one of the president’s very own comrades, and one in such a high position to boot. On June 26, 2016, officers of the FSB entered Belyaninov’s home and office. They found cash in different currencies worth 58 million rubles or about $900,000 (the annual income of the head of the FTS is 13 million rubles). Searches were also conducted in the offices of Belyaninov’s deputies. The actions of the FSB and investigators were connected with the case of Dmitry Mikhalchenko, a businessman from Saint Petersburg, who had been apprehended a few months earlier on charges of smuggling alcohol (expensive cognac imported as construction sealant). Belyaninov was only called as a witness in the investigation, but two days later he was dismissed. He had headed the FTS since 2006, while before that he was the director of federal agencies for defense industry procurement and weapons export. Between 1978 and 1991 he was an intelligence officer at the KGB; he made a career in Moscow thanks to Putin, whom he knew from his days of service in the GDR.
Vladimir Bulavin became the new head of the FTS; for three years, he had been the Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Northwestern Federal District, but he is primarily known as a Lubyanka (KGB) man. He was in the KGB from the late 1970s; in post-Soviet Russia he continued his service: from 2001 he headed the FSB in the Volga Federal District, and in 2006 he became the deputy head of the FSB at the rank of general. When Nikolai Patrushev moved to the Security Council of the Russian Federation in 2008, Bulavin followed him as his deputy. In 2013 he became the Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Northwestern Federal District. It is difficult to include Bulavin in the new generation of Putinocrats (as in the case of the Head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, or the Head of the Foreign Intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin) which proves that Putin still values loyalty above all. However, vacating the office by Bulavin started a wave of personnel shifts. On July 28, 2016, the Kremlin website published multiple presidential decrees. In one blow, Putin replaced three of the nine presidential plenipotentiary envoys in federal districts, abolished one federal district and appointed four governors.
The chain starts with the position of the Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Northwestern Federal District, which had just been vacated by Bulavin. The office was taken by Nikolai Tsukanov, who had been the governor of the Kaliningrad Oblast since 2010. This position then went to the head of the FSB in Kaliningrad, Yevgeny Zinichev, Putin’s former bodyguard. Another former bodyguard, Dmitri Mironov, became the governor of the Yaroslavl Oblast. Both the Yaroslavl and Kaliningrad oblasts are considered to be regions strong with the opposition. In 2009–2011 mass-scale protests erupted. At the time, the Kremlin reacted by promoting governors from the local elite. Now, in expectation of another wave of social discontent, “siloviki” were posted to Yaroslavl and Kaliningrad (although Zinichev was eventually moved to Moscow to become the deputy director of the FSB in October 2016). The third change took place in the Kirov Oblast, where Nikita Belykh, arrested on corruption charges, was replaced as governor by Igor Vasilyev, a former KGB officer and Head of Rosreestr (Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre and Cartography) since 2014.
Along with the elimination of the Crimean Federal District, Oleg Belaventsev, who is believed to be a protégé of the Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, lost his post as presidential envoy. He was moved to the same position in the North Caucasian Federal District, which had been vacated by Sergei Melikov, who had been trying to pacify the unruly region since 2014. A veteran of the Internal Troops, former commander of the elite Dzerzhinsky division, he returned to his roots: Putin named him the deputy head of Viktor Zolotov’s National Guard. Zolotov’s predecessor as commander of the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Nikolai Rogozhkin, who had been the Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Siberian Federal District since 2013, had to step down to be replaced by Sergei Menyailo. The latter, also a protégé of Shoygu, had been the governor of Sevastopol since 2014; he lost the fight with Sergei Chemezov’s (CEO of Rostec Corporation) man, Dmitry Ovsyannikov, Deputy Minister of Industry. The new governor of Sevastopol is the only person from the group of the ”July 28 nominees”, who has no connections with the security services.
