22.03.23 Expertise

Children, Chaebols and Adjutants: Human resource policy during the war’s first year

Nikolay Petrov
Head of the Centre for Political-Geographic Research, Visiting Researcher at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Berlin)

In autocracies, the place of public politics is occupied by personnel politics, which becomes both the reflection and the result of struggles among elite factions, influence groups, and corporate interests, all of which are not able to be balanced out by the activities of public parties and associations. By studying Russian HR policy during the first year of the war, political scientist Nikolai Petrov attempts to gain insight into the mechanics of this non-public process, to identify its real actors, and trace the shifting principles and logic of human resource decision-making. 

In Russia's bureaucracy today, active lateral moves at the level of middle management level are coupled with stagnation in the upper tier of pro-Putin ‘patrons’. As a result, these movements merely camouflage the unchanging status quo and the absence of managerial results. Over the past year, this situation has been manifested most clearly in Putin's relationship with the army corps. What stands out against this backdrop, however, are the two opportunities for career elevation that have been operating in Russia in recent years — ‘adjutants'’ and ‘children’. The former are becoming a kind of personal ‘praetorian guard’ for Putin, spread throughout the regime's bureaucratic and security mechanisms. The latter occupy increasingly prominent roles within the structure of Putin's chaebols (a conglomerate run and controlled by an individual or family), under the patronage of Putin's long standing allies. Amid the tectonic social shifts that have resulted from Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there appear to have been only a modest number of cadre changes during the first year of the war. However, this is most likely a lull caused by confusion in the face of setbacks.

The cadres go off to war: the main trends of the first year 

Surprisingly, against the backdrop of genuinely historic upheavals and sweeping social shifts, the wartime year of 2022 was not filled with high-profile personnel reshuffles. In reality, there were a number of few personnel replacements and appointments, but they tended to happen either ‘below the radar’ (at the level of deputy ministers and heads of agencies and services) or ‘off the radar’ entirely, meaning they took place among the siloviki, and there is very little reliable information about those changes. At the same time, despite the failure of the initial plan for the invasion and the army's obvious failures, there have been no high-profile replacements in the security bloc, which is indicative in and of itself.

During the first year of the war, there were very few important and high-profile personnel decisions: the replacement of five governors on 10 May 2022, the appointment of Alexander Kurenkov as the Minister for Emergency Situations on May 25th, the triple reshuffle of Deputy Prime Ministers Manturov-Borisov-Rogozin on July 15th, Alexei Kudrin's resignation as Chairman of the Audit Chamber in November, and most recently, Vladimir Bulavin's resignation as head of the Federal Customs Service in February 2023. Vladimir Putin is keen to demonstrate the stability of the system, but its insularity and lack of transparency arguably work in the opposite direction, generating nervousness and waves of rumours.

At the same time, Putin's most significant achievement against the backdrop of the war and resulting international isolation has undoubtedly been the absence of high-profile cases of ‘flight’ among the top layer of the bureaucracy, including the so-called technocrats. The last relics of the 1990s, Anatoly Chubais and Alexei Kudrin, ‘requested an exemption’ from Putin, leaving quietly and without indicating their opposition to the situation. And the Chairman of the Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina, who was rumoured to have asked to be allowed to resign, was reappointed just a month after the invasion. All this was a display of Putin's complete control over his staff. Within the government, several individuals at the rank of deputy minister or below resigned, but none of these did so ‘loudly’; in state business, several top executives of the Aeroflot Group left. In a situation where the war in Ukraine came as a complete surprise to most cadres, this is not so much indicative of the high degree of loyalty, but rather a sign of the fear created by the system’s highly repressive nature towards its own administration.

