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Putin Dismissed His Chief of Staff. What Does It Mean for Russia?

Vladimir Putin dismissed longtime aide Sergei Ivanov as his chief of staff in what amounts to a major reshaping of Russia's elite leadership.

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In an ornate Kremlin meeting room, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday dismissed longtime aide Sergei Ivanov as his chief of staff and anointed Anton Vaino, Ivanov’s former deputy, to take over the influential post, in what amounts to a major reshaping of the country’s elite leadership.

In a televised meeting on Russian state television, Putin addressed Ivanov, who he has known since the 1970s, while the three men sat at a table, listening attentively. The Russian leader said he was making the move at Ivanov’s request, and that the former high-ranking KGB officer would now be a special representative focusing on the environment.

“I’m happy with how you handle tasks,” Putin said. “I remember well our agreement that you had asked me not to keep you as chief of the presidential administration for more than four years and that is why I understand your desire to choose another line of work.”

Ivanov thanked the president for his praise and confirmed that he would be stepping aside. “It’s true that in early 2012 I asked you, in a conversation, to entrust me with this very complicated post, even — you could say — troublesome post, for four years,” said Ivanov with his hands clasped on the table in front of him.

But beyond the tightly choreographed meeting, news that the 63-year-old Ivanov — a man who Putin once said was among his most trusted advisors — would request to leave one month before parliamentary elections and in the middle of fresh standoff with Ukraine — has been met with great skepticism. The details behind the high-level shake-up within the Kremlin are not clear, but many analysts view the move as part of a wider trend within Putin’s inner circle: He has been replacing older members with a younger generation of officials to reorder the political elite to his benefit.

“Psychologically, it’s easier for Putin these days to be around the people who always thought of him as the great leader and cannot recall the times when Putin was not that great leader,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor and Putin critic, told Ekho Moskvy, a prominent Russian radio station, on Friday.

In the past year, several senior officials with ties to Putin’s early days in municipal government in St. Petersburg have been dismissed from their posts, including Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, anti-drug chief Viktor Ivanov, and security service chief Yevgeny Murov. There has even been speculation among Russia watchers that Igor Sechin, another longtime Putin ally and the CEO of the state-run oil behemoth Rosneft, could be phased out.

The reshuffling of the top posts in the Russian government continued in July, with Putin replacing four regional governors, the head of the country’s Customs Service, and Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. In contrast to the cashiered officials, who are over 60 years old, many of their replacements are younger bureaucrats in their 30s and 40s who clawed their way up during Putin’s presidency.

Despite being sidelined in a symbolic new post, Ivanov is not completely cut out of the power structures and will retain his seat on the Security Council, Russia’s top security body.

But his dismissal may be a harbinger of a new dynamic within the Russian elite. As a leader, Putin has traditionally been “first among equals,” and governed by consensus within his inner circle. However, many analysts say this model changed to one centered on Putin himself after he returned to the presidency in 2012. The centralization was accelerated after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014 and the subsequent imposition of Western economic sanctions and collapse of oil prices — both of which have damaged the Russian economy.

“If until recently, the system acted in the interests of the bureaucracy, now, it does so ever more in the interests of the leader,” Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political-Geographic Research, a Russian think tank, wrote recently in the newspaper Vedomosti.

Ivanov, who has known Putin since the 1970s and worked with the president in both the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, has a storied career at the highest echelons of Russian power. In 1998, when Putin was appointed head of the FSB, Ivanov became his deputy at the security agency. In 2001, after Putin was elected to his first term as president, Ivanov became defense minister and was later appointed deputy prime minister in 2007, shortly before the end of Putin’s second term as president.

Dmitry Medvedev and Ivanov became fierce rivals in the jostling to succeed Putin as president in 2008, when his terms limit expired and he had to don the title of prime minister. Both Medvedev and Ivanov unofficially campaigned to be Putin’s successor, making regular public appearances and discussing political issues on television. Medvedev was eventually tapped to become president — reportedly because he was seen by Putin as more malleable than the strong-willed Ivanov — who had known the president since his days as a lowly KGB officer and maintained influence among Russia’s security services.

To replace Ivanov, Putin has selected Vaino, a 44-year-old career diplomat, who has worked his way up through Russia’s bureaucratic greasy pole. Vaino began his work in the Kremlin in 2003, handling ceremonial duties for Putin and has worked his way up the ranks, eventually being appointed Ivanov’s deputy in 2012. He remains a little-known figure whose family descends from the old Soviet Communist Party elite and is not believed to be beholden to any interest or group within Russia — except to Putin himself.

Photo credit: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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