Ivanov: rustication with respect, from a good friend but a poor patron


Talking to the other retirees…

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?

Putin’s regional reshuffle: the rise of “men in epaulettes” or just a search for reliable cadres?

The most recent reshuffle of regional officials is at once precisely what presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the “usual cyclical rotation” and also an interesting snapshot into the staffing policies and priorities of today’s Kremlin.


Who’s out? The old and the dirty?

It was usual in that as with most reshuffles, one or two dismissals or retirements tend to create cascading reappointments, as people move up, down or across the system. In this case, Federal Customs Service (FTS) chief Andrei Bel’yaninov’s dismissal courtesy of a corruption probe probably triggered an overdue bout of reorganization. Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine, had been in place for seven years and the position really needed new blood (perhaps an unfortunate expression…), while Siberian polpred (presidential plenipotentiary) Nikolai Rogozhkin, at 64, was also due for retirement. Kirov governor Nikolai Belykh, also under investigation for corruption, was another figure hanging on by his fingertips. Given that the Kremlin had little love for this liberal businessman – the jury is still out on whether his arrest was a put-up job – he was hardly likely to survive. Finally, Sergei Yastrebov, governor of Yaroslavl region, whose future is still unclear, has certainly been the target of some gossip and allegations in the past (though who isn’t?).

On the whole, then, it is striking that those dismissals not explained by age actually appear to reflect genuine questions about their effectiveness and honesty. Belykh’s case is unclear, admittedly. This is hardly conclusive, but it does incline me further to believing that – while corruption allegations and the like remain a weapon of personal feud and state repression – there is at the same time a real, quiet campaign to redefine the social contract with the elite such that they “steal a little bit less, do their job a little bit better.”

Who’s in? The uniformed…?

Predictably, considerable attention has focused on the security service background of many of the new appointees. According to Stanislav Belkovsky “All the figures appointed today are Putin’s personal bodyguards.” Hardly.

New FTS chief Vladimir Bulavin was previously polpred to the North-Western Federal District, but he had been a Colonel General in the FSB. New acting governor of Kaliningrad region Evgenii Zinichev had been head of the region’s FSB directorate, but before that one of Putin’s bodyguards in the FSO. Dmitri Mironov, incoming governor of Yaroslavl region, had been deputy interior minister, but before than an FSB officer. Finally, new National Guard deputy commander Sergei Melikov had been a career MVD Interior Troops officer and commander of the Moscow ‘Dzerzhinskii Division’ before becoming presidential plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus. Viktor Vasil’ev, head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography (Rosreestr), and a former KGB veteran, became the new governor of Kirov.

But it is worth questioning the quick and easy assumptions that this shows some “rise of the siloviki.” First of all, two of these positions – deputy commander of the Rosgvardiya and head of the FTS – were almost automatically going to go to candidates with a military, security or law enforcement background. So really we are talking about three siloviki in the remaining seven significant promotions.

But while the others certainly have significant current or recent time in the “organs,” Vasil’ev served in the KGB 1985-early 1990s, largely in foreign intelligence. Although there are the usual litanies that “once in the KGB, always in the KGB,” that is demonstrably not true. That over twenty years ago he was in the KGB hardly makes him “one of them” these days, so to be honest I’d exclude him from the roster. So in practice, two out of seven.

Finally not forget that two of the outgoing figures – KGB veteran Bel’yaninov and soldier and Interior Troop commander Rogozhkin – were also siloviki. Indeed, Bel’yaninov was generally considered to have a personal connection of sorts to Putin following time in St. Petersburg. Take out the career diplomat and you have two of four senior dismissals coming from a silovik background, too.

…Or just the trusted and efficient?

Of course we can point to other recent leapfrogging promotions granted to siloviki, notably from the FSO: Viktor Zolotov to head the Rosgvardiya and Alexei Dyumin to become acting governor of Tula. (Though Dyumin’s move was probably a consolation prize for failing to become head of military intelligence.) Nonetheless, it does seem that the case for a “spookification” of the government is hardly made.

