What better time that the eve of the World Cup for Vladimir Putin to reshuffle his team? However, if his tweaks of the Presidential Administration are anything to go by, he considers everything is fine, and no change in direction is needed.
The Presidential Administration is undoubtedly the most powerful institution in Russia. Indeed, as Putin continued his predecessor Yeltsin’s de-institutionalisation of the state, ripping away the autonomy and authority of any bodies which could challenge his hyper-presidential power, he soon was forced to come to terms with the basic reality of modern, complex states: they need institutions to provide the guiding impulses that will run along the bureaucratic nerves and sinews.
Inexorably, the Presidential Administration became the chancellery, audit committee, enforcer and gatekeeper of Putin’s court. If one wonders who decides what appeals and briefings reach the president’s desk, who schedules his day, who coordinates the grand projects both overt and covert, and who directs the puppet-show politics of Duma and public discourse alike, the answer is the Administratsiya prezidenta.
Of course, there are those figures within the government who do have a degree of independence, from the defence minister and the security chiefs to the chair of the Central Bank. But to a considerable extent this is not so much because of their jobs so much as their personal relationship with ‘The Body,’ as Putin is known within the Presidential Administration, or the faith he places in them. Just as many of today’s oligarchs are now politically powerful because they are rich, but rich because of their political status, so too these boyars are not close to the president because of their important jobs, but hold those positions because of their proximity to the boss.
Even so, for most of them, their contact with ‘The Body’ is still mediated by the Presidential Administration, and they can expect Putin will have been briefed beforehand by his own people on whatever they want to discuss. Putin is notoriously touchy about any sense that he is being ‘handled,’ but even so, he has constructed around himself a machine that not only executes his policies, it cannot help but influence them, too.
Arguably, then, the composition of the senior ranks of the Presidential Administration thus matters rather more than that of cabinet, and modern Kremlinology should thus be applied to glean what lessons we can from the announcement of the team to execute Putin’s vision for his fourth (and presumably final?) presidential term.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take all that much Kremlinology. The top echelons of the administration are untouched; even several individuals whose departure was widely touted (assisted by what look like official leaks) retain their positions.
Bland but reportedly efficient Anton Vaino remains Putin’s chief of staff. His deputies, Alexei Gromov and Sergei Kiriyenko, likewise keep their positions and their portfolios. Unsurprisingly, the face of the administration will continue to be the genially-enduring Dmitri Peskov, who is both the presidential press secretary and a deputy chief of staff. Vladimir Ostrovenko and Magomedsalam Magomedov are still fellow deputies.
Of the nine presidential aides, only three are newcomers.
Vladislav Surkov, the political technologist turned master of the Donbas, was expected to lose his position. Even many Western interlocutors, aware that he had not met US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker since January, were assuming he was yesterday’s man. Yet rather than appoint a new face that might suggest a new approach (or at least give an old approach the appearance of change), Putin opted to keep him in place.
Likewise, Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s 71-year-old foreign policy advisor, bucked the received wisdom and stayed on the team. Given the widespread speculation that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is eager to move on, it may be that Ushakov is simply keeping the seat warm until a suitable transition can be arranged. Much, after all, will depend on who is picked to succeed the legendary, but increasingly marginalised and frustrated Lavrov.
What does it take to get the boot? German Klimenko, whose role as Putin’s internet advisor meant he oversaw the clumsy and often counterproductive efforts to police the “RuNet,” has gone, but this is unsurprising not just in light of his track record but also his failure to develop any personal bond with the boss. In his two years in the job, he met Putin only once.
However, it is too early to expect any change in policy, at least for the better. The new head of the Control Department is Colonel General Dmitry Shalkov, previously deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB). In his previous position, Shalkov was responsible for cyber-security and one of the prime movers behind the increasingly hard Russian line, so he is likely also to assume Klimenko’s role as Russia’s Canute, trying to hold back the tides of the internet.
Vladimir Kozhin, whose brief covered military-technical issues, and Yevgeny Shkolov, who handled personal matters, also lost their positions, along with aide Sergei Grigorov. Kozhin’s departure may be a by-product of the shake-up in the management of the defence-industrial complex now that Yuri Borisov has succeeded Dmitry Rogozin as Deputy Prime Minister for the Defence and Space Industries. The same may be true of Grigorov, who previously had headed the Federal Service for Technological and Export Control.
There is speculation that another newcomer to the ranks of the presidential aides with an FSB background will assume Shkolov’s role. This is Anatoly Seryshev, who since 2016 had been deputy head of the Federal Customs Service. Reportedly close to both Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov, he is apparently quite a hardliner. Having previously worked not in the central FSB apparatus but in the regions, notably Irkutsk and Karelia, Seryshev is definitely on the “political policeman” wing of the siloviki.
So far, so humdrum, and it is easy to see why the Moscow Carnegie Centre’s Alexander Gabuev tweeted that “it's zastoi 2.0, a brezhnevization, but with more advanced medical services for the top leadership.”
However, it took unusually long – a month – for the appointments to be revealed, and in light of the extensive trailing of wider personnel changes, as well as the slightly chaotic nature of the announcement, it may well be that this was a harder process than “business as usual may suggest.”
In many ways, this is the same pattern as we saw with the return of Alexei Kudrin. After all kinds of hints and rumours of a central position in charge of overdue economic reform, whether in the cabinet or the Presidential Administration, at the last minute there seems to have been a crisis of confidence. Instead, he ended up heading the Audit Chamber: an important position, to be sure, especially with talk of it acquiring greater powers, but not the kind of position allowing him to shape policy.
Putin, time and again, teeters on the edge of a bold advance, then steps back, opts to play it safe.
On the one hand, there is the Putin that genuinely wants more efficiency, more imagination, more diversification in government and economy alike. This Putin understands how corruption, clientelism and corporate mismanagement are undermining the economy and stifling a Russian lift-off which is by no means impossible.
But that means taking risks, challenging the entrenched elite – who are also his friends and supporters – and reversing a trend towards isolationism and conservatism. Ultimately, it is the other Putin, the risk-averse one, who has – as usual – won the day. The Putin who hid for a fortnight while he agonised about what to do when Ramzan Kadyrov had Boris Nemtsov gunned down right outside the Kremlin. The Putin who almost withdrew his troops from Syria in 2016 before changing his mind, and bogging Russian down in this vicious war.
He could have brought economic reformers into the Presidential Administration to channel and back Kudrin, but he kept to his old squad. He could have found a new face for his Ukraine policy, and his foreign relations altogether, but he stuck with the existing ones. He could have looked for imaginative and disruptive outsiders, but he kept with the current management and hired spooks and insiders.
Leonid Brezhnev was not so much the architect of zastoi, stagnation, as its victim and figurehead. He lacked the power to do much more than preside over the Soviet Union’s shabby decline. Putin, though, is under no such institutional or ideological constraints. The stagnation of “late Putinism” is his, all his.