If we take a look at the general trends, however, the personnel policy of the past year looked broadly like a continuation of the trends that have been established over recent years. High turnover within the middle ranks — in the governor's corps, at the level of agencies and departments, where ‘political appointees’ move horizontally — hides a high level of immobility among the personnel in the upper ranks. This inner circle is made up of political and security oligarch-patrons who, for the most part, have been at the top of Putin's power pyramid for a very long time. As a rule, they had business and personal ties to Putin before he arrived in the Kremlin. This upper circle (first order clienteles) includes, despite differences in their positions and functions in the power hierarchy, Yuri Kovalchuk, Nikolai Patrushev, Arkady Rotenberg, Igor Sechin, Sergey Sobyanin, Gennady Timchenko, Sergey Chemezov. They each already have their own extensive patron-client relationships within the administrative chain and the power structures in the lower rung of management and law enforcement.

It is at this next level that significant personnel movement takes place. This movement is usually related to the interests of and competition among the oligarch-patrons. However, these movements do not fundamentally alter the fundamental balance of power within the pyramid built in Putin's interests. However, while new players have little chance of making it into the big leagues, changes are still occurring. If we compare the ranks of Putin’s current top clientele with those of the 2000s, we can see significant changes in its composition. It is, therefore, worth keeping a close eye on the elements of novelty within the top strata of the pyramid, and the corresponding selection mechanisms. And, in this respect, two types of ‘high-flyers’ can be distinguished in recent years — Putin's ‘adjutants’ and ‘children’. Their capabilities are not tied to their accumulated power, financial, media, and other resources but to the ‘personal trust’ of their patron-in-chief. They act as kinds of avatars for Putin himself and his sub-patrons.

The solitaire of generals: secrecy, stability and haphazardness

However, the fundamental conservatism of Putin's personnel policy has manifested itself even in the most sensitive areas during the first wartime year: the army and the siloviki, which are tasked with maintaining the ‘special military operation’.

Demonstrable stability among civilian officials over the past year was more than offset by an abundance of rumours regarding the reshuffling of and even arrests in the security bloc in response to apparent failures and setbacks during the war and during its preparatory phase. However, none of the numerous rumours of arrests have yet to be substantiated. Moreover, given the abundance of rumours, reflecting the widespread expectation that there would be resignations and dismissals, their absence seems particularly significant, especially among the leadership of the leading law enforcement agencies responsible for the ‘special operation’ — the Ministry of Defense and the FSB. The personnel decisions that have been taken have mostly appeared to be impromptu movements of generals from one position to another, creating the impression of a hectic and haphazard procedure.

Only the announcement on September 24 of the resignation of Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Bulgakov, who was responsible for army logistics, and Igor Osipov, who was removed as commander of the Black Sea Fleet on August 10, 2022 (but who disappeared from the picture immediately after the sinking of the Moskva missile cruiser on April 13), have been confirmed.

Little is publicly known about what was happening in the military high command and how the management of the operation was organised during the first months after the full-scale invasion. It was not until July that the Ministry of Defence revealed the names of the commanders involved in the operations of the South, West, Centre and East groups. The ‘special operation’ did not have an official commander, but the Minister of Defence Shoigu de facto served as its main ‘face’ in the public arena. This was confirmed by his reports to Putin during their personal meetings in April, July, and October and his speech which was ‘coupled’ with that of the president regarding ‘partial mobilisation’ and army reform.

In the autumn, after a series of repeated setbacks for the Russian army, the Kremlin's approach shifted: in October, the Joint Group of Russian Forces had its first official commander. Army General Sergey Surovikin, who previously commanded the Southern Group, was appointed the commander. His three-month stint in command included the surrender of the previously captured Kherson and the beginning of heavy bombardment of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. However, immediately after the New Year, a new commander of the United Group was appointed — the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, who has been heavily criticised by the head of Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, right before his appointment. This appointment was preceded by a surprise visit by Putin to the Southern Military District headquarters, which was interpreted as a demonstration of restored confidence in the military top brass by the Commander-in-Chief.

