OpenDemocracy have just run ‘Putin’s incredible shrinking circle,’ a short commentary of mine on the meaning and context of Sergei Ivanov’s departure as head of the powerful Presidential Administration. Ivanov was one of the few people to which Putin still seemed to listen and who was willing and able to push his own ideas. Often, sadly, they were hawkish and conspiratorial ones, to be true. It will be interesting to see if his successor, Anton Vaino, is willing or able to stop so much nonsense reaching Putin’s desk, something that inevitably coloured policy and exacerbated his already-inflated belief in a hostile world trying to do Russia and him personally down. The trouble is that the machine is now used to operating that way: will Vaino find it easier to go with the flow, or indeed not have the muscle to do anything about it? We’ll see.
One specific point I would make is about the manner of Ivanov’s going. I see it as rustication with respect. Yes, he is being taken conclusively out of the running as a potential successor, but with honour. It would be hard to see the 63-year-old Ivanov being able to use his position as presidential plenipotentiary for transport and the environment as the basis for any intrigue against Putin, even if minded to do so. For all that, though, this is not disgrace. His new position is something of a sinecure, but both important (transport is a crucial portfolio in Russia) and suited to his interests (Ivanov’s commitment to the environment is genuine). It is a position that lends itself to agreeable jaunts around the country and, if he is minded, opportunities to pocket some handsome bribes to make retirement more comfortable. Meanwhile, he is kept on the Security Council, a special dispensation that is not only keeping him at the heart of the state (the council is not really a decision-making body but it gives him access to key discussions and papers), but also a sign of respect.
So what? If one looks at four sometimes-former Putin cronies who have left the scene, we see a variety of trajectories. Vladimir Yakunin of Russian Railways, offered a not-very-important legislator’s position, and when he declined allowed to spend more time with his money. Viktor Ivanov of the FSKN drug service, ignominiously left high and dry when his service was rolled into the MVD. Customs chief Andrei Belyaninov, sacked and under investigation. Sergei Ivanov, given a handsome sendoff and a reasonably significant role. Can one draw any conclusions?
Viktor Ivanov and Andrei Belyaninov had a professional connection with Putin but were not really close. He turned to them because he knew them, but essentially they were servants, not allies. They were thus wholly dispensable when no longer useful.
Yakunin and Sergei Ivanov, on the other hand, had a real personal relationship with Putin. Yakunin may have flounced a little when he turned down a position on the Federation Council, but he and Ivanov nonetheless realised that when it was time to go, you accept it and demonstrate continued loyalty to the boss.
The moral of the story is that Putin is actually a pretty poor patron, or at least a wholly pragmatic one. So long as you are loyal and useful, you can get away with (sometimes literally) murder. However — unless you have that personal bond — as soon as that changes, you’re out and quite possibly under investigation or in disgrace.
At the moment, Putin appears to be carrying out a general rotation and renewal of the senior cadres of the Russian state, in some cases presumably as auditions for even more important positions in his next presidential term. He may know them, as bodyguards and bagmen, bringers of papers and bearers of umbrellas, but they are servants and not confidantes. It can hardly have escaped their notice just how ruthless the boss can be with their below-stairs sort. And ultimately, if Putin is not will to show loyalty to them, can he really count on loyalty from them?