By Tatiana Stanovaya. Translated by Nicholas Trickett. This piece originally appeared in Republic.
Last week Vladimir Putin signed decrees mandating personnel and structural reshuffles within the presidential administration. Observers had waited impatiently for these changes: unlike the government, which mainly deals with the “Russian economy”, the presidential administration is the center of political and state management and the heart of Russia’s “big politics”. Intrigues have added regular rumors of the resignation of this or that key figure from Putin’s team: Yuri Ushakov, Vladislav Surkov, Larisa Brychevaya, and even, it seemed, the unsinkable Alexei Gromov. But the large reshuffles proved to be much ado about nothing: practically the entire administration kept their previous roles with certain pointed exceptions. In reality, important political processes motivated the decision to limit changes.
Enjoying the Spoils
The fact that Vladimir Putin didn’t carry out large reshuffles does not at all suggest that they aren’t planned or won’t be realized in a relatively short time (within 1-3 years). The president faced a dilemma: to postpone decisions for a couple of months until the whole package of new personnel configurations was ready – a number of anonymous Telegram channels have even written they could be set aside till the fall – or to limit changes to only the most necessary ones. There’s a good reason why the latter option was chosen – those handling domestic politics were in a hurry to “preserve their gains” and enjoy the spoils of an election campaign deemed successful from the president’s point of view.
Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign (more precisely, the work of domestic policy handlers) was heavily criticized by the opposition, groups near power and political technologists. The Kremlin was criticized for the lack of campaign platform, for its bloated and twisted missive to the Federal assembly (Putin’s presidential bid was announced very late, almost at the last possible moment), for its functional emptiness and the lack of an “image for the future” so intensely sought by pro-Kremlin experts since 2016. The campaign was also criticized for its minimal political competition, poorly conceived work with the systemic political opposition, and the case of Pavel Grudinin (who was built up into a convincing candidate before they tried to find every excuse to get him out of the race).
The fact that elections were held with competing managerial power centers . On the one hand, Sergei Kirienko – [Putin’s first deputy chief of staff] – and his team played an important decision-making role [as Kirienko was tasked with running the campaign]. This was made difficult due to Kirienko’s uneasy relationship with the head of the domestic policy shop, Andrei Yarin. On the other hand, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin – a former handler for domestic policy – and his agenda remained a strong influence on party politicking. In these conditions, Vladimir Putin’s reelection wasn’t an electoral task, but a fight over his political apparatus. Since Putin liked the campaign, winning the fight strengthened Kirienko’s team.
The competition between managers gives rise to intrigues: clearly Kirienko and his subordinates didn’t just claim a moral victory. They tried to make maximal use of the planned personnel and structural changes within the political cycle to their favor: this was their time to shine. And the longer Putin dragged it out, the less they could get since time dulls the emotional aspect of decision-making. Perhaps after six months, the president wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about the merits of his administration.
That’s why domestic policy handlers were, in fact, the main driver behind current personnel changes, which could have been made somewhat later by Putin’s logic. And that’s why these decisions were made in large part in favor of the domestic policy bloc. Sergei Kirienko was given administrative control over the State Council’s procurement office and the development of communication technologies and infrastructure in addition to the domestic policy office and office of public projects. At the same time, administrative authority over local governance was moved to the domestic policy office as well as youth policy, patriotic upbringing, and the development of internet projects.
A number of media outlets have indicated that Anton Vaino’s powers as the head of the presidential administration have expanded. However, first deputy Kirienko was given two additional responsibilities to balance out Vaino’s influence. The issue isn’t competition, but more Putin’s attempt to provide a more natural order of things. The head of the presidential administration – Vaino – shouldn’t lose face because [Putin] provided excessive resources to a subordinate. Vaino therefore was formally handed three policy portfolios for which he was actually already responsible: protocol, interregional and cultural relations with foreign countries, and anti-corruption initiatives.
Kirienko failed to grab the head of the domestic policy shop Andrei Yarin’s [influence]. But this is probably just temporary: the battle’s been lost, but not the war (although, of course, nobody in the Kremlin thinks in these terms or that there’s a real confrontation). For Kirienko as well as anyone handling domestic policy, a situation in which a manager doesn’t run a structure that’s “his own” is not only uncomfortable, but ineffective from a managerial perspective. For Kirienko, this means that either the office of public projects will continue to be given a greater role (led by Kirienko’s right-hand man Sergei Novikov) and the domestic policy office will be weakened, or Yarin will have to leave.
It’s not yet time
Keeping personnel changes in the presidential administration minimal is also an attempt by the president to delay key decisions that in the short or medium term could affect two important figures – Vladislav Surkov and Yuri Ushakov. Both are included in the provisional foreign policy bloc, which includes Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov was also predicted to resign, but his departure was postponed.