While the shuffling of personnel in July applied primarily to regions, the purge at the central level was symbolically topped off by the dismissal of Sergei Ivanov. For years he was part of Putin’s inner circle. The two met in the Leningrad KGB before departing for their respective duty stations. Putin went to Dresden, and Ivanov, educated as an English philologist, to Scandinavia. After the dissolution of the KGB, Putin left the service, whereas Ivanov remained in intelligence, where he attained the position of deputy head of the Europe Department of the Foreign Intelligence Service. When Putin became the Director of the FSB in 1998, he made Ivanov his deputy. When Putin became president, Ivanov left the Lubyanka to become the Minister of Defense in 2001. At the end of his second term, Putin was choosing between Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. He bet on the latter; Ivanov did not even try to conceal his resentment. Despite this, he followed Putin again and became the Deputy Prime Minister in his government, later returning to the Kremlin as the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office.
He took over one of the most important positions in the country and started political intrigues against his rivals. He was supposedly behind the attacks on Prime Minister Medvedev and the campaign against Ramzan Kadyrov. The issue of the National Guard Act surely didn’t help him either. Ivanov’s officials prepared the project in such a way that the text, which had already been approved by the Duma, had to be quietly corrected before it was handed over for the president’s signature. This dismissal has a significant meaning for the functioning of the system, because, as noted by a former US intelligence analyst, John Schindler, “Ivanov was at the heart of Putin’s chekist, mafia government for two decades.” Moreover, in the area of foreign affairs, “regardless of the positions held, Ivanov was a failsafe communication channel to Putin, even in the most delicate situations. In contacts between the White House and the Kremlin this channel was the best and most important”, said the former Secretary of the State Condoleezza Rice in her memoirs about the former Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office. Currently, Ivanov is the Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport. This position was created especially for him. Meanwhile, it appears intriguing that someone like that still sits on the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Either Putin did not want to completely humiliate Ivanov, or he still may have plans for him in the future.
The new head of the president’s administration is a classic representative of the new wave in Putin’s regime; relatively young and trusted by Putin. Anton Vaino (b. 1972) comes from a distinguished family of Estonian communists. His grandfather, Karl, was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Estonia from 1978–1988. After Estonia regained independence, the Vainos chose Russia. Anton started his career as a diplomat (specializing in Japan), but Putin quickly took him to the Kremlin. Since 2002, Vaino has been close to the president; he even became the Chief of Protocol, which is as close to Putin as one can be, just like his personal bodyguards. Naturally, the most influential person with an FSO background is the current head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, who was the chief of Putin’s bodyguards, and later served in the Ministry of Internal Affairs to lay the groundwork for the creation of the new formation that would be exclusively loyal to the president. Three former subordinates of Zolotov have become governors, although this is not the end of their careers as envisioned by Putin. The above-mentioned Zinichev would travel with Putin around the country as a bodyguard. In June 2015, he became the Head of the FSB in Kaliningrad, and was promoted to the position of governor last year. After that short episode, he became the Deputy Head of the FSB. Dmitri Mironov also used to be a bodyguard and an aide-de-camp of Putin. In 2014 he was relegated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he even became the Deputy Minister. Currently, he is the Governor of Yaroslavl. Tula Oblast, on the other hand, is governed by Alexey Dyumin, the deputy head of Putin’s security, who was later relegated to the Ministry of Defense, and to the GRU more specifically. He was one of the key people running the Russian “special operation” in Crimea. After the death of General Igor Sergun (the Director of the GRU) in January 2016, Putin wanted Dyumin to head military intelligence. The plan failed and now Dyumin – also known for playing the position of goaltender in hockey matches among Putin’s closest friends – is waiting for a new opportunity. Another of Zolotov’s men has become Head of the Presidential Administrative Directorate, i.e. the Kremlin’s major-domo. Vladimir Kozhin was replaced by Alexander Kolpakov, who previously had been the head of Department “B” of the FSO.