The chaotic reshuffling of the generals persisted throughout the year. In late September, for example, General Roman Berdnikov was appointed commander of the Western Military District, but, as early as December 13th, he was replaced by General Kuzovlev. Kuzovlev was then promoted to Commander of the Southern Military District a month later. Finally, General Lapin, who commanded the Centre group at the onset of the invasion, received the title of Hero of Russia in July, left his post in October, according to media reports, and some time later was appointed Chief of Staff of the Ground Forces.

This chaotic pattern of dismissals and appointments can be attributed to a hysterical reaction to the malfunctioning of the military machine. At the same time, the absence of principled and exemplary dismissals of the heads of the departments and groups who made mistakes or failed to fulfil their tasks, indicates that the established mechanism of governance is not changing and is unlikely to change in the future, and responsibility for the failures is yet to be assigned to anyone in particular. The rotation of army generals looks like a constant shuffling deck of cards in a giant personnel solitaire. This shuffling was presumably taking place before the invasion, but now, when it is more a matter of who will become General Defeat, its ineffectiveness appears more striking.

School-bench governors: rotation, status quo, and double loyalties

Two and a half months after the invasion, on May 10th 2022, the Kremlin replaced five governors in one fell swoop. The rotation of governors in the run-up to the September regional elections usually takes place earlier (like this year, when it already happened in March) so that the new appointees have time to take control of the regional political machines and ensure a strong electoral result for themselves. Rumour has it that this delay was due to the fact that, after the failure of the blitzkrieg in Ukraine, there was serious discussion in the Kremlin about the possibility of cancelling the autumn elections. The war put the system's normal functioning on hold altogether, and domestic politics only ‘returned’ to the agenda in May.

In last year's gubernatorial rotations, Sergei Zhvachkin (Tomsk Oblast) and Valery Radayev (Saratov Oblast) completed their second terms in office, while Igor Vasilyev (Kirov Oblast), Alexander Yevstifeev (Mari El), and Nikolai Lyubimov (Ryazan Oblast) finished their first. There were certain qualms with respect to all of them, both from the Kremlin (low approval ratings and election-related issues) and law enforcers (as evidenced by arrests of those within the gubernatorial teams). The two are evidently related: such claims continue to exist today against many governors, who are all under double pressure from the Presidential Administration and law enforcement agencies.

Most of the newly appointed governors, just like their predecessors, received some sort of special training in the so-called governors' school, a programme within the Higher School of Public Administration (supervised by Sergei Kirienko). Each governor, with the exception of the special case of Saratov, has experience at both the federal and regional levels. Most of these newly appointees are 9-10 years younger than their predecessors; only Saratov Oblast has seen a radical generational change. The average age of governors in this region dropped by 12 years as a result of the elections.

In two cases — Tomsk and Kirov Oblasts — the career trajectories of the new governors resemble Soviet times, when the Second Secretaries of the CPSU Regional Committees, before being appointed as First Secretaries, underwent two to three years of internship in the Central Committee apparatus. Vladimir Mazur and Alexander Sokolov, former first deputy governors in Kaluga and Kostroma, worked within the Presidential Administration, the Domestic Policy Directorate, and the State Council Support Department, respectively.

In the mid-2010s, the main trend within the rotation of governors was the replacement of local elites with 'outsiders' who had no connection to the region whatsoever. In the most sweeping set of ‘Kirienkov’ gubernatorial replacements, in 2016-2018, 57% of the 47 newly appointed heads were outsiders, according to calculations by political scientist Alexander Kynev, who has described this phenomenon. It is these appointees who are now up for re-election. The status quo is maintained in all five 2022 replacements: in three regions, the ‘outsiders’ were replaced by other ‘outsiders’, and in two regions, the locals were replaced by locals.

The status quo is maintained not only in this respect but also with regard to the large patronage networks at the federal level. It is believed that the majority of the new heads owe their appointment to Kirienko, but this means that they all have ‘dual loyalties’. For example, the new head of Tomsk, Vladimir Mazur, used to work in Tyumen and is believed to be patronised by Sergei Sobyanin. Telegram channels link the appointment of Yuri Zaitsev’s appointment in Mari El to the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin. Little is known about Zaitsev other than that he graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages. Opinion is divided over the former head of Rosstat, Pavel Malkov, who was appointed to Ryazan: some trace his Saratov roots to Vyacheslav Volodin, while others have called him a protegé of presidential aide Maxim Oreshkin (it was during Oreshkin’s term as the economy minister that Malkov made his career jump to the chair of Rosstat, which is affiliated with the ministry).

