The Weakness of an Aging Autocrat
May 20, 2024
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Political scientist Nikolai Petrov looks at the reshuffle in the Russian government and among governors and explains why it reflects serious problems with the Kremlin’s personnel management.
For the first two years of the war, you could count Putin’s personnel moves on one hand: vacancies that arose were sometimes not filled for more than a year. It seemed that Putin’s governing system – first of all, its personnel management – was in crisis and had reached the end of the road. And that it was being replaced by a more institutionalized, young and technocratic system, the prominent representatives of which could be considered Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Presidential Administration head Anton Vaino.

At the same time, the Kremlin’s personnel bloc itself – those who are involved in the selection and placement of cadres (the head of the Presidential Administration, Putin’s aide for personnel and the head of the Department for Civil Service) – was overhauled in recent years. Whereas in the 2010s the key role was played by FSB generals (Sergei Ivanov, 2011-16, Anatoly Seryshev, 2018-21, and Andrei Chobotov, 2017-23), now it is a general from the Ministry of Internal Affairs who had previously served as the president’s adjutant and in the FSO, Dmitri Mironov (since 2021), along with two career Foreign Ministry officials (Anton Vaino, since 2016, and Maxim Travnikov, since 2023). All three are a generation younger than both their predecessors and Putin.

Now, the major reshuffle in the executive branch following Putin’s inauguration on May 7 would seem to indicate that the view that the governing system is in decline was premature.
However, most of the announced changes are rather cosmetic and, most importantly, do not demonstrate the system’s ability to update its outdated, personalistic personnel management, in which the key criterion is the personal trust of the leader.
Boris Kovalchuk, the son of billionaire Yuri Kovalchuk, a close associate of Vladimir Putin, has been named head of the Accounts Chamber. In the photo, he is with Federation Council Chair Valentina Matviyenko. Source: Wiki Commons

There were few changes at the deputy prime minister level, but they were important: First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov and Deputy Prime Minister Victoria Abramchenko were replaced by ministers Dmitri Patrushev and Vitaly Savelyev.

Denis Manturov, who had been a deputy prime minister a couple of years ago, took another step higher, being named first deputy prime minister. It remains to be seen how the portfolios will be divided up among the deputy prime ministers, but it is clear that Mishustin’s new government has lost its strategist in Belousov. The macro bloc, which he oversaw, has been taken over by Alexander Novak, while transport, which was also previously within the purview of Belousov, will now be led by a dedicated deputy prime minister, Savelyev.

A new minister in the government will be Oksana Lut (45), who will take over the Ministry of Agriculture, having served there under Patrushev Jr (46) as a first deputy. Here it stands to mention Boris Kovalchuk (46), son of Yuri Kovalchuk (a billionaire and member of Putin’s inner circle), who was installed as head of the Accounts Chamber, an appointment that occurred simultaneously with the government ones.
Mikhail Degtyarev, who served as governor of Khabarovsk Region from 2021 after the arrest of the popular Sergei Furgal, has been appointed minister of sport. Source: VK
Four governors at once – Kaliningrad Region’s Anton Alikhanov (37 years old), Kemerovo Region’s Sergei Tsivilev (62), Kursk Region’s Roman Starovoyt (52) and Khabarovsk Region’s Mikhail Degtyarev (43) – became federal ministers, heading up, respectively, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Sport.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade got a new head after the promotion of Manturov to first deputy prime minister, while the post of energy minister opened up with the departure of 73-year-old Nikolai Shulginov. Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev was promoted to deputy prime minister, though the chair had been pulled out from under him, as he had not picked his successor and previously “his” people had been removed as deputy ministers. Meanwhile, no one expected a new man at the Ministry of Sport. The appointment of Degtyarev is all the more unexpected since he is neither a prominent sports functionary nor a champion in anything.

