Russian President Vladimir Putin today removed his chief of staff, one of the closest members of his inner circle, sending startled Russians into a whirl of speculation over the reason and whether it meant upheaval in the Kremlin.
Sergei Ivanov, like Putin, is a former KGB agent who has been one of the Russian president’s right-hand men for most of his rule and, until today, was considered one of the most influential men in Russia.
The Kremlin issued a statement today saying Ivanov had resigned voluntarily and would now serve as a special envoy on environmental and transport issues, a seemingly extraordinary step down. He is to be replaced by his deputy, Anton Vaino, a relatively little-known former diplomat who has held senior positions in the Russian government since 2008.
The Kremlin and Ivanov himself offered little explanation for why he was departing. In a televised meeting, where Putin accepted Ivanov’s resignation, Putin thanked him and said he was honoring an agreement with Ivanov that he would not ask him to serve as chief of staff for more than four years, saying, “I understand your wish to move to another area of work.”
Ivanov, 63, has been Putin’s chief of staff since December 2011, but few in Russia accepted that explanation. Ivanov also lost his spot on Russia’s Security Council, the powerful body that deals with matters of national security and is thought to play a crucial role in Putin’s decision-making.
A former Defense minister, Ivanov first met Putin when they trained together as aspiring spies at a KGB academy in the late 1970s. During the Cold War, he served abroad in Finland and Kenya.
An urbane figure, known for a sharp intelligence and sardonic manner, Ivanov was at one time considered a possible successor to Putin and appeared to be in the running to serve as a place-holder president instead of Dmitrii Medvedev, who held the presidency when Putin briefly took a break as prime minister between 2008 to 2012 to avoid constitutional term restrictions. As defense minister, Ivanov built an unusual rapport with Condoleezza Rice when she served as secretary of State under George W. Bush, once sneaking her away from a state-visit to a ballet performance.
Today, Ivanov sat silently, seeming to be struggling to suppress a smile as Putin accepted his resignation. “Respected Sergei Borisovich,” Putin said during the televised resignation meeting, using an affectionate formal form of Ivanov’s name. “We have worked many years together. We’ve worked successfully. I’m satisfied with how you have fulfilled your tasks in your area of duties.”
Multiple theories for why Ivanov had departed quickly arose in Russia. A number of Russian political analysts suggested that Putin was seeking to avoid what they called “Brezhnev-nization,” referring to the octogenarian Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who surrounded himself with aged comrades and whose rule came to be seen as symbolic of the fossilized state of the Soviet Union.
“This is connected with a very simple thing,” Igor Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies, told the Russian business paper RBK. “He’s very afraid of “Brezhnev-nization. If Putin is surrounded by 60- to 70 year-olds, then the memory of Brezhnev will remain in the consciousness of the masses.”
Ivanov is the latest in a series of Putin’s long-time associates to be abruptly exiled from power by the Russian president recently. The head of Russia’s state railways company, Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russia’s anti-narcotics agencies, Viktor Ivanov, and chief of the presidential security service, Yevgeny Murov, have all stepped down in the past year.
All three knew Putin from his time in St. Petersburg before he became president, sometimes considered part of what has been nicknamed the “Petersburg Mafia,” the group of officials, businessmen and former spies from the city that Putin surrounded himself with in his early years of his presidency.
Some suggested that Ivanov’s replacement, Anton Vaino, reflected an effort by Putin to replace his old guard with young, technocratic and professional officials with whom he had regularly worked with. Vaino, a former ambassador to Tokyo, worked as Putin’s head of protocol, managing his schedule, before becoming Ivanov’s deputy.
“I think he’s choosing now a new team,” Bunin said. “These young people who have lived practically their whole lives with Putin, and therefore he is their real chief, and not a comrade. This replacement of comrades with subordinates is a process that will continue.”
A number of other younger apparatchiks, including from the military, have also received high-profile promotions. At the same time, Putin has recently appeared to move to shore up his control over Russia’s security apparatus before parliamentary elections this autumn, creating a new National Guard with increased powers and appointing his former chief bodyguard to oversee it.
Other analysts, though, felt the move signalled a renewed power struggle among the Kremlin’s elite.
But many noted Ivanov’s removal seemed to not only mark a shift toward a changing of the guard, but also a change in his entourage’s attitude toward him.
“Putin does not want to be Brezhnev,” Aleksei Makarkin, deputy director at the Center of Political Technologies, told RBK. “For these new people, Putin is a sacred figure.”