It’s important to note here that personnel decisions concerning figures like Lavrov or Surkov have less of personal and administrative logic for Vladimir Putin. Foreign policy is a special currency that can be traded for some purpose or other according to emerging market conditions. Wasting such a resource for nothing is clearly not desirable. Today, there’s no basis to expect positive outcomes for key strategic foreign policy questions. You can fire Surkov and Lavrov, but their places have to be filled with figures whose appointment could be read as a signal, a gesture, a certain message to an international society for which Putin has nothing to meaningfully offer. Therefore, there’s been no decision about Lavrov, and that means the others – Surkov and Ushakov – are left hanging. It’s not correct to say that Putin kept Surkov and Ushakov in their places. Putin has delayed replacing them for now.
In this case, the fate of the “Ukraine file”, currently stuck in permanent stalemate, will be especially significant. Any future successor to Surkov will be forced to do work that’s actually doomed to fail. Russian dialogue with the world community about the Donbas is increasingly moving from one that discusses the fate of the troubled region to a communication battle in which acting like Russia’s defense attorney is more important than reaching a compromise. Now that Surkov is being crowded out, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plays a more active role. Finally, the security services are also pressing Surkov too since they’re actively engaged with affairs in the Donbas. A gradual disengagement from Surkov’s function in foreign policy is taking place (he has to compete with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the provisional domestic policy, intra-Donbas bloc (where the General Staff and FSB have their own policy mechanisms and priorities).
Putin’s choice isn’t simple: either find Surkov’s replacement among diplomats (or even politicians) who are focused on the Minsk process, or among the “Chekists” who are interested in preventing humanitarian crises and coups in the LPR-DPR. The necessary conditions to make a confident choice aren’t yet clear. If Surkov leaves, it would be for personal reasons rather than Putin’s desire to give the resolution of the Ukraine crisis a push (of course, there won’t suddenly be a plan [for a resolution to the conflict]).
Filling a vacuum
Two new figures have joined the presidential administration, but only because there were vacancies. Konstantin Chuichenko was sent to the cabinet to be closer to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev and was replaced by FSB hand Dmitry Shalkov, formerly the head of the [Putin’s] “control center”.[i] Since 2015, Shalkov was responsible for intergovernmental affairs at the FSB, largely unpleasant work: for example, he pushed forward the “Chekist” laws. Prior to that, he led the main Military Investigation Department of the State Investigative Committee. Shalkov wasn’t too influential a player within the FSB and was more likely an outsider. For that reason, his departure can be seen as strengthening FSB director Alexander Bortnikov.
This becomes even more obvious considering the departure of another deputy from the FSB – Evgeniy Zinichev. Zinichev was expected to take Bortnikov’s place, but instead became the Minister of Emergency Situations. Thus, the FSB director who’d been actively “fired” during the last two years managed to get rid of two figures he was lumped with who weren’t members of his team. It’s important to note that the post of head of the “control center” is a largely technical role. Its main task is to maneuver between the interests of much more influential players who often have direct access to Putin.
Another newcomer, Anatoly Seryshev, joined the administration, in large part, thanks to the weakness of his predecessor – Yegveniy Shkolov, the now former aide to the president who oversaw the fight against corruption and personnel. Seryshev was deputy director of the Federal Customs Service and his promotion is linked to National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and the head of Rostekh Sergei Chemezov. [Both have interests in the Federal Customs Service, which has been the object of clan fights within the FSB for years.]
Both Chuichenko and Shkolov, despite their significant formal status, were political outsiders to the presidential administration. The former was too pro-Medvedev and many issues were resolved with his exit. The latter was burned by the Denis Surgobov affair[ii] – games with the FSB in Russia usually end badly. Shkolov has turned from a legendarily powerful figure into a technical player from whom Putin has significantly distanced himself. Their cohorts are also likely to be invisible players, although their gain, undoubtedly, will consist of being left alone politically. In this sense, the technocratization of power is proving true.
Current personnel decisions are just a prelude to large reshuffles that have been postponed. Vladimir Putin will have to deal with the foreign policy bloc, where Sergei Lavrov and Yuri Ushakov are clearly on their way out and Vladislav Surkov has exhausted all of his political possibilities. The president will also have to optimize the makeup of the domestic policy bloc where unresolved issues remain. The current array [of personnel] will contribute to the accumulation of internal contradictions, the erosion of political heavyweights, and the arrival of younger technocrats. But Putin himself remains the main driver behind reshuffles. He clearly doesn’t want to act according to the dictated logic of pre-election cycles and makes decisions with geopolitical context most strongly in mind. That means the biggest intrigues are still to come.
[i] The “контрольное управление” could be literally translated as “control department”, but basically connotes a body and network of oversight powers within the presidential administration meant to serve as a sort of “lobby” before one ascends to talk to Putin. The office juggles competing interests in a technical, middle-management sense. Chuichenko’s new role is analogous to chief of staff for Medvedev’s cabinet. Shalkov’s role is difficult to precisely define given that he’s not actually Putin’s chief of staff and needs time to settle in. Chuichenko had served in the role for a decade.
[ii] Denis Surgobov was a former head of the Main Department of Economic Security and Anti-Corruption Activities within the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. He was arrested and sentenced after admitting to being part of a criminal organization and sentenced to 22 years in a labor colony. The sentence was lightened to 12 years by the Supreme Court.