WANTED: Better sycophants

Vladimir Putin’s new ecology (?) adviser, Sergei Ivanov (Wikimedia | Kremlin.ru)

Since today is already Vladimir…uh, Vriday? here at the blog, let’s talk about the other story circling around President Putin–one that might actually have something to do with whatever’s going on in Ukraine right now. Earlier today, Putin appointed himself a new chief of staff, the relatively young (44 years old) Anton Vayno. It’s unclear how well this really went over with his current–now former–chief of staff, long-time Putin pal (all the way back the days when he was Putin’s #2 at the KGB FSB) Sergei Ivanov. But publicly, at least, Ivanov has graciously accepted his new gig as Putin’s “special representative for ecology and transport.” In fact, the official story is that Ivanov asked Putin to replace him. And after he’d spent more than four years in what can’t possibly be a very pleasant gig, that’s actually a plausible story. Most presidential chiefs of staff don’t last much more than four years here in the US, and I’d wager that Putin is a much harder guy to work for than most US presidents.

But this is Vladimir Putin we’re talking about, so of course most analysts aren’t buying the official story. The most commonly offered explanation for the move is that Putin is systematically axing all the people in his inner circle who knew him before he became Emperor of all the Russias and replacing them with younger people who approach him with a more deferential attitude:

Vladimir Putin is entering new phase of his leadership. As a source close to the Kremlin said, the president now thinks it’s easier to do everything himself. He doesn’t need comrades anymore, he doesn’t need creative input from within his team. He needs neutral executives.

From this angle, the appointment of Vaino follows the same logic as recent promotions of Putin’s personal bodyguards Alexei Dyumin and Yevgeny Zinichev as heads of the Tula and Kalinigrad regions. His former personal bodyguard Viktor Zolotov was also promoted earlier this year to become the head of a newly formed law enforcement division, the National Guard.

“People like Vaino are part of Putin’s most inner circle, they’re always with him, working as guards or at his chancery. Yet, for them he has always been this sacred figure — not an ally, not a comrade, but a boss,” said political analyst Alexei Makarkin.

This is in line with other recent Kremlin-connected sackings:

In the past year, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, anti-narcotics czar Viktor Ivanov and Kremlin security chief Yevgeny Murov have all lost their jobs. All are men in their 60s, and all long-time acquaintances of the president.

Another longtime associate, Andrei Belyaninov, who knew Putin since the times they both were KGB officers in East Germany, lost his job of the customs chief last month after investigators searched his home and founds hundreds of thousand dollars stashed in shoe boxes.

The Belyaninov firing seems like a special case, but the other three all fit a pattern of moving out the old guard, the people who knew Putin way back when, in favor of people who are more likely to offer Putin a hearty “way to go, boss!” than anything approaching independent thought or opinion.

Ivanov was also a bit of a special case, though, because he’s been seen as a potential political rival to Putin if he ever were of a mind to go his own way. Ivanov was, for example, considered a likely successor to Putin in 2008, when Putin was term-limited from running for president and had to shift over to the PM’s office temporarily, but then Putin opted to promote once-and-future PM Dmitry Medvedev instead, maybe because President Medvedev was more amenable to taking direction from Putin than President Ivanov would have been. Last year, when Putin inexplicably disappeared from public view for a short time, there were rumors that he’d been toppled in some kind of palace coup, by a group that supposedly included Ivanov. Obviously that turned out to be a lot of tin foil hat talk, but at the same time, Ivanov’s resume looks an awful lot like Putin’s except for that whole “president of Russia” entry, and maybe that didn’t escape Putin’s notice.

What does this have to do with Ukraine? Courtesy foreign policy writer Daniel M. Robinson on Twitter, there’s a possibility that Putin is holding Ivanov responsible for some kind of behind-the-scenes screw up involving that alleged Ukrainian terror plot in Crimea that Moscow claims to have thwarted over the weekend. Ivanov is part of a bloc inside the Kremlin that has been pushing for a more provocative Russian policy toward Ukraine than the one Putin has adopted. It’s possible, and I stress possible, that if there really was some kind of border clash over the weekend, that it was orchestrated by this group, including Ivanov, in order to force Putin’s hand. This would obviously be a major no-no for somebody in Putin’s orbit, if it’s true.

It’s also possible that Ivanov’s ouster was meant to send a signal to the West without overtly sending a signal to the West. One thing that Sergei Ivanov, Yakunin, Viktor Ivanov, and Murov all have in common, besides the fact that they were in Putin’s orbit for a long time, is that each of them has been personally sanctioned by the United States over the Ukraine crisis. Obviously there’s some sheer coincidence at play here–the sanctions were meant to hit Putin’s closest pals in order to hurt Putin without targeting him directly–but there’s a possibility that it’s more than just coincidence.

Although Putin is now somewhat pot committed to escalating the current situation in Ukraine–after all, he’s got to stand up for those two dead Russian soldiers (even if there are no actual dead Russian soldiers, the Russian public now thinks there are)–it is possible that he’d like to slowly, and without appearing to be the weaker party, repair some of Russia’s ties to Europe and the US. If he is, then maybe Ivanov was getting in the way of that, and/or maybe sacking Ivanov helped him send a diplomatic signal. Who knows? Putin is hard to read on a normal day, and today has been far from normal.



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