The new governor of Saratov, Roman Busargin, who previously worked as the head of the regional government before this appointment, is undoubtedly a ‘Volodin’ man. Busargin is out of step with the rest of the crowd: he is part of the local elite and did not go through the ‘governor school’. However, there is an opinion that this appointment testifies not so much to the strong position of the Speaker of the State Duma, but rather to the stalemate in the rivalry between Igor Sechin and Yury Kovalchuk, thanks to which Saratov got a ‘third’ patron. According to the widespread view among bureaucratic and business elites, the rivalry between Sechin and Kovalchuk, each of whom has their own ‘elite party’ and ‘management model’, was the main intrigue of the May 10 appointments.

One way or another, the shuffling of the gubernatorial deck played out without any apparent regard for the war. Mobilisation and the introduction of a special ruling order were at that time still a long way off. At the same time, the second generation of Kirienkov appointees who passed through the ‘governor school’ in the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration differed little from the previous appointees. There has been no career advancement among most of those who have been replaced, and so far, a governorship does not appear to be very advantageous as a career springboard.

Change of Governors, May 10th 2022 (index of embeddedness of the governor in the regional elite at the time of appointment: 1 — ‘outsider’, 5 — representative of the local elite, whose entire career has developed in the region)


Outgoing governor

Year of birth

Served from 

Relationship to the region

New Governor

Year of Birth

Relationship to the region

Previous employment

Tomsk region

Sergei Zhvachkin




Vladimir Mazur



Presidential Administration

Kirov region

Igor Vasiliev




Alexander Sokolov



Presidential Administration

Saratov region

Valery Radaev




Roman Busargin



Head of the regional government

Mari El Republic

Alexander Evstifeev




Yuri Zaitsev



Head of the government of Kalmykia

Ryazan region

Nikolay Lyubimov




Pavel Malkov



Head of the Federal State Statistics Service

The burden of the adjutants: watching the watchmen

One of the most recent but significant personnel decisions of the pre-war period was the appointment in October 2021 of Dmitry Mironov, Putin's former aide-de-camp, as Presidential Aide for the civil service and personnel policy, who replaced Anatoly Seryshev (a former FSB official who had held the post since 2018), who was sent to the post of Plenipotentiary Minister in the Siberian Federal District.

And, on May 23rd, after a recess of almost nine months, the vacant position of Minister of Emergency Situations, which had been vacated following the death of Putin’s former security guard Yevgeny Zinichev, was also filled. The newly appointed minister was fifty-year-old Alexander Kurenkov, yet another former adjutant to Putin. Having graduated in 2021 from the Higher Courses at the Military Academy of the General Staff, in addition to his first degree in physical education, Kurenkov was for a while an assistant to the Director of Rosgvardia Viktor Zolotov. On the eve of his new appointment, which was carried out by closed presidential decree which became public retroactively, he was appointed deputy director of Rosgvardia.

Interestingly, on the very day that Kurenkov was confirmed in his post, Deputy Minister Andrei Gurovich, who came to the Finance Ministry under Zinichev, was dismissed and subsequently arrested on charges of abuse of office. Purges within the ministry are continuing, with Zinichev's former Chief of Staff, who had transferred with him from the FSB, among those detained.

