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Sergei Ivanov: a loyal, but not a very effective manager

Ivanov's removal is a reshuffle of a loyal but not managerially a very effective official and has no great political significance.

The so called liberal Russian media was quick to pounce on the news about the voluntary resignation of the head of Russian president’s administration – Sergei Ivanov. A seemingly routine personnel reshuffle – while announcing the news, president Putin said that Ivanov had asked to stay for just 4 years and that Ivanov would retain his position as the head of Russia’s Security Council – is interpreted by “Putin haters” on both sides of the border as a sign of some “rift in the power vertical” or even “coming revolution.”

Even some of Russia’s most prolific Putin haters, such as the former editor-in-chief Sergei Parkhomenko and a political spin doctor Stanislav Belkovsky (both are star analysts on the fifth columnist radio Ekho Moskvy now) had to admit that there can be no talk of a personal rift between Putin and Ivanov or some kind of an ideological purge in the Kremlin. Even these critics of president Putin see that the event is a part of “rejuvenation” of Russia’s ruling elite before several important political tests: the coming Duma election in September 2016, possible escalation of tensions with the West over Ukraine and Syria, etc. Andrei Kolesnikov, the chief analyst on Russian internal politics at Moscow Carnegie Center, even saw in the replacement of 63 years old Ivanov by 44 years old Anton Vaino some signs of Putin’s intention to run again for president in 2018 –with a new team

This is one of the precious rare cases when the analysis of Moscow Carnegie Centre makes some sense. Kolesnikov rightly cites the recent replacement (on July 28) by Putin of the governors in three volatile regions (Kaliningrad, Yaroslavl and Kirov), with Kaliningrad headed by a former security official, Yevgeny Zinchenko. Bearing in mind that Kaliningrad (formerly East Prussian Konigsberg) is separated from the rest of the Russian territory by “friendly” Poland and Lithuania, the strengthening of the security component in the management of this region is only natural and quite timely.

But, of course, the change is not just about age and loyalty. It is also about effectiveness.

Vaino, who speaks English and Japanese and who had experience of successful diplomatic work, is obviously better qualified to sustain Western pressure than Ivanov, whose statements on foreign policy are usually just bland summaries of Putin’s similar, but much more eloquent and artistic diatribes on world affairs (eg. “Do you realise what you have done?!” – on Western politicians’ actions in the Middle East).

Sergei Ivanov’s strong sides included his total personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin – not only to president Putin from the year 2000, but also to Putin the young foreign intelligence officer in the 1970s and 1980s, Putin the unemployed former member of St. Petersburg’s city government after the city mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s defeat at the elections in 1996, etc. Ivanov had known Putin since his student days in Leningrad, and Ivanov’s choice of the friend and patron proved to be right. But, personal loyalties aside, Sergei Ivanov has few achievements on his record. After his tenure as the defence minister in 2001-2005, the Russian army did not distinguish itself by anything particular. The risky operation of regaining control over Chechnya in 1999-2000 was almost all Putin’s work and the victorious operations in Georgia and Syria (in 2008 and 2015) were still far ahead.

“Ivanov has never served as a soldier in the REAL army, so the military never considered him one of their own. He required from the military victories in Chechnya, but he was not seen with the soldiers, who then had a hard time during cold winters in Chechen mountains,” remembers Viktor Litovkin, a veteran analyst on military affairs for Izvestia daily and former chief editor of Nezavisimoye Voyennoe Obozrenie (Russia’s most detailed media outlet on military matters).    

Ivanov’s most spectacular failure was his tenure as the head of the Military-Industrial Commission in the mid 2000s. At the time, Ivanov supervised Russia’s space program and the project of a Russian alternative to the American-made “Global Positioning System” (GPS). The project, called GLONASS (Global Navigation Space Satellite System) was supposed to start working in 2008, with the Olympic host city, Sochi, becoming the first territory where GLONASS would positively effect the lives of millions of people. However, Ivanov failed to guarantee the timely launching of 18 satellites necessary for the operation of GLONASS. In the opinion of many observers, it was one of the main factors in Ivanov’s ultimate defeat in an unofficial “race for Putin’s succession” in 2007. As a result, Dmitry Medvedev became Putin’s official successor, with Ivanov later getting the position of a vice-premier in Vladimir Putin’s government.

At the time, Ivanov retained good relations with both Medvedev and Putin. Soon after Putin’s return to the Kremlin Ivanov became the head of the new president’s administration.

Typically for Putin, the Russian president never forgets his old friends and never treats his former subordinates in a cruel, insulting way, as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin often did. Putin’s decision to make Ivanov a member of the prestigious Security Council is an important sugar coating for a bitter pill, which Ivanov had to swallow. By the way, the recently dismissed governors of Kaliningrad and Sebastopol were included in the Security Council under the president, thus getting a moral compensation for a downshift in their careers.

Obviously, Putin needs new people in his team, unwillingly saying good bye to his peers: Sergei Ivanov, like many members of Putin’s team, was born on the same year (1953) as the president. There is no doubt that, as a good captain, Putin will leave the ship on time – but only when he is sure of the vessel’s new team.   

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