Vladimir Putin dismissed his long-serving chief of staff, former KGB spy Sergei Ivanov, and replaced him with a little-known aide on Friday, the latest sign that the Russian president is further tightening his grip amid economic recession at home and geopolitical tensions abroad.
The decision to demote Mr Ivanov, one of the most senior members of the so-called siloviki group of former spies and defence officials in the president’s inner circle, is Mr Putin’s most significant move in an accelerating reorganisation of the political elite as he gears up for 2018 presidential elections.
It also comes as Mr Putin has ratcheted up the rhetoric in Moscow’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine.
Earlier this week, he accused Kiev of an alleged “terrorist” incursion into Crimea, and some Russian observers believe the reshuffle points to disagreements among the siloviki over how far to escalate conflict with Russia’s estranged neighbour.
The defence ministry said on Friday that it had deployed advanced S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Crimea, part of a broader Russian military build-up around Ukraine over the past two months. The air defence missiles can shoot down any known aircraft within 400km, a range which covers large parts of Ukraine.
Mr Ivanov, 63, was not only one of Mr Putin’s most senior aides, but his career closely mirrored that of the Russian president, moving from the Soviet-era spy agency into the Russian government with his fellow St Petersburg native in the late 1990s.
But he was not believed to be the most influential among the siloviki and had previously lost out on heavyweight appointments that went to officials in whom Mr Putin has more trust.
Mr Putin appointed Mr Ivanov as his special representative for nature preservation, ecology and transport, a sharp demotion that fuelled speculation that the president is cleaning out his inner circle.
“Putin is conducting a thorough renewal of the leading political class, and this is happening thoroughly and quickly,” said Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic and political analyst. “He is retiring people who are getting too old, and he’s replacing them with others who owe their entire career to him and could not possibly dare challenge him.”
Mr Ivanov was replaced by Anton Vaino, 44, an Estonia-born former diplomat who headed the cabinet administration during Mr Putin’s term as prime minister between 2008 and 2012. He has also served as a protocol officer in the presidential office, and is viewed as a trusted but less publicly known aide.
In a televised meeting with both men, Mr Putin said that Mr Ivanov had recommended Mr Vaino as his replacement.
“I . . . remember well our agreement, that you asked me not to use you in this area of work on the post of head of the presidential administration more than four years,” Mr Putin said, addressing Mr Ivanov.
Mr Ivanov’s demotion is the biggest change in Mr Putin’s inner circle since the retirement of Vladimir Yakunin, another former spy and diplomat who stepped down as head of state-owned Russian Railways a year ago.
His dismissal comes just over a month before parliamentary elections, which Russian political observers see as the start of a new political cycle in the lead-up to the 2018 presidential election.
A critical question is whether Mr Putin decides to run again himself, and if so, whether he will centre his next term on the hawkish, repressive agenda that has dominated his current term or push for ambitious reforms.
Earlier this year, Mr Putin returned Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister, to a more senior advisory post and gave him a mandate of working out a reform programme. This kicked off a new round of infighting between economic reformers and conservative former security officials in the Kremlin and the cabinet.
Some former Kremlin officials believe that Mr Putin is considering having Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister once viewed as head of a reformist wing of Putin insiders, run for president in 2018.
“Having Medvedev run is one of the options Putin is looking at,” said one former official, a political expert who still works with the Kremlin on certain projects. “Ivanov would have been dead-set against that.”
When Mr Putin was constitutionally barred from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms at the 2008 election, he chose Mr Medvedev as the candidate over Mr Ivanov, who many saw as the favourite.
As the Kremlin prepares for the presidential election, it has been reshuffling senior officials at increasing speed.
Just two weeks ago, Mr Putin made a raft of personnel changes, including appointing three relatively young and barely known former security officials as regional governors.
Since the beginning of the year, the Kremlin has also created a new national guard, headed by a former head of Mr Putin’s personal security detail, and removed regional and security officials from office on corruption allegations.
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