Musical chairs

August 16, 2016

President Vladimir Putin has dismissed his chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, appointing his personal protocol officer Anton Vaino to the post. And everybody wants to know, what does it mean?

Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Putin, Anton Vaino
Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Putin, Anton Vaino

Konstantin Gaaze

Sacking Sergei Ivanov could mean that Russia is entering on a period of preparation for a presidential election, which might take place after the US election, but no later than March 2017. This is not a mistake – there could be grounds for thinking that the election of Russia’s next head of state could take place before 2018, the scheduled date.

There are two possible story lines: Putin needs the election either to extend his mandate or to complete the transfer of power to the next generation of the Putin elite, those new people whose names are appearing more frequently in news items about dismissals and appointments. The grounds for the first supposition could be the escalation of relations between Russia and Ukraine, the obvious and deliberate reinforcement of the FSB (the management of the system of presidential representatives and the Federal Customs Service have been transferred to the security service) and the extension of the powers of the Security Council. The second story line could be supported by the health of the president and obvious signs of planning: moving the Duma elections in from December to September; setting up the National Guard; dismissing Sergei Ivanov and appointing Vaino; and the campaign against Putin’s “official” successor, Dmitry Medvedev and his government colleagues, who can loosely be described as “systemic liberals.”


Sergei Ivanov is one of the worst managers in Vladimir Putin’s team. While working as his successor (2005-7), he publicly demonstrated political ambitions impermissible for someone in his position, engaged in backroom deals with Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Presidential Administration and, most importantly, organised public celebrations in the media immediately after the dismissal of prime minister Mikhail Fradkov. Officials close to Ivanov were liberal with their comments that he would become prime minister and then, naturally, president. While he was deputy prime minister, he ruined practically every project he was running: from Global Navigation Satellite System or GLONASS to the reform of the Russian post office and the creation of its bank. As deputy prime minister in charge of transport, Ivanov is personally responsible for the crisis in suburban commuter transport, the dire situation in Russian Railways and the problems of civil plane construction.

When he moved to the Kremlin, he turned the presidential headquarters into a badly functioning, conflict-ridden membership club.

When he moved to the Kremlin, he turned the presidential headquarters into a badly functioning, conflict-ridden membership club. Building up the Security Council into an independent management body (which, according to the constitution, it is not) was one of the results. As was Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, for which businessmen close to Ivanov, including Konstantin Malofeev, are partly to blame. The last straw, as the saying goes, was the series of laws relating to the National Guard. Ivanov and Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin messed up the expert witnesses’ opinion, ignored warnings from the head of the Kremlin’s legal department Larisa Brychova and, finally, resorted to falsification: the text of the law on the circulation of arms, the market for which is to be controlled by the National Guard, was simply copied in the Kremlin after the Duma deputies and the senators had voted for it. Another episode, which apparently caused the president considerable irritation was the memorial plaque to Finnish president Karl Mannerheim in St Petersburg. Ivanov regarded the post of ambassador to Finland as a contingency option, so he took it upon himself to lobby for the positioning of the plaque and even attended its unveiling. The plaque has given rise to many disagreements and Petersburgers are currently collecting signatures to have it taken down.

Ivanov is a classic example of a Soviet secret serviceman obsessed with global terrorism theories. His favourite topics of conversation to which, according to observers, he regularly returns are: paid campaigns in the Western media against Russian business and politicians, stories of Chinese expansionism in the Arctic, and espionage tittle tattle. It’s not that these stories are false, because some of them are completely in keeping with the spirit of our post-modern reality. It’s rather that this kind of geopolitics (the planet regarded as a kitchen in a communal flat, where everyone is trying to spit in his neighbour’s soup) obscures from the view of politicians some things of great importance, like the economy, business interests and the objective problems of globalisation.

Ivanov cannot work as either head of the campaign headquarters of the future Russian president (a job traditionally allocated to one of the Presidential Administration leaders), or a leader of the team, which is going to have to address several critical problems of budget planning and economic policies. His departure from the scene marks the end of the period of hibernation in the Presidential Administration, which started in approximately 2013, and the shift of presidential focus on to the legal and economic aspects of the upcoming transfer of power.

