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The Arrest of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Has Broken a Taboo

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The ongoing state of war and uncertain future mean that the Russian elites cannot make long-term plans, which encourages them to flout the old rules, live for today, and undertake power moves to score a win against their rivals.

The arrest of Russia’s deputy defense minister, Timur Ivanov, at the height of the country’s war against Ukraine is a conspicuous sign of divisions within the Russian government. Influential groups vying for power are now attacking each other even more aggressively than before the war, and it’s no longer just lone players or minor representatives of the various clans who are at risk, but central figures too. And with Ivanov’s protector, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems even the patronage of the head of state no longer affords protection against interclan squabbles. 

In an unexpected turn of events, the deputy defense minister was arrested immediately after a meeting with Defense Ministry colleagues—including Shoigu—on April 23 and charged with taking bribes. News of his arrest broke late that evening, but without the images of searches of luxurious properties or the discovery of huge sums of cash in a safe that usually accompany arrests for corruption in Russia. Ivanov subsequently appeared in court in military uniform, even though arrested generals are typically tried in civilian clothing to avoid tarnishing the image of the armed forces.

These unusual optics suggest that the deputy minister’s arrest was planned in haste. Further indirect evidence of that is the silence of Ivanov’s immediate boss Shoigu, who appeared blindsided by the arrest of his deputy.

Indeed, those behind the case against Ivanov had every reason to act swiftly, since this could well turn out to be a landmark case for the Putin regime. The deputy minister is the highest-ranking serving Russian official to face criminal charges since former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev was arrested in 2016. Ivanov could in fact be described as an even bigger heavyweight than Ulyukayev: he controlled far larger sums of money, and in practice had much more influence and authority.

No less important is the fact that Ulyukayev was a lone figure within the state apparatus, while Ivanov is a prominent representative of an influential clan. That clan includes Shoigu himself; Gennady Timchenko, a businessman close to Putin; Federation Council deputy speaker Yury Vorobyov and his son, Moscow region governor Andrei Vorobyov; and many other less high-profile officials and businessmen.

Ivanov was effectively in charge of an important resource for this clan worth trillions of rubles: all the Defense Ministry’s infrastructure projects. In this sense, the charges against Ivanov are a direct attack on the Shoigu/Timchenko group. 

Shoigu’s nemesis is considered to be Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardiya) and former head of the Federal Protective Service tasked with protecting senior officials, who has long sought to gain control of the Defense Ministry. Zolotov tried unsuccessfully in both the mid-2010s and in 2022–2023 to get his former subordinate Alexei Dyumin—one of Putin’s favorite bodyguards—promoted to head of the ministry. 

About eighteen months ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the infamous head of the Wagner mercenary group, launched a campaign against Shoigu with Zolotov’s backing. The Rosgvardiya group was ready and waiting with two candidates to replace him: Dyumin and General Sergei Surovikin, who is popular in army circles.

But Shoigu managed to fight back and even settle some scores with his opponents. Prigozhin was killed in mysterious circumstances soon after staging an unsuccessful mutiny, while Surovikin fell from grace and was dismissed. Later, the defense minister managed to get firmly back into the president’s good books when the Ukrainian counteroffensive last summer proved unsuccessful and the Russian military managed to regain the initiative.

Given that Putin likes to publicly cite the Defense Ministry’s press releases about the numbers of Ukrainian soldiers killed and volume of military equipment destroyed, the Shoigu clan was widely expected to retain its position in the government reshuffle due to follow Putin’s inauguration in May, and perhaps even increase its influence. It would appear that this prospect prompted the defense minister’s opponents to launch an urgent offensive by arresting one of the clan’s most prominent representatives.

The case against Ivanov should at the very least stop the expansion of the Shoigu clan. Now the minister will be forced to divert some of his attention to making sure the post of his deputy in charge of infrastructure does not go to an outsider. At most, the arrest of such a close ally could lead to the resignation of the minister himself, especially if reports that Ivanov may face charges for treason as well as graft prove to be true.