Regarding the appointment of Kurenkov, it is necessary to discuss the phenomenon of Putin's ‘praetorian guard’ in more detail. This trend involves the promotion of the president's personal bodyguards and aides to government posts. The bureaucratic 'expansion of the Federal Guard Service' began with the appointment of Viktor Zolotov, the longtime head of the Presidential Security Service, as first Deputy Commander and then Commander of the Interior Troops (2013), which had been transformed into a separate department in 2016 — the Rosgvardia (Federal Guard Service). Moreover, in 2016, Putin's personal bodyguards, Yevgeny Zinichev, Alexei Dyumin, Dmitry Mironov, and Sergei Morozov, were appointed governors. The latter was replaced by Igor Babushkin (yet another of Vladimir Putin’s former personal guards) before his election to the post of governor of the Astrakhan Region. This scheme typically involves the formal appointment of Putin's lieutenants to a high-ranking government post for a month or two, say, deputy minister in a law enforcement agency with the rank of general, and they would then be promoted to the post of governor, which is perceived by appointees as a bridge to a federal career.

This was the case with Zinichev, who, after a couple of months as governor of the Kaliningrad Region, was first appointed Deputy Director of the FSB and then head of the Emergencies Ministry. The aforementioned Mironov, served a full term as governor of the Yaroslavl Region before being appointed in 2021 as assistant to the president, overseeing personnel issues within the security and law enforcement agencies. In June 2022, after the full-scale invasion, Mironov also became the head of the Kremlin's Commission on Civil Service Issues; as a result, his powers were expanded to the level of a personnel ‘grey cardinal’. This position is similar to that carried out by Viktor Ivanov during Putin's second presidential term. The commission has subsequently been chaired by the heads of the Presidential Administration, Sergey Ivanov and Anton Vaino. However, under Vaino, these critical competencies have come under the direct control of the FSB-FGS. This  indicates a weakening of the position of the Head of Administration and a kind of ‘decentralisation’ of the Administration. 

Once the war had begun, we learned more about the new appointments ofPutin's security guards to high posts: besides Kurenkov in the Emergencies Ministry, there was also Roman Gavrilov, who resigned in March as Deputy Head of Rosgvardia, where he implemented a major purge of the department's leadership. As a result, Putin's ‘praetorians’ are now responsible for law enforcement personnel (Mironov); they head up two important law enforcement agencies: the Federal Guard Service (Zolotov) and the Emergencies Ministry (Kurenkov), and they are at the head of two regions: Tula (Dumin) and Astrakhan (Babushkin).

As is often the case in despotic regimes, Vladimir Putin has increasingly used his corps of bodyguards as a personnel reserve. At the same time, in a certain number of cases, they have performed the functions of ‘cleaners’ within law enforcement agencies (Mironov in the Interior Ministry in the mid-2010s, Zinichev in the Emergencies Ministry in 2018, Gavrilov in the Federal Guard Service in 2019-2022) or ‘cadre supervisors’ (again, Mironov). All this points to the significant and apparently growing influence of the Presidential Security Service, which acts not only as a guarantor of Putin's personal power but also in part as a ‘supervisor’ of other security agencies. The role of the bodyguards is also that of ‘cleansers’. For obvious reasons, the bodyguards do not have their own teams, so they are forced to recruit people from outside. At the same time, the practised model of radically changing the leadership of security (the Federal Guard Service) and quasi-security (the Emergencies Ministry) corporations involves the rigorous replacement of the teams that control financial flows, even when one trusted adjutant replaces another.

Adjutants and bodyguards in Russian politics

Year of birth

Time in FSC

Subsequent positions (1)

Subsequent positions (2)

Viktor Zolotov




First deputy head of the Interior Ministry, 2013-2016

Head of Rosgvardia, 2016-

Yevgeny Zinichev 



Head of the Federal Security Service of Kaliningrad Oblast, 2015-2016; Acting Governor of Kaliningrad Oblast, July-October 2016; Deputy Director of the Russian Federal Security Service, 2016-2018

Minister for Emergency Situations, 2018-2021

Alexei Dumin 



Commander of Special Operations Forces, 2014; First Deputy Commander of the Ground Forces, 2015; Deputy Minister of Defence, December 2015

