Staunton, August 13 – Vladimir Putin’s decision to replace Sergey Ivanov with Anton Vaino as head of the Russian Presidential Administration has generated almost as many explanations and predictions as there are people making them. (For a useful selection of these, see graniru.org/Politics/Russia/President/m.253726.html.)
Some suggest that Ivanov wanted to retire, others that Putin wanted to replace friends with servants, and still others that the Kremlin leader faces a systemic crisis and must replace cadres so as not to be constrained about continuing or changing his current political course (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=57AEC7C4A9F7F).
Given the murkiness of Kremlin politics, it is entirely possible that each of these captures some of the truth or alternatively that none do and that this latest Putin move reflects nothing more than the Kremlin leader’s general penchant for stirring the pot in the name of maintaining stability and himself in power.
But there is one additional possible explanation with potentially far-reaching consequences that has received relatively little attention: Putin has replaced a committed Russian nationalist who could plausibly challenge him for the top job in Russia with an ethnic Estonian whose very nationality precludes that possibility.
Vaino now joins Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who has Tuvin roots, as yet another non-Russian near the top of the political pyramid in Moscow, thus reducing the strength of the Russian party there that Putin’s own policies encouraged but that has sufficient strength among Russians that Putin may consider it a threat to him.
There is an obvious precedent for that: Stalin’s moves against Russian communist party officials and senior commanders immediately after World War II, moves that are generally known as the Leningrad affair, in which those who had been most enthusiastic in following the Soviet dictator’s nationalist line during the war were pushed aside and in some cases killed.
Because Stalin did not allow the RSFSR to have its own party organization or many of the other attributes of a national republic, it was often the case not only in 1946-47 but both before and after that many Russian nationalists looked to the Northern capital for leadership – and that Moscow moved harshly to keep such people from gaining independent power.
Since 1991, the situation has changed. Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, doesn’t play the same role in Russian thinking. Instead, the Russian party if one can call it that is centered in the siloviki and in their positions near the throne. Such people are a potential threat to the leader even when he is pursuing policies that seem to reflect theirs.
Their removal does not then necessarily signal a change in the direction of the Kremlin leader but rather ensures that the policies he pursues are his alone and that he rather than a group decides on their parameters. Given Putin’s desire for untrammeled power in all things, getting rid of such people just as Stalin did is from his point of view not only expedient but necessary.