In securing the arrest of Ivanov, Shoigu’s enemies resorted to a move previously considered taboo in Russia’s interclan squabbles. While there has been no shortage of arrests of senior officials in the past, they were all peripheral figures or minor representatives of influential clans. There was an unspoken agreement not to touch prominent representatives of clans that control significant resources. Ivanov’s arrest shows that not everyone is prepared to keep abiding by this unwritten rule. Also notable is the distinct lack of regard for the opinion of the president, who is clearly favorably disposed to the defense minister right now.

This significantly raises the stakes in the infighting among the elites. Once one player breaks a taboo and gains an unfair advantage by doing so, other more disciplined groups will soon follow suit.

There were already signs that more and more rules were being ignored in the interclan fighting. Traditionally, the duration of a presidential campaign has been considered a time of truce in Russia, so as not to disrupt the work of the state apparatus to ensure the desired outcome.

This year, however, that rule was also broken, with several high-profile criminal cases being brought against regional heavyweights ahead of March’s presidential election. Most notable was the arrest of the head of the Samara region government, Viktor Kudryashov, who was also brought down by the Rosgvardiya group as part of the clan’s war against the region’s governor, Dmitry Azarov. 

The war against Ukraine was also initially considered a time of truce. Putin has said repeatedly that everyone in Russia, including the elites, has rallied together in the face of an external threat and is working as one for the good of the motherland. For a while, the infighting really did subside, before erupting again with renewed viciousness, as the prewar rules were abandoned one after another. 

The issue is not just that there are fewer resources to go around because of the war and sanctions. The ongoing state of war and uncertain future mean that the elites cannot make long-term plans, which encourages them to flout the old rules, live for today, and undertake power moves to score a win against their rivals. 

Another factor is that the Russian elites rely less and less on presidential arbitration. In all of Prigozhin’s chaotic battles—both with the Defense Ministry, and together with the Kovalchuk brothers against St. Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov—Putin tried to distance himself from the crises by simply letting them run their course. 

As a result, the clans around Putin are coming to the conclusion that in these internecine battles, actions speak louder than words—even the words of Putin himself. Accordingly, there will be more and more such battles within the Russian elites, and fewer and fewer rules.

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Putin’s Potential Successors Part 2: Aleksey Dyumin

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Vladimir Putin is in his fourth term as Russia’s president, having held the role for (a noncontinuous) 18 years. Russia’s next presidential election cycle is in 2024, and while Putin has amended the constitution to permit his rule until he is 84, speculations continue to circulate regarding his declining health at 70 years old. Moreover, as domestic and international pressure continues to mount on Putin over a year into Russia’s war against Ukraine, Putin’s longevity as the Federation’s president is a key topic of interest for the international community.

New Insikt Group Research examines Aleksey Dyumin, the governor of Tula and former chief security guard of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his potential to serve as the next Russian president. The report evaluates factors that establish Dyumin as a potential successor for Putin’s role, including his success as a member of the siloviki and his effective managerial skills as governor of Tula. In addition, we assess factors that weaken Dyumin’s bid for the presidency, specifically his strained relationship with defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the broader Russian military apparatus. To strengthen his bid, Dyumin very likely would need to improve his relations with the Russian military to ensure that his appointment as the Tsesarevich would not cause a conflict within the siloviki faction.

(Dyumin (left) serving as Putin’s bodyguard in 2000)

Dyumin would very likely be a leading candidate should Putin decide to choose a successor. His personal loyalty to Putin, good relations with members of the Russian elite, successful completion of strategically important tasks in Ukraine, and effective leadership in Tula have established the former aide-de-camp as a strong contender for the presidency.

Dyumin’s policies and actions as a member of the siloviki faction and the governor of Tula suggest that a Dyumin presidency would very likely preserve Putin’s political system. Domestically and internationally, Dyumin would likely continue Putin’s policies, given his career in the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO), the Russian Defense Ministry, and his role in annexing Crimea. However, any candidate chosen by Putin would also likely seek to improve relations with the West.

