Putin's Purge Puts Kremlin Elites on Notice

Happier Days: Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov, when chief of staff of the presidential administration, at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on March 12, 2013. Maxim Trudolyubov writes that the Russian ruling class is learning a painful lesson: They are expendable. Sergei Karpukhin/reuters

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Few longtime insiders have left their coveted positions during Putin's first 15 years in power. If anything, they were climbing the Kremlin ranks and Forbes rich-man tables.

Now they're leaving in droves. The received wisdom that President Vladimir Putin does not part with old friends is now demolished.

The president's chief of staff and a personal confidant Sergei Ivanov was only the latest to go. The list of those who retired or were dismissed from prominent federal posts before Ivanov is impressive: Yevgeny Murov, former head of the Federal Protection Service; Viktor Ivanov, former head of the Federal Narcotics Service; Konstantin Romodanovsky, former head of the Migration Service; Andrei Belianinov, former head of the Customs Service; and Vladimir Yakunin, former chief of Russian Railways. All were considered Putin's friends and thus seen as untouchable.

New governors have been installed in the regions of Komi, Tula, Kirov, Yaroslavl, Kaliningrad and Sevastopol during the past year. The Minister of Education was recently replaced. The all-powerful head of the Kremlin's domestic policies, Vyacheslav Volodin, is rumored to be on the way out. He is likely to assume the post of Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Kommersant Daily reported recently.

The current raft of dismissals and appointments at the top echelons of the Russian state is no cadre revolution, at least so far, but it is a major upheaval by Putin's standards.

There is no shortage of theories as to the reasons and future implications of the reshuffle. Some have to do with Russia's shrinking economy, which means the reshuffle is explained as a function of an intensified fight for resources.

Other explanations draw a picture of Putin who is busy rejuvenating his ruling class and making it personally dependent on the leader in the run-up to the presidential election due in 2018. The process is not over, so it is hard to form a final opinion. It is likely that both factors are at play.

Insiders' public statements, although few and far between, provide the most interesting commentary on what is going on in the Kremlin. The appointment of the new Minister of Education provoked a major debate among the chattering classes on social media. The new minister, Olga Vasilyeva, a historian specializing in Soviet state policies toward the Russian Orthodox Church, has emerged a moderate Stalinist: A video of her attempting to explain to students the Kremlin's ambiguous stance toward Stalin became a source of controversy.

The newspaper Vedomosti obtained a comment from a high-ranking presidential administration official who placed the current dismissals into a broader perspective. The new appointment is not just a part of a pre-election reshuffle, but an "in-depth and substantial revision" of the foundations of the education policy, an unnamed source told Vedomosti.

The overall "sovereignization" of Russia's policies, a political course begun in 2012, has so far spared the education field, the Vedomosti source said, even though education, since the 1990s, has fallen under "extraordinarily strong" external influence.

It has been estranged from the interests of the state and those Russians working in the system have been serving the interests of the West, fostering a "Russia that would be a human-capital and a natural-resource appendage [of the West]," the source asserted. Russia's education policy would be revised "in accordance with the changed political context and imperatives of national security."

The outgoing minister of education, Dmitry Livanov, can indeed be described as a Westernizer rather than a Slavophile. He is a technocrat responsible for the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a number of measures linking Russian tertiary education to that of the European Union.

Livanov headed the ministry between May 2012 and August 2016. The Kremlin source's "external influence" adage does sound genuine, and yet has to be taken with a grain of salt. The usual administration tactic is to project awe rather than act on grandiose statements. "They will put to practice just about five percent of what they say," Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst said.

Another former official presents an interesting view. Earlier this year, before most of the current dismissals and appointments even happened, Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of state-owned Russian Railways, saw a major change coming.

"This circle will continue to rotate," Yakunin said, referring to Putin's inner circle. "Putin has yet to form a stable 'ruling class like Russia had during czarist times,'" Yakunin was quoted as saying in January in an article by Bloomberg.

As the article explains, Yakunin believes that "some insiders are making the mistake of viewing their property and privilege as inalienable rights, but everything they have hinges on Putin's shifting views of what's good for Russia."

In retrospect, this is one of the best insights into current events. This almost stoic view on the fragility of post-Soviet wealth and political influence, coming from a person perceived to be one of the most corrupt, is striking.

The Kremlin elites are learning a lesson: they are expendable. The figures that come to replace them are career civil servants, mid-level officials, even former bodyguards: three of the newly appointed governors served in the presidential security service.

Being powerful and untouchable, and then suddenly replaced by young, toothless bureaucrats and bodyguards is an incredible change of fortune. The effect that Vladimir Putin is aiming for is that of a purge—a process that helps to get rid of former partners and make those who stay onboard dependent, filling them with fear and showing them their place.

It remains to be seen if one can achieve the effect of a purge without initiating a massive cadre turnover.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute. The opinions expressed here are solely his.