The recent departure of Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Putin’s Chief of Staff and closest ally, may indicate a turning point for Russian foreign policy. Specifically, we may see a decreasing capacity by the Putin administration to implement its ambitious foreign policies in the world. “If there’s Putin, there’s Russia. No Putin, No Russia.” This seems to be a common wisdom for many people. Even though such a loud and flamboyant slogan is a convenient oversimplification of reality, we in the West have done much to uphold this fiction. Other than the occasional meteor landing in Siberia, most of the news we receive about the country, which covers approximately one-eight of the world’s landmass, is about Putin’s new plans for more aggressive foreign policy against the West. Putin may be the main visionary in Russia’s foreign policy, but he alone does not possess the capacity to implement his own grand geopolitical schemes.
The reality is that Putin’s ability to conduct and plan Russia’s foreign doctrine, especially vis-à-vis the West, is dependent upon his most loyal security apparatus allies, aids and friends, colloquially known in Russian as the Siloviki. The Siloviki are the new Politburo of Russia, which shapes every sphere of the Russian state and life, but we, in the West, do not generally hear about it. In fact, some have labeled the Siloviki as the War Council and attribute the logistics of Russia’s operations in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea to this group. Since we, in Canada, along with our European and American allies, are highly concerned about Russia’s recent activities in Europe, Asia and the Arctic, why do we not hear anything about the people who are primarily responsible for the implementation of Russian foreign policy?
Russia’s Siloviki are the Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov, the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and, until recently, the Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov. They are all former KGB officers and represent Putin’s small circle of friends in the Kremlin. All of them are in their mid-60s; they are the unique generation of idealists who grew up in the heydays of the Soviet regime, when Yuri Gagarin and the Space Race, which inspired fear in the West, became synonymous with glory and greatness for many Soviet people. For this generation of Siloviki, life was not plentiful, but they were substantially motivated by the romanticism associated with grand Soviet achievements. Unlike their Russian successors in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the old Siloviki are part of the generation which believes in the ideals of statism and want to build up their glorious country while relying on the repressive security apparatus as a tool. That generation, including Putin, is in charge of Russia today. The Siloviki in the Kremlin, however, are aging and retiring. Thus, what will Russia’s foreign policy look like when the majority of them retire?
Recently, Sergei Ivanov left the Russian Politburo. Ivanov worked with Putin in the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate, where they became colleagues and friends. In Putin’s administration, Ivanov, a realist hardliner by nature, has been an advocate of aggressive and expansionist foreign policy through which he believes Russia can gain respect on the global stage. Many news agencies claim that Ivanov, for an unknown reason, was fired by President Putin. In fact, some suggest that his new, and relatively marginal position in government, indicates a kind of punishment through demotion. Even though such a narrative makes for a suspenseful primetime news story about an alleged secret purge inside the Kremlin by Putin, it may not be accurate. Ivanov continues to make public appearances in social events with Vladimir Putin. Most likely, he simply retired from his leadership role due to old age.
Ivanov, however was not replaced with another Silovik from the 1950s generation, but instead with a young and ambitious Estonian-born diplomat named Anton Vaino. Vaino does not possess any experience or history of security apparatus work neither in the Soviet regime, nor in Post-Cold War Russia. Vaino, a career statesman, diplomat and academic, is part of the late generation of Soviet skeptics and cynics who grew up seeing the long lineups for basic produce and clothes. Vaino’s generation lived far from the idealistic mentality of his predecessors, including Putin. As the old guard of former KGB operatives leaves the Kremlin, we, in the West, will soon have to adapt to a new Russia, and its new foreign policies, beyond the aged Siloviki.
Dani Belo specializes in Russian foreign policy and NATO-Russian relations. He is a first year MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs specializing in Conflict Analysis, Management and Resolution. He holds a BA (Hons.) in Political Science and International Relations, and a Minor in Russian Studies, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. Dani’s research focuses on Russia’s foreign policy and strategy vis-à-vis NATO in Europe and the Arctic region.
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