Governor of Tula Region, 2016

Alexander Kurenkov 



Assistant to the head of Rosgvardia, 2021; deputy head of Rosgvardia, 2022

Minister for Emergency Situations, 2022

Roman Gavrilov 



Head of Rosgvardia's Security Department, Deputy Head of Rosgvardia, 2017-2022

Dmitry Mironov 



Interior Ministry: Assistant Minister, 2013; Head of GUEBiPK, 2014; Deputy Minister, 2015-2016; Governor of the Yaroslavl Region, 2016-2021

Assistant to the President of the Russian Federation, 2021-

Igor Babushkin 



Deputy Head of the Federal Property Management Agency, 2013-2018; Deputy Plenipotentiary Envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, 2018-2019

Governor of Astrakhan Region, 2019-

Sergey Morozov 



Assistant to the Minister of Defence, 2016-2017; deputy head of the Federal Customs Service, 2017-2018

Acting Governor of Astrakhan Oblast, 2018-2019

Import substitution of deputy prime ministers: ‘children’ and ‘chaebols’

On July 15, a little over a week after the end of the spring session, the Duma deputies were urgently called back from the regions and their holidays to convene for an emergency session. This emergency sparked a wave of rumours reflecting the state of governance in the fourth month of the war. Was this meeting related to a potential announcement of referendums on the annexation of the occupied territories of Ukraine, the announcement of mobilisation, the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, or the adoption of landmark government initiatives?

Putin signed a decree on July 12 introducing the position of an eleventh Deputy Prime Minister — the Minister of Industry and Trade — into the government, indicating a more modest version of events related to staffing. There were eleven deputy prime minister positions within Mishustin's government for three days, from the presidential decree on July 12 to a new decree on July 15 which restored the number of Deputy Prime Minister positions to 10. And, in fact, the government had 11 Deputy Prime Ministers for just a single minute — from 14:44 on 15 July, when Denis Manturov was appointed to the post, to 14:45, when Yuri Borisov was relieved of his position as Deputy Prime Minister. Minutes later, Putin signed a decree reducing the number of Deputy Prime Ministers to 10 once again. This was due to the functionality of Manturov's new position, ‘Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Industry and Trade,’ which was not the same as that of Borisov, a simple Deputy Prime Minister: Denis Manturov received a position which had been specifically created for him. After holding a two-hour question-and-answer session with Manturov, the Duma confirmed his position in office almost unanimously (394 votes in favour, with one abstention). Yet just two weeks earlier, Andrei Makarov, Chairman of the Duma Budget and Taxes Committee, had claimed that Manturov failed the government's import substitution programme.

Manturov represents a younger generation of officials and is commonly referred to as ‘a minister with the mannerisms of an oligarch’. Today, along with Anton Vaino, he is the highest-ranking representative of the generation of ‘children’, that is, the offspring of associates and children of the friends of Putin's associates. Among their ranks is also Dmitry Patrushev, who has been Minister of Agriculture since 2018; and Sergei Ivanov Jr, who has been CEO and Chairman of Alrosa since 2017; several others might also be included in this group. Incidentally, at the same time that Manturov acquired his special post, Putin's daughter Katerina Tikhonova became the Chairwoman of the Commission on Import Substitution of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

Denis Manturov is close to Sergei Chemezov, with whom he shares a number of family business connections in Krasnodar Krai and Moscow (in particular, according to a journalistic investigation, the Manturovs and the Chemezovs were found to co-own the Gelendzhik seaport). Most of these businesses are under the control of Financial Systems and Financial Investments, companies owned by the families of Manturov and Stanislav Chemezov, the son of Putin's oligarch. Manturov has been closely associated with Chemezov since his first business was founded and throughout his subsequent government career, and since 2012, he has headed the Supervisory Board of Rostekh.

Thus, his promotion to the rank of Deputy Prime Minister essentially consolidates Chemezov's industrial empire and Manturov's ministerial powers into a single administrative-industrial holding, which further strengthens the status of the Chemezov structure as a kind of state within a state. At the same time, the Chemezov-Manturov group is responsible for two interrelated areas, which are currently central to the Putin regime: the military-industrial complex and import substitution.