Note that in their previous stints as regional governors, the newly appointed ministers did not particularly distinguish themselves, besides the fact that none of them had had any ties to the region that they were to lead when the Kremlin decided to make them governors. Only two of the four, Alikhanov and Starovoyt, have experience working in the bureaucracy.

Yet three of them are closely tied to Putin oligarchs: Alikhanov with Sergei Chemezov, Tsivilev with Gennady Timchenko (Tsivilev landed at the Ministry of Energy, for which there was once a battle between the most influential figures in Russian politics, Igor Sechin and Yuri Kovalchuk) and Starovoyt with Arkady Rotenberg.

Presidential Administration

The top brass of the Presidential Administration remained in place, while a seventh deputy head was added in Maxim Oreshkin, who will mainly keep advising Putin on economic issues as an aide.

Alexei Dyumin, Nikolai Patrushev (Patrushev Sr) and Ruslan Edelgeriev became new presidential aides. The latter, Edelgeriev, who is officially responsible for climate change issues but is essentially the Chechen representative at Putin’s “court,” simply had his status upgraded from adviser to aide. New portfolios were invented for Dyumin and Patrushev Sr.

Patrushev Sr is to oversee shipbuilding (see Russia.Post here for what that means in the context of the shakeup at the Ministry of Defense), while Dyumin, in addition to managing the work of the State Council and developing sport, is to handle issues related to the military-industrial complex. Following in Dmitri Mironov’s footsteps, Dyumin is now the second former bodyguard to become a presidential aide, having first completed an “internship” as a regional governor (in Dyumin’s case it was Tula Region, while Mironov, who became an aide in October 2021 on the eve of the Ukraine invasion, had been the governor of Yaroslavl Region after the FSO).

Long-time State Council Secretary Igor Levitin was demoted from presidential aide to adviser. In addition, all presidential envoys to federal districts were retained, including former prosecutors general Yuri Chaika (73) and Vladimir Ustinov (71).

The Security Council has a special place in the system of power. Its apparatus is an independent division of the Presidential Administration, and serious changes should be expected there with the appointment of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as Security Council secretary – previously the remit of Patrushev Sr, who was considered the ideologist of the regime and the second most influential figure in the Russian political elite after Putin.


In place of the governors who were promoted to Moscow five temporary ones were appointed, with elections scheduled for September. Three out of the five (in Kemerovo, Kursk and Tula) were deputy heads of their respective regions.

Kaliningrad Region is now headed by Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Alexei Besprozvannykh (45). Interestingly, Alikhanov, who at one time headed a department at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, has now risen to the rank of minister, while deputy minister Besprozvannykh is headed to Kaliningrad to replace him. Khabarovsk Region will be led by scandalous Deputy Prosecutor General Dmitri Demeshin (48), who takes over for Degtyarev (43).
“The mass influx of governors without serious experience in federal government structures is very unusual. No less unusual, considering appointments in recent years, is that their successors are mostly influential members of the regional elite.”
With the exception of the Far West (Kaliningrad Region) and the Far East (Khabarovsk Region), the Kremlin has moved away from its recent practice of sending people to lead regions to which they have no ties.

More weakness than strength?

The recent reshuffle in the executive branch creates an impression of renewal and dynamism for the aging Putin, who, as it seems today, will rule for life.
At least two of those dismissed from high posts, Patrushev Sr and Shulginov, are almost 73. At the same time, the foreign policy veterans 77-year-old Yuri Ushakov and 74-year-old Sergei Lavrov, who, rumors say, have long been asking to step down, have been retained.

Mishustin’s people have been carried over: his key deputies remain, with the exception of Abramchenko. Belousov, who was once breathing down Mishustin’s neck, is no longer around to be Putin’s strategist and controller in the government.

On the one hand, Mishustin has long beaten out Belousov from an administrative and bureaucratic point of view, but, on the other, as defense minister Belousov may become the all-powerful prime minister for the entire military economy, which now concerns the Kremlin more than the civilian one. Having taken control of the military-industrial complex, Belousov will likely restructure it in the interests of the military.