Rather, I would suggest the truth is a little more nuanced. In the run-up to the Duma elections and then the 2018 presidentials, at a time of growing tension in the Moscow elite and also between Moscow and the regions, Putin is looking to renovate the regional cadres and reaffirm central control. The governors and the polpredy are crucial to this process on the political level, just as the National Guard is on a coercive one.

So he is casting about for candidates he feels he can trust, who are honest (enough), loyal (enough) and efficient (enough). In part, this means not just the uniformed services but the ones he knows personally; it is striking, for example, not just how he now turns more often to the FSO even than the FSB, proportionate to the size of the respective agencies, but also that he no longer seems to be appointing soldiers.

With the exception of new North-Western Federal District polpred Nikolai Tsukanov, around whom a reasonable cloud of scandals swirl, most of the rest do share a reputation for a degree of efficiency that elevates them from their peers. None of them could be called liberals or freethinkers, necessarily, but nor are they all close-minded Kremlin clones. Some (notably new North Caucasus polpred Oleg Belaventsev and his Siberian counterpart Sergei Menyailo) are meant to be close to Sergei Shoigu. Others (including Vasil’ev) are meant to have an almost Medvedevian belief in the importance of rule of (tough) law, and for that matter Dmitri Ovsyannikov, who moves from deputy minister for trade and industry to governor of Sevastopol, was given his big break by Medvedev. (He was presumably appointed to try and do something about the city’s economy, after all.)

Putin generally and genuinely believes his “new aristocracy” of security officers are more likely to be loyal and efficient, but I think to believe that what we are seeing “The Men in Epaulets Take Over” mistakes cause and effect. Putin is indeed looking to remont, to repair the Power Vertical and he may look first to the siloviki for the human resources he needs, but he will also look beyond. I suspect this is a man building a new regional elite, likely also with an eye to a post-2018 order, not rewarding “his boys” willy-nilly.


‘The Great Fear’ redux

stalin-reborn-as-putinThere is a great deal of nonsense about “a new 1937” brewing in Russia (frankly, paralleling Putin with Stalin is both foolish and also profoundly demeaning to the memory of the millions of victims of the latter’s murder-machine). Nonetheless, bureaucratic engines of repression in authoritarian regimes do have some structural and cultural similarities, and thanks to a recent one of the excellent SRB podcast series I came across James Harris’s equally-excellent The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (OUP, 2016).

A few aspects of Harris’s explanation for the bloodbath are depressingly relevant today:

The Fear. Stalin and his cohorts genuinely felt at risk and assailed, knowing that the Japanese and the Germans wanted to take their land and resources, believing the British, French and the Americans wanted to see them at war, assuming the fifth columnists at home were powerful, networked and bloodthirsty. This was not just a mobilizing propaganda theme, though it was that as well, it was a strongly held belief that inclined the regime towards more murderous and maximalist policies than otherwise might have been.

The Threat Lobby. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet political police, and his successors not only tended to assume the intertwined domestic and external threats to be more serious than they were, they also had a clear bureaucratic-factional interest in talking them up. At a time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was up in arms about the impact of the Chekists’ activities, and there was talk of tighter subordination to the organs of justice, what better time to stoke the fear, to present it as a choice between security or legal and political niceties?

The Kremlin Echo Chamber. Harris treads a fine line between the top-down and bottom-up (or strong state/weak state) explanations for the Great Purges. I’m not entirely convinced that squaring the circle by saying it was a strong state that thought itself weak quite works, although there is an undoubted elegance to the suggestion, but it is clear that most of the repression was not directed specifically from the top. Stalin was the impresario, but the performers were largely ad libbing. In this context, local agencies were often driven by the hope of correcting interpreting and predicting the Kremlin’s wishes and also the imperative to tell Moscow what it wanted to hear. Increasingly, the scope for loyal dissent shrank and shrank.

There are clear parallels today. Putin is not about to start a campaign of mass murder or try to modernise his economy on the back of slave labour, of course. But we need to recognise, even if just to help us understand and predict this regime better, the extent to which it genuinely believes itself actively threatened, not just by the impersonal forces of economics and demographics, but by Western machination. It is encouraged to do this by a security apparatus that has learned to play to the more paranoid and defensive instincts of the regime and a bureaucratic culture that seeks to identify what an often gnomic Kremlin truly wants. These were dangerous political pathologies in 1937, and they are again so today.