To read the entire analysis with endnotes, click here to download the report as a PDF.

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Russian elite expects Putin to reshuffle some positions after election win

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Krasnodar Region Governor Veniamin Kondratyev in Krasnodar
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Krasnodar Region Governor Veniamin Kondratyev in Krasnodar, Russia March 7, 2024. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS Purchase Licensing Rights, opens new tab

MOSCOW, March 12 (Reuters) – Russia’s elite is expecting President Vladimir Putin to reshuffle government positions to bring in younger people after what it sees as the formality of his resounding election victory this weekend, four sources close to the authorities said.

In control of all state levers and with no serious political competitors, Putin – in power as president or prime minister since the last day of 1999 – is widely expected to win what will be his fifth presidential term and another six years in power.

The four sources, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they expected younger people to be brought into more senior government positions, including perhaps as deputy ministers and heads of ministerial departments, and for an older generation of government officials to be demoted or retire after the election.

One of the sources said ministerial portfolios were being reviewed too and that the reshuffle was expected to take place in May.

Changes at major state corporations, state energy behemoths and in Russia’s more than 80 regional governorships are also seen as possible, the sources said. The Kremlin says it never comments on planned personnel changes ahead of time.

At a time when Russia is waging war with Ukraine and needs continuity, two of the sources said they did not expect Putin to change his defence and foreign ministers, however.

“You don’t change horses mid-stream,” said the first source, who added that it would be surprising if Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, 68, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who turns 74 later this month, did not keep their posts.

In office since 2020, Mikhail Mishustin, the 58-year-old technocratic prime minister, is also expected to keep his job, they said. So is Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina, three sources said.

Planned changes at the top of major ministries and in security agencies will only take place after the end of what Putin calls his special military operation in Ukraine, the first source said.

The second source also expected a post-election reshuffle that would bring more younger people into play. Putin has not made major changes to the government since 2020.

Changes made to the constitution that same year allowed Putin, 71, to remain in power until 2036 if re-elected on Sunday and again in 2030.

But the tightly-controlled political system he has built and consolidated under his control over more than two decades affords less job security to his subordinates, even those of the same generation, given the need to renew the ranks to prepare for the future.

Apart from Shoigu and Lavrov, some of the older members of the current government include Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov, 72, Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev, 70, and Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev, 68.

In the meantime, a younger generation of officials, some of them the sons and daughters of serving ministers and bureaucrats – nicknamed red princes and princesses by some Russian political analysts – are rising through the ranks.

Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev, 46, for example, is the son of 72-year old Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

Putin’s presidential administration has launched a series of programmes designed to identify and train a new generation of senior leaders, which includes a “reserve list” of 100 candidates.

Ahead of the election, speculation is swirling in particular around Boris Kovalchuk, the 46-year-old son of Putin ally and friend Yuri Kovalchuk, after the Kommersant daily newspaper reported earlier this month that he would be moving on for bigger things from his current post as head of the giant Inter RAO energy company. Inter RAO declined to comment.

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Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn; writing by Andrew Osborn; editing by Mark Heinrich

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As Moscow bureau chief, Guy runs coverage of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Before Moscow, Guy ran Brexit coverage as London bureau chief (2012-2022). On the night of Brexit, his team delivered one of Reuters historic wins – reporting news of Brexit first to the world and the financial markets. Guy graduated from the London School of Economics and started his career as an intern at Bloomberg. He has spent over 14 years covering the former Soviet Union. He speaks fluent Russian.

As Russia Chief Political Correspondent, and former Moscow bureau chief, Andrew helps lead coverage of the world’s largest country, whose political, economic and social transformation under President Vladimir Putin he has reported on for much of the last two decades, along with its growing confrontation with the West and wars in Georgia and Ukraine. Andrew was part of a Wall Street Journal reporting team short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He has also reported from Moscow for two British newspapers, The Telegraph and The Independent.

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