All four ministers who left the government were not Mishustin people. Neither, indeed, are those who will replace them.

At the same time, Mishustin heads the Government Coordination Council on the Needs of the Armed Forces, where Belousov will now represent the other side, knowing the situation on the government side from the inside.

The biggest loser appears to be 69-year-old Sergei Shoigu (read more from Russia.Post about the Ministry of Defense shakeup here). As it once was with Patrushev Sr, Shoigu, as the newly appointed secretary of the Security Council, has maintained or even increased his political power, though he has given up control over colossal resources in the financial, administrative and security spheres.

Given the size and duration in power of Shoigu’s team, his removal as minister of defense could have very serious consequences: the first signals were the arrest of Shoigu’s associate Timur Ivanov on the eve of the personnel reshuffle, followed by Yuri Kuznetsov, who oversaw personnel at the Ministry of Defense under Shoigu.
Putin’s personnel management has demonstrated its weakness rather than its strength. A clear indication of this is that out of a dozen new appointments at the federal level, half are relatives and friends of Putin and his oligarchs.
Sergei Tsivilev was called up from Kemerovo Region, where he was governor, to take charge of the Ministry of Industry and Trade. In the photo, he is with his wife, Anna Tsivileva (maiden name Putina, a relative of the president). Tsivileva last year was appointed chair of the Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation, which supports soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Source: Dzen
Tsivilev is the husband of Putin’s great niece; the younger Kovalchuk and Patrushev are the children of Putin’s closest associates; Dyumin is Putin’s former bodyguard; Manturov is the son of Chemezov’s associate and a business partner of the Chemezov family.

Like any aging autocrat, Putin, in search of people on whose personal loyalty he can count, increasingly relies on old servants and relatives, without paying much attention to their abilities. Thus, he tasked his daughters with supervising genetic research and import substitution, and promoted the Tsivilev couple, first to the governorship in the Kuzbas and now to Moscow (Anna Putina/Tsivileva last year was appointed chair of the Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation, which supports soldiers fighting in Ukraine, while her husband has now become a minister).

Behind the personnel changes, which are mostly insignificant, there are nevertheless potentially significant institutional changes. The Kremlin has always maintained its grip on major corporations such as the government and military through controlled conflicts between individual power figures, both between and within those corporations. Now, with the reduced role of the Security Council and the State Council – owing to the relative weakness of their new managers Shoigu and Dyumin, respectively – this external control may become less effective, while internal conflicts may also weaken.

There are still several question marks around the executive branch reshuffle.
There is no explanation yet for the unexpected lag between Putin’s inauguration and Mishustin’s nomination as prime minister. Initially, the Duma was supposed to consider the nominee on May 8; however, Mishustin was presented to the Duma only on May 10 and at an unusual time – 5:00 am. This might have been due to protracted bargaining over the package appointment of ministers.

Neither has there been an explanation for the extended delay in appointing the chair of the Accounts Chamber (from November 2022) or the head of the Federal Customs Service (from February 2023).

Another question mark is that of Dmitri Kozak, who had a reputation as one of the most effective government managers, but fell out of favor in mid-2022, rumors say, for his position on concluding peace with Ukraine in March-April 2022. Contrary to expectations that he would not be carried over, Kozak remains a deputy head of the Presidential Administration.

It is likely the case that Putin is no longer an autocrat capable of making decisions without regard for the interests of his oligarchs, who thus have regained veto power, and resignations are easier to agree than appointments, where divergent interests are likely to collide. Individual appointments become difficult to make, and to maintain balance between the main clans, appointments have to be bundled together as packages.

Aging and weakening can also explain the fact that Putin has not allowed either Ushakov or Lavrov to step down and has retained Kozak. This probably reflects a desire to see old associates near him – so as to numb the feeling that his time has passed.
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