When Sergei Kiriyenko, then head of the state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, was appointed first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration on October 5, two hypotheses were most popular for explaining the unexpected news: that Kiriyenko was being installed to implement certain political reforms, or that he had been tasked with overseeing the continued running of the existing political machine. Several questions related to his appointment, however, suggest that Kiriyenko’s assignment will be somewhere in between the two.

The appointment of Kiriyenko, a former prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, is not a straightforward step up the career ladder; it is more akin to being called back into play from the bench. It is the promotion of a politician who had been forced to go on a hiatus from main-stage politics. 

The departure of Kiriyenko’s predecessor Vyacheslav Volodin was known two months before the latter moved to the State Duma, which means that President Vladimir Putin had started thinking about Volodin’s replacement back in the summer. So the first question is: why was Kiriyenko chosen off the bench with at least a month’s notice?

The second question is: was he forced into taking the job? All signs indicate that he was not: Kiriyenko’s protégé Alexei Likhachev has taken over from him at Rosatom, and there have been no disruptions in Rosatom’s operations or unwelcome attention paid to the corporation by the security services. 

It’s not immediately clear, however, why Kiriyenko would accept the job voluntarily. A decade ago, his transfer to the Kremlin would have looked like a promotion, or even a liberal rollback following the state-led dismantling of Yukos oil company. In 2016, however, it looks like a risky move for both Putin and the new domestic politics curator.

Kiriyenko had earned his place in history as a young politician, albeit as an economic reformer whose Cabinet oversaw the 1998 default—but he stepped out of the limelight just in time. His biography would have been complete with the success of Rosatom under his leadership. Now his future depends on Putin’s murky political plans.

So if he took the job willingly, then he must have had some sort of objective in mind, or a vision for what he could achieve in the Kremlin. And here lies the third question: what, in practice, will Kiriyenko’s role as first deputy chief of staff entail? 

A domestic politics curator has two related but distinct functions. On one hand, he is an ideologist tasked with providing various interpretations for the rules and restrictions of the political system, as well as evaluating developments in relation to the system’s requirements.

On the other hand, he is the country’s main political strategist. In “peacetime”—between elections—he moderates public discussion, but when it’s time for action, he is responsible for making sure the Kremlin gets the election results it wants.

Russia’s next election is the presidential one scheduled for 2018. Was Kiriyenko hired to oversee the election and ensure Putin’s victory? Unlikely: surely he could not supervise the election for Putin’s fourth term better than Volodin, who once said “No Putin, no Russia.”

Let’s imagine that the 2018 election will be the purview of the other recently appointed technocrat, chief of staff Anton Vaino, and that Kiriyenko was tapped to carry out reforms or orchestrate a reset, and not just to take the helm of the existing political system. Can Kiriyenko breathe new life into politics? It’s a possibility. He is now in charge of state-controlled media, though he is not the only one with such access. But what would Kiriyenko do: choreograph occasional appearances by liberals on the political stage? Technically, liberals already appear, though perhaps not all of them. This isn’t unimaginable, but it seems highly unlikely that Kiriyenko would have traded his prestigious, cloistered seat for the bitter bread of a Kremlin spin doctor in order to stage-manage the liberal opposition on state-controlled Channel One. 

The limits in domestic politics are currently set by foreign policy, which is driven by the president’s ideology: Russia is in a confrontation with the West, and this will not change while Putin is in office or within the immediate future after his departure.

So we don’t know why Putin chose Kiriyenko, and while it seems that no one twisted Kiriyenko’s arm, we know nothing about his mandate. The next logical question is: what does his appointment signify? 

Here it is helpful to look back at the reign of Volodin, who did not build his own political machine, but was only finishing the job started by his own predecessor, Vladislav Surkov. 

Volodin was clearly a weaker strategist. Surkov and his famous “sovereign democracy” could take almost any situation that his superiors had run into a dead end and turn it around to look like a clever scheme. Volodin never devised grand schemes or broad strategic plans. When a situation was dead-ended by his superiors, he simply abandoned one strategy and took up the next.

Another major difference was Volodin’s poor understanding of the link between the economic and political agendas. Volodin was unable to promote the Kremlin’s economic ideas as independent PR projects. This is why Putin’s strategic objectives for the country, known as the May decrees, never became the symbol of the president’s third term, no matter how much publicity and effort was afforded to them. The Kremlin’s main spin doctor simply didn’t know how to sell those ideas.

Volodin was good, however, at promoting himself, prompting the media, think tanks, and consultancies to label him the third or fourth most influential politician in Russia in recent years. There is a persistent rumor that Volodin’s love for self-promotion ultimately brought about his downfall. At an off-the-record meeting with journalists in September, Putin allegedly cited “trust issues” in response to a question about Volodin’s dismissal.

The appointment of two competent politicians Kiriyenko and Vaino is said to have solved two problems: the supposed ineffectiveness of former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, and Volodin’s reported ineptitude as a spin doctor, multiplied by a small but unquestionable cult of personality and love of intrigue. 

Both Kiriyenko and Vaino have experience in crisis management, and the question of trust also appears to be resolved. The new chief of staff, Vaino, is close to Putin and keeps a low profile. His first deputy Kiriyenko doesn’t enjoy the same proximity to the president, but has significant status and experience, and has been largely out of the public eye for the past decade.

Putin has reinforced his administration with straight-laced functionaries who aren’t complete outsiders and yet clearly must bring skills and experience to the table rather than just being someone’s protégés.

So what will the two behind-the-scenes technocrats, hired at the same time and with similar management styles, do at the Kremlin? They have no say in foreign policy—and based on Putin’s latest speeches, he has no desire to change foreign policy. In domestic politics, too, they cannot change course unless the president desires it. So it seems that both are awaiting orders. Neither was hired to conduct business as usual. Each must have a mission of some sort, a specific project to carry out. Is it early elections, major constitutional changes, or something else equally important? We’ll find out soon.

  • Konstantin Gaaze