New article: ‘Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?’

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 09.23.14Just a quick note, that an article of mine has appeared in the latest issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 27, no. 2, a special issue on ‘Proxy Actors, Militias and Irregular Forces: The New Frontier of War?’ pulled together by Alex Marshall of Glasgow University. It emerged from an excellent workshop that Alex convened last year on this important and under-researched topic and the issue includes, along with all sorts of first-rate material, the always-great Vanda Felbab-Brown on Afghan militias and an interesting conceptual piece by Robert and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. My contribution, Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?, places recent Russian practice very firmly within an historical tradition going back to pre-Soviet adventures. Here’s the abstract:

Russia’s recent operations in Ukraine, especially the integrated use of militias,
gangsters, information operations, intelligence, and special forces, have created
a concern in the West about a ‘new way of war’, sometimes described as ‘hybrid’.
However, not only are many of the tactics used familiar from Western operations,
they also have their roots in Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian practice. They are
distinctive in terms of the degree to which they are willing to give primacy to
‘non-kinetic’ means, the scale of integration of non-state actors, and tight linkage
between political and military command structures. However, this is all largely a
question of degree rather than true qualitative novelty. Instead, what is new is
the contemporary political, military, technological, and social context in which
new wars are being fought.

February 2016 Publications Round-Up

As ever, a quick summary for those interested:

Ramzan Kadyrov: the Kremlin’s Public Frenemy Number One,’ ECFR commentary, 1 February 2016

Why the Litvinenko Enquiry Was Not a ‘Farce’‘, Russia!, 1 February 2016

What Putin’s Security Appointments Say About How Russia Works‘, War On The Rocks, 9 February 2016

Free Sergei Lavrov!‘, Foreign Policy, 17 February 2016

Welcome to the stagnation of Retro-Brezhnevism,’ Business New Europe, 17 February 2016

Imagining 2030: Taking the Trans-Siberian to Moscow,’ PS21, 21 February 2016

Don’t Buy the Hype: Russia’s military is a lot weaker than Putin wants us to think,’ Vox, 23 February 2016

No Easy Fix for Syria,’ Moscow Times, 25 February 2016

‘Shadowy Spec Ops,’ AK-47 and Soviet Weapons, 2016


A Quick and Provisional GRU Update

Update: the afternoon I wrote this, it was announced that Lt Gen Igor Korobov has been appointed. Needless to say, I take full credit for forcing the Kremlin’s hand😉. Meanwhile Dyumin, perhaps as a consolation prize, perhaps because his position at the defence ministry had thus become untenable, moves across to become acting governor of Tula. So the military win this round – but apparently not easily.


GRU logoA month ago tomorrow, military intelligence chief Igor Sergun died of heart failure in the suburbs of Moscow (not in Lebanon, not anything exciting…). That the announcement of his successor would be delayed because of the long Christmas-to-Orthodox-New-Year holidays was expected. But despite a couple of times hearing suggestions that a name was about to be announced, no one yet.

It’s bad enough that we don’t even know what the agency should be called — it’s traditional form, the GRU, that even Putin uses, or the more anonymous GU (“the Main Directorate”) in official parlance? I talk a little about this in War On The Rocks here. But as the leadership vacuum continues to resist being filled, it is hard not to assume this is because the appointment is proving contentious. As near as I can tell–and all this needless ought to be taken with caution, as the people who really know aren’t going to tell–there is a three-cornered, asymmetric fight:

Steady As She Goes. The obvious stakeholders want the obvious choice: defence minister Shoigu, CoGS Gerasimov (probably) and the bulk of the GRU itself want one of Sergun’s deputies to succeed: Vyacheslav Kondrashev, Sergei Gizunov, Igor Lelin, or most likely, Igor Korobov. Obviously the new director’s interests and personality would have an impact, but essentially this is the continuity choice. (more…)


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