When Stalin was unable to deal with the internal problems of collectivization and industrialization, he got rid of his more experienced political collaborators at the famous “Congress of the Victors”, who understood what was going on and could question his decisions. Then, after the assassination of Sergey Kirov, the Great Terror started. There were successive phases of “cleansing” in the regime, the last one taking place in the final period of Stalin’s life. The mechanism was always the same. New comrades replaced the old ones that had been eliminated, such as Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Andrei Zhdanov or Lavrentiy Beria. They were technocrats who placed power and their careers over any ideological misgivings, ready to obey every command. Times have changed, but Putin is taking advantage of the same mechanism. Of course today, officials who are pushed aside are no longer murdered.
What characterizes Putin’s current, transforming model of government? It is the end of the old system based on the consensus of the elite and a balancing of interests between clans (the most prominent example of that model was the so-called tandemocracy of 2008–2012). Instead of protecting the interests of the group standing at the apex of the regime pyramid, the goal of the system now seems to be to protect Putin himself. Instead of rule by a type of Politburo, one person will have all the power. It won’t be enough to assign loyalists to a majority of positions to ensure success. This is why Putin is creating a checks-and-balances system within individual institutions. As Sergei Ivanov was counterbalanced in the presidential administration by his mighty deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, now Anton Vaino is counterbalanced by Sergei Kiriyenko. Kiriyenko himself is “controlled” by Andrei Yarin, Head of the Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate. In turn, Alexander Bortnikov has competition at his side in the FSB in the form of Sergei Korolev as well as Zinichev. This system, where the head of an institution feels their deputy (and candidate for his successor) breathing down his neck, compensates for the lack of authentic political competition.
Most of the personnel changes in recent months have been made with the aftermath of the 2018 election in mind, and not what comes before it. In the case of some of the new nominees, it can be assumed that they have some particular, time-limited mission to carry out. It is all about ensuring that Vladimir Putin has full control over the most important regions and corporations in the period of major political changes and reconfiguration of the government around the time of the election. It’s still unclear when the election will actually take place; however, the recent purges might signal that it will happen sooner rather than later. According to the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation, funds will run out in 2017, whereas the presidential election is scheduled for March 2018. If Putin’s government is to introduce unpopular reforms, which seems unavoidable at the moment, it will not do so before the election. In early November, an interview was published with Valery Soloviev on the website of a popular tabloid. He is an analyst known for exceptionally accurate forecasts and predictions about the Kremlin’s decision-making. On this occasion, he suggested that Putin has some serious health issues and might step down in 2017. Interestingly, the interview disappeared after only a few hours, and Soloviev himself went silent. “There are no such discussions at the Kremlin,” commented Putin’s spokesperson about an early election.
The personnel revolution of 2016 shows, that Putin is unable to solve the regime problems by changing the system. He limits himself to personnel changes, although they may signal preparation for fundamental reforms in the future. Mass-scale changes are not an end unto themselves, but rather a means to achieve an overriding goal: reshaping the system. Putin is neutralizing potential resistance against changes that might turn out to be revolutionary. He is also forming a group of “oprichniks”, who will carry out the tasks given to them.
A lot depends on how much longer Putin will rule and what form the succession process will take. There are two possibilities: either the Yeltsin scenario, a behind-the-scenes consensus of major political forces, or a brutal war for power. In the face of recent events, the latter seems more likely. Earlier, Putin was the arbiter and center of balance for the interests of competing groups of elites. The conflict in Ukraine, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the war between the federal “siloviki” and Kadyrov, ruined this tacit agreement. Hence the current personnel changes. In effect the system has become even more personalized, which means that the weakening or the departure of the president poses a great risk to the Russian Federation. In October 2014, at the meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, the deputy head of the presidential administration declared: “Today, there is no Russia without Putin!”.
This dependence of the country on its leader is a threat. Even in Soviet times, the general secretary of the Communist Party did not have such great power, as the death of Brezhnev, Andropov, or even Stalin, did not threaten the collapse of the entire system of government and an undermining of the foundations of the state. This time it might be different.
Newsletter, latest research and events