Physical proximity

The appointment of Anton Vaino to one of the four key posts in Russia (prime minister, Duma speaker, Federation Council speaker, and head of the Presidential Administration) is in purely human terms a continuation of the trend to bring into the public domain people who have had daily, intimate access to President Putin since the 00s. High-ranking posts have previously gone to the head of his close protection Viktor Zolotov (head of the National Guard) and his personal adjutants Aleksey Dyumin (governor of Tula region) and Evgenii Zinichev (governor of Kaliningrad region).

As personal protocol officer to President Putin, Vaino often accompanied him on trips or headed up the advance team in the middle of the 00s. Then, in 2007, Vaino acquired another administrative qualification – an ability to smooth the transfer of power and the bureaucratic infelicities of the transition periods. From October 2007, as deputy chief of staff, he looked after prime minister Viktor Zubkov, and oversaw preparations for moving Vladimir Putin to the White House, which task was completed in May 2008.

During all Putin’s years as prime minister, Vaino was doing what he had been doing in the Kremlin until then

During all Putin’s years as prime minister, Vaino was doing what he had been doing in the Kremlin until then. He oversaw the president’s schedule, came up with news items that might prove useful, and made preparations for visits. At that time in the White House there was a team of three young specialists who were almost entirely responsible for all the prime minister’s public activities: Vaino, his irreplaceable press secretary Dmitry Peskov, and Dmitry Kalimulin, now head of the presidential speechwriting office. Vaino sometimes also played for another government team – that of Sergei Chemezov, head of Rostec. Vaino helped to push through the decision relating to assistance to car manufacturer AvtoVAZ, which is part of the Rostec holding.

At the end of 2011, Putin had need of Vaino’s second specialisation. After the Duma elections, Vyacheslav Volodin, government chief of staff in the White House, moved to the Kremlin to prepare the presidential election campaign, and Kremlin political strategist Vladislav Surkov moved to the White House, though not to the “mirror” post of chief of staff, but to become deputy prime minister for economic modernisation. Putin entrusted Vaino with the transition, making him head of government staff. Vaino tied up all the ends of the jobs the prime minister had left unfinished, and coordinated Putin’s campaign, with the Kremlin; together with senior economic aide Andrei Belousov, he prepared the drafts for the May decrees, which replaced “Strategy 2020” as President Putin’s economic doctrine.

Snap elections

The recent promotion of Vaino is perhaps linked to the beginning of a new transfer of power. In 2015, all hell broke loose when the Kremlin moved the 2016 elections from December to September. Experts were unanimous that this was because the Kremlin was unwilling to go through a full election campaign: it’s easier to win in the summer than in the winter. But it might well not have been related to laziness or mythical seasonal risks.

Vladimir Putin will be 64 this year: not a critical age for a politician, but, given the workload of the past 16 years and his sporting injuries, it’s quite possible that the president has started to prepare for his retirement, even if only as a Plan B. Rumours about the president’s health started circulating at the end of 2012, when he either injured his back during a rough hang-glider landing, or hurt himself during judo training. Since then the president has once or twice disappeared from view for several days at a time, approximately once a year. There is some evidence to the effect that during his visit to China this summer he had problems with his back, but no one knows if this is true or not. Some days after that visit the president set off for the northern archipelago of Valaam and, as in March 2015, was off the radar for several days.

There is another version. Putin is making preparations, not for his retirement but for a snap presidential election

There is another version. Putin is making preparations, not for his retirement but for a snap presidential election, which could (everything is speculation and to be classified as “rumour”) in one way or another be linked to Russia annexing a part of Ukraine – the unrecognised Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. This territorial expansion and its inevitable geopolitical outcome, including new sanctions, would, of course, require the renewal of the presidential mandate.

Importantly, these two versions can easily be identified with the two opposing groups in the Russian elite: roughly, “big Security Council” and “big government.” This is not the division of the past between siloviki and liberals: the Security Council is the FSB and Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev; the government is prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s official successor until 2018, and his team. The election of a new president would be Medvedev’s favoured; a further, fourth term the FSB’s. In some ways this could be seen as similar to the situation in 2007: a new president was what the liberals put their money on, a third term for Putin was the choice of the siloviki. One way or another, both ventures will depend on this year’s main event, the US presidential election in November. President Putin will take his decision in the autumn with a careful eye on the potential leader in this race.

This article first appeared in Slon 


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