Generally speaking, this administrative structure is a development of the general trend toward the formation of a kind of ‘chaebol’ — a diversified conglomerate that performs a wide variety of functions — under the direct control of Putin. Besides Rostekh, these include Gazprom, Rosneft, VTB, VEB.RF, Sberbank, Rosatom, and the Kurchatov Institute. At the head of these chaebols are Putin's loyal associates: Miller, Chemezov, Sechin, Kostin, Shuvalov, Gref, Kirienko-Likhachev, and Kovalchuk. On an ad hoc and permanent basis, the chaebols perform a variety of non-core economic and political functions, whether it be the tasks of the Northern Sea Route operator and icebreaker construction, pollution abatement, management of Sakhalin, or of the Vladivostok seaport in the case of Rosatom; assistance to Venezuela, the launch of the Zvezda shipbuilding complex in the Far East and a genetic research programme under the patronage of Putin's daughter in the case of Rosneft, and so on.

However, in the face of war and sanctions, the role of the Chemezov-Manturov chaebol has increased exponentially. It now has the task of ensuring the smooth functioning of the military-industrial complex, of which Rostekh is the nexus, and of finding ways to offset sanctions restrictions. The experience of Manturov, who was responsible for production and the restructuring of supply and distribution chains during the recent pandemic, is in high demand here. However, the effectiveness of Manturov, who has headed the Ministry of Industry for over a decade, remains the subject of debate, unlike his integration into the ecosystem of ‘children’ and chaebols.

Harbingers of a storm: is a third customs war coming?

The impression of a stagnant personnel situation may, however, prove to be deceptive. The resignation of the head of the Federal Customs Service, Vladimir Bulavin, on February 10 went almost unnoticed by the general public, but it could well be a sign or harbinger of important changes ahead or even a personnel storm. In any case, all previous replacements to the position of the Head of the Customs Agency were part of a fierce bureaucratic struggle, important changes in personnel policy, and even a rotation of generations and influence groups in Putin's entourage and the siloviki bloc.

On October 25, 2022, on Customs Officer's Day, there was a customary meeting between Putin and Bulavin, the Chief Customs Officer. The meeting seemed to indicate the latter's solid position. But, events continued to unfold at a rapid pace. The fact is that Bulavin's inconspicuous departure from his post was preceded on December 9 by the arrest of Bulavin’s ally General Dmitry Muryshov, the head of the Federal Customs Service's anti-corruption department.

The official reason for Bulavin's resignation was that he had reached the age of 70. However, it should be noted that Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and FSB head Alexander Bortnikov will soon turn 72, and Putin has extended their service terms via special decrees. Others, who are not part of the inner circle, are being forced to leave. On February 1st, Yury Averyanov, the First Deputy Secretary of Patrushev's Security Council, retired due to his age. Interestingly, Bulavin was his First Deputy in the Council of Ministers. Thus, while Patrushev himself remains in office despite his venerable age, his peers, the people he brought to the Security Council, are being forced to leave.

The arrest of Muryshov, however, has given a new dimension to retirement ‘due to age’. A career Chekist himself, General Bulavin has replaced another FSB exile, Andrei Belyaninov, who ran the service between 2006 and 2016, and was considered a protege of Sergei Chemezov (he was head of Rosvooruzhenie before his appointment as the Director of the Customs Service). Belyaninov's resignation was preceded by searches of his home (as well as the homes of his two deputies), with pictures of the searches immediately made available to the press.

