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The Kremlin's Game Of Thrones (UPDATED)


Cartoon by Sergey Elkin
Cartoon by Sergey Elkin

You can call it another day of the long knives. You can call it Kremlin musical chairs. Or you can call it Vladimir Putin's own personal game of thrones.

But by whatever name, Vladimir Putin's dismissal of his powerful chief of staff and longtime confidant Sergei Ivanov did not happen in isolation.

Combined with last month's mass shake-up of regional and federal elites -- which saw four regional governors, four federal district chiefs, and a disgraced customs boss replaced -- it illustrates that these are far from normal times for Russia's ruling elite.

Governors and prominent law-enforcement officials are being arrested. Former Putin cronies who were once untouchable are being thrown under the bus. Suddenly, nobody feels safe. Suddenly, everybody appears vulnerable.

For Russia's gilded ruling class, the rules are clearly a-changin'.

"Putin, who is known for his loyalty to longtime associates, has left some of his friends vulnerable to attack. This is a new stage of Putin's rule," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg.

For most of Putin's long rule, he was essentially the front man for an oligarchic elite -- the so-called "collective Putin" -- that effectively ruled Russia.

Like the Soviet general secretaries, Putin was first among equals, to be sure. He was the key figure and the decider. But he had to find consensus and balance among the Kremlin's competing clans and among the dozen or so figures in his "politburo."

But we don't hear much about the "collective Putin" or "Putin's Politburo" anymore.

And that is because, in recent years, the Kremlin leader has moved away from a collective leadership model to one centered on the leader himself.

"If until recently, the system acted in the interests of the bureaucracy, now, it does so ever more in the interests of the leader," Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov wrote in Vedomosti.

According to Petrov, Putin is effectively abandoning an elite personnel policy resembling Leonid Brezhnev's "stability of cadres" approach and toward one reminiscent of Josef Stalin's -- minus, of course, the mass executions of ousted officials.

The Class Of 2014

An early clue that changes were afoot in Putin's governing model came back in 2014, at the height of the nationalistic fervor accompanying the conflict in Ukraine.

Reports surfaced that Putin had been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow -- recruited by the security services and vetted for loyalty to Putin -- reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

Historian and political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov wrote in at the time that the fledgling new nomenklatura were between 25 and 35 years old, hailed mostly from the regions, and came from relatively poor backgrounds.

They were selected based on their loyalty to the regime and for being "psychologically closer to Putin" than their predecessors. And they were "people without deep roots" who were "ready for anything" that facilitated their advancement.

"So far, their political consciousness is a tabula rasa on which you can draw anything," Pastukhov wrote. "In these brains, you can download any ideological software. The main thing is that it does not interfere with a successful career."

Putin's new "Class of 2014" filling the lower and middle ranks of the bureaucracy was a generational shift that drew obvious comparisons to Stalin's "Class of 1938" -- the cohort of officials who were brought to Moscow from the provinces in the wake of the purges and ruled the Soviet Union from the death of Stalin to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Fall Of The Untouchables

If the mass recruitment of a new generation of midlevel functionaries shook up the rank and file, an earthquake hit the ruling elite's upper echelon a year ago when Putin sacked his longtime crony Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russian Railways.

When somebody as powerful, influential, and close to the Kremlin leader as Yakunin was kicked off the island, it was a surefire sign that all was not well with Team Putin.

It showed that Putin's loyalty to longtime associates only went so far. And it showed that Putin's longtime pact with the ruling class -- loyalty in exchange for a license to use the state budget as their personal ATM machine -- was changing.

"Putin may be realizing that tough economic times require better managers than his buddies, and that to remain in power he needs to distance himself from the oligarchy he has created," Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg at the time.

Yakunin's fall -- which came almost exactly one year before Ivanov was dismissed -- was indeed a harbinger.

In the past year, three regional governors have been arrested on corruption charges and last month the FSB raided the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee, arresting three top officials on charges of taking bribes from a notorious organized crime kingpin.

And then another Putin crony took a fall when Andrei Belyaninov, the head of the Federal Customs Service who, like Ivanov, served with Putin in the KGB, was accused of corruption.

He was also humiliated when a televised raid on his home showed priceless antiques and bundles of cash in shoe boxes.

And then came the days of the long knives: the mass reshuffling last month and the subsequent removal of Ivanov.

And according to reports in the Russian media, another purge is likely in the autumn following the State Duma elections in September.

There has also been speculation that more close Putin allies -- including Igor Sechin, the CEO of the state-run oil giant Rosneft -- could be vulnerable.

One thing, however, is not changing: Putin's reliance on trusted veterans of the security services -- and, increasingly, veterans of his personal security detail.

So why did Putin change his governing model?

Partially because his priorities changed with the conflict in Ukraine, the showdown with the West, and the rise of a nationalistic ideology in the Kremlin. And partially because there is a lot less money around to feed a kleptocratic elite that had grown accustomed to seeking rents with impunity.

"The annexation of Crimea has ensured Putin's place in history and gave rise to new geopolitical thinking and thus a new pyramid of priorities," political commentator Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in a commentary for the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"As a result, the priorities of many of the president's allies have become severely misaligned with his own."

UPDATED: This post, which was written before Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov was dismissed, has been updated to reflect that development.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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