In the new Russian Cabinet finalized on May 18, almost half the ministers are newcomers. The process of assembling the Cabinet was somewhat drawn out: candidates were discussed until the last moment, and some of the decisions defied initial plans and expectations. 

This is because the selection of ministers was sidelined from President Vladimir Putin’s main agenda, which still focuses on foreign policy. This is neither a Putin Cabinet nor the Cabinet of newly reappointed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It is a Medvedev Cabinet of Ministers under Putin: a less technical and much more politicized structure than the previous iteration.

Upon returning to the post of prime minister in 2012 after a stint as president, Medvedev had to confine himself to appointments that would not upset the key clans and groups of influence. That Cabinet was depoliticized; it lacked its own agenda and suffered from administrative paralysis. We can’t say the same of the new Cabinet. It is full of representatives of clans, groups of influence, and corporations, as well as political appointees.

The camp gaining ground today is that which has long advocated economic stability, mostly represented by the Finance Ministry and central bank, which have fought to preserve sovereign funds and promote macroeconomic and budgetary stability, and argued for more saving and less spending. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov became first deputy prime minister, and former finance minister and former head of the Audit Chamber Tatyana Golikova was appointed deputy prime minister for social policy.

The new Cabinet has quite a few ministers who have no ties to corporate clans, who are true professionals in their fields, who keep their distance from political games, and who behave like technocrats. The workhorses among the deputy prime ministers include Olga Golodets (overseeing culture and sports), Maxim Akimov (digital economy, transportation, and communications), Alexei Gordeev (agro-industrial complex), and Yury Trutnev (Far East). The only newcomer among them is Akimov, but he was the key curator of the digital economy in the administration and is a striking example of a young technocrat successfully ascending from the regional level to the federal government. 

There are also plenty of workhorses among the ministers, including Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Labor and Social Development Minister Maxim Topilin, and Energy Minister Alexander Novak. The decision to retain Kolokoltsev despite two years of predictions that he would be dismissed may have been made in view of other changes in the power structures. 

Unlike the former Cabinet, this one has more political appointees, handpicked by Putin and Medvedev. A key figure for Medvedev is his erstwhile college classmate and former head of the Presidential Control Directorate, Konstantin Chuichenko. For now, it’s hard to tell to what degree this appointment reflects the process of Medvedev’s people being pushed out of the presidential administration versus the strengthening of the Cabinet, but Medvedev clearly needed to make up for the departure of his right-hand man, Arkady Dvorkovich, from the Cabinet. Another of Medvedev’s protégés staying put is Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov, who was a student of Medvedev’s at the St. Petersburg State University law faculty.

The list of Putin’s protégés in the new Cabinet is much more subjective. One could say that all members of the Cabinet owe their positions to Putin to some extent. However, there are specifically those who worked with Putin before he came to Moscow and those who have grown closer to him in recent years. Among those who worked with him in St. Petersburg are Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak (who oversees industry and the fuel and energy sector) and Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko (regional policy and construction). Both remain part of the president’s inner circle.

Two other ministers who have a personal and political significance for Putin are Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. For two years there has been talk that both would be dismissed: Shoigu because of failures in Syria and his rocky relationship with the security services, and Lavrov because of his age and fatigue. However, both ministers have remained in place. Considering how difficult the process of forming the Cabinet was, decisions on the ministries of defense and foreign affairs will most likely be postponed, and the president will focus on these appointments once there is more clarity on personnel changes in the security agencies and the foreign policy bloc. The process here is just beginning. 

Yevgeny Zinichev can also be classified as a political appointee. He is one of the most mysterious figures in the security service circles. He’s been Putin’s aide-de-camp in the Federal Protective Service, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) for Kaliningrad region, and a deputy director of the FSB (named as a possible replacement for FSB head Alexander Bortnikov). Zinichev has now been appointed Emergencies Minister, a great affront to Shoigu, who has long been lobbying for the Emergencies Ministry—which he previously headed—to be merged into his Defense Ministry.

The influence of major corporations and business groups in the new Cabinet has grown. Rostec state corporation head Sergei Chemezov has significant representation: Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov (defense-industrial complex), Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov, and Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova are all considered to have ties to him. 

Chemezov is the only member of Putin’s inner circle whose protégés have been successful in government. In addition to the aforementioned ministers, presidential administration head Anton Vaino is also considered one of Chemezov’s men. Among the reasons Chemezov’s charges have done so well is that they tend to be nonconfrontational and technocratic, and have priorities that fit well into recent trends: import substitution and support of domestic industry, military modernization, and the digital economy.

Observers like trying to identify the proxies of various clans among ministers and governors. However, the role of these relations is more complex. For now, we aren’t seeing a push to place proxies as much as the continuous integration of near-government business groups with state structures. Putin’s cronies in business are increasingly intertwining with government structures in the interests of implementing politically significant projects: the Rotenberg brothers who built the Crimean Bridge are getting close to the officials in charge of construction; the Kovalchuk family, which has a lot of influence in the nuclear sector, is cozying up to the ministers overseeing science; and Chemezov, who is responsible for defense procurement and ambitious projects in the medical sector, is building connections with ministries responsible for industrial policy and healthcare. At the same time, none of this makes Kozak a man of the Rotenbergs, nor does it make Science and Higher Education Minister Mikhail Kotyukov a creature of Kovalchuk.

It would be more accurate to say that the influence of private and state corporations over the government is growing. This integration will continue to intensify, because the state administration will increasingly need to take charge of routine administrative matters without the direct involvement of the president, who will be distracted by lofty geopolitical objectives.

The formation of the new Cabinet is complete, but the process of renewing the government is just beginning. Personnel changes are anticipated in the presidential administration, in the power structures, and among governors. These changes will be much more momentous, and they will affect the specific mechanisms of the functioning of the power vertical. The new Cabinet is only a provisional apparatus under this power vertical, which serves to implement political decisions made outside of it (such as raising the pension age or taxes).

A political and administrative dispersion of governance is under way in Russia: regulatory functions are being scattered among government and near-government players, which will inevitably result in the formation of first moderate and then increasingly pronounced polycentricity within the state. Initiative will eventually stop being punishable.  

  • Tatiana Stanovaya