It is believed that by taking root at the Federal Customs Service, Belyaninov was able to weaken the FSB's external control over ‘his’ corporation by locking anti-corruption controls into his agency's own security service. However, in the mid-2010s, Vladimir Putin had just carried out a wave of ‘centralisation’ of management, which had led to the destruction of numerous administrative and economic ‘fiefdoms’ which had developed back in the 2000s. In the course of this wave, associates from Putin's first terms left the corporate-bureaucratic scene, including Vladimir Kozhin (from the post of Presidential Administration Manager, May 2014), Vladimir Yakunin (from the post of Head of Russian Railways, August 2015), Viktor Ivanov (together with the Drug Control Service he headed, FSKN, April 2016) and Yevgeny Murov (from the post of Director of the Federal Security Service, May 2016). Andrei Belyaninov's resignation (following a search by police, July 2016) appears to be a part of this rotation.

The arrest of Muryshov, who was responsible for combating corruption at the Federal Customs Service, is part of a new episode of systemic conflict over external (from the FSB) or internal (from its own security service) control over the agency, and at the same time an important stage in the struggle for the position of its head. The corporate conflict between the FSB and the Federal Customs Service has a long history and is periodically replayed regardless of the personalities involved on either side by both corporations. For example, in the early 2000s, the Customs Service was rocked by a powerful scandal known as the ‘Three Whales case’, which was the object of a full-scale war between the security services of the Customs Service and the Interior Ministry, on one side, and the FSB and the Prosecutor General's Office, on the other. In the midst of this scandal, Andrey Belyaninov was appointed to the position of Head of the Customs Service.

It is believed that his deputy Oleg Gubaidulin, an FSB general ‘attached’ to the FCS, who previously served in the FSB's Internal Security Directorate. Gubaidulin has maintained close relations both with that service, which carried out the operation against Muryshov and with Ivan Tkachev, the head of the ‘K’ Department, who in turn is believed to be closely associated with Igor Sechin, the man behind the arrests of Muryshov and other people in Bulavin's inner circle. Thus, the fight for the Federal Customs Service seems to involve the next generation of FSB generals (Tkachev, Gubaidulin), pushing back against the older ‘Patrushev’ ranks.

However, another party may reveal itself in the struggle for control over the Federal Customs Service. For many years, the government (especially in 2014-2018) has discussed the possibility of merging or centralising the management of the Federal Customs Service and the Federal Tax Service. With the arrival of the former Head of the Federal Tax ServiceMishustin to the premiership, the likelihood of a scenario of management centralisation of the two services under Daniel Yegorov, who succeeded him as head of the Federal Tax Service, is ever-growing. A plan to merge the two services at the level of operational interaction and even to hold joint boards is already partially underway. Now there are additional reasons in favour of this idea. When the government desperately struggles for budget revenues, the successful experience of digitalisation that contributed to Mishustin's career may be in demand.

The inertia of the personnel policy of the course of the first year of the war should not be taken for granted. With relatively few public replacements and a stable cadre of Putin's nomenklatura, the war has triggered a tectonic shift within the country’s elites, resulting in an accelerated redistribution of power, property, and political influence. During the first year of the war, a very active generation of oligarchs from the 1990s and 2000s -—Fridman and Aven, Alekperov, Usmanov, Tinkov, and others — have finally left the stage. Their legacy will likely be fiercely contested, a process that may begin as early as this year. At the same time, the influence, and therefore competition, among Putin's oligarchs is increasing. All this could lead to serious conflicts and changes in the near future. But this will not change the system.

As we have observed, Putin's promotion of his guards (‘Praetorian Guard’) as well as the ‘generation of children’ is not so much a generational reproduction of the system, but rather is the next step in the evolution of the personalist autocracy in the absence of public policy. The result is the ageing autocrat's distrust of the personnel mechanisms within the system he has built himself, his desire to control this system via a very narrow circle of extremely close associates, and at the same time his unwillingness to reorganise the management mechanisms and replace the previous appointees, even if they have failed in the implementation of seemingly key decisions. 

Personnel policy in the context of the war has become a reality check for the system Putin has constructed, and it does not look effective, either in its process or its results. But, for Putin, who has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century, it is too late to make any substantive changes. He has no choice but to fall back on old Stalinist templates and rely on his old cadres.