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All the President’s Eunuchs

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has been methodically purging his closest and longest-serving advisers. The latest – but surely not the last – victim is Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB operative (like Putin himself) and defense minister who has just been forced out as Kremlin chief of staff.

Ivanov, a relatively substantive policymaker, is being replaced by a toothless factotum: the former head of the Protocol Schedule Directorate, Anton Vaino. Likewise, the reform-minded education and science minister, Dmitry Livanov, has been fired and replaced with the faceless apparatchik Olga Vasilyeva, a rare woman appointee known only for her Stalinist views (imagine the French president handing an important cabinet position to a mid-level official from the far-right National Front).

As usual, Putin is offering no real explanation for these changes, leaving Kremlinologists – who have gained a new lease on life under Putin – little to work with other than a clear pattern: those who could speak to the president as equals are being replaced by those whom he has created, and who owe their careers to him.

Why now? According to a member of Putin’s inner circle during the early years of his regime, the latest purge simply reflects the president’s idea of effective management. Years ago, during a meeting between Putin and his regional plenipotentiaries – whose job was essentially to keep an eye on regional governors – someone in attendance asked the president how he would describe the envoys’ role. He replied that, “Well, they are supposed to be sort of…liaison officers.”