Ivanov’s Dismissal and the Dark Arts of Kremlinology

The last few weeks have been especially rich in news prone to speculation regarding Russian politics: the purge in the Baltic Fleet, the arrest of Kirov governor and the russian customs’ head, the large reshuffle among the state apparatus as well as in the “Economic service” of the FSB and now, the dismissal of Putin’s chief of staff and long-time friend, Sergei Ivanov.

The unexpected departure of what was one of Russia’s most powerful man after Vladimir Putin himself prompted a large number of analyses that offered various interpretations. In a political system that is becoming more and more opaque, those competing analyses illustrate the new rise of Kremlinology, a way to study Russian politics that sometimes relies on sweeping assumptions and guesswork rather than careful analysis but remains, in one way or another, unavoidable.

Anders Aslund has no doubt about it: the dismissal of Sergei Ivanov is the result of a feud inside the Kremlin between Vladimir Putin and the Security council, a consultative body on matters of national security that has gained in influence in the last few years to become one of the central decision-making bodies in Russia. This Council, argues M.Aslund in a piece published by the Atlantic Council think tank, “could oust Putin himself for his adventurous policies”. Far from being an all-powerful dictator, M.Aslund sees Vladimir Putin as fighting for his political survival against a faction made of silovikis and led by Sergei Ivanov. The economist (who was an advisor for the Russian government in the beginning of the 90’s, when the country went through a “shock therapy” to liberalize its economy) summed up his thinking in a message published on Twitter:

To back up his claims, M.Aslund resorts to methods that find their origins in soviet times, when censorship and the totalitarian nature of the soviet regime forced western analysts to deduce power plays in the Kremlin from hints like the seating plans of officials during a parade or the various nominations published in soviet newspapers. Kremlinology can nowadays be used simply to describe the study of Russian politics, but is more often understood as the analysis of those small events –speeches, appointments, travel plans, the date or the composition of a meeting- that seems to bear no significance when taken alone but, when put together, allows (in theory) to deduce the great movements happening behind the Kremlin’s closed doors.

Kremlinology is also the interpretation of what isn’t: the absence of an official at a crucial meeting or the silence of Vladimir Putin about some issue (as has been the case recently in the case of Bashneft’s privatization) can quickly be used to draw conclusions about what’s going on.

“Speculative by necessity”

According to Anders Aslund, the absence of Ivanov during a meeting of the Security Council on the 8th of August hints to a struggle between him and the president. Moreover, he argues, the fact that Putin’s ex-bodyguard and head of the new National Guard is not a member of that same Security Council shows that the president doesn’t control its composition, a potential weakness that could be used by his adversaries.

Aslund’s interpretation of Ivanov’s dismissal has been met with scepticism by several other Russia watchers. The Guardian’s correspondent in Moscow replied harshly to a tweet by former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt praising the article:

British scholar Mark Galeotti also critizced (in a more tactful manner) what he sees as a “massive structure of assumptions” behind the theory that a clan inside the Security Council is trying to oust Putin.

Wheras the term “Kremlinology” is sometimes used in a pejorative way (something akin to reading tea leaves), Anders Aslund later defended the concept in a piece for “The American Interest”, defining it as “the formalized study of hard facts in a closed society, observing appointments, organization, decrees, and formal speeches”. Kremlinology, says Aslund, “is a sound counterpoise to disinformation”.

Anders Aslund also argues that the anonymous sources and Russian political experts regularly quoted by western media can’t be trusted. “I do not understand how one can quote propagandists such as Gleb Pavlovsky, Minchenko or even Dmitri Peskov as “analysts,” not to mention official Russian media. They are propagandists. Essentially nobody knows what is happening in the Kremlin, and most that comes out is disinformation”, said M.Aslund by mail (Gleb Pavlovsky was quoted by Shaun Walker in an article for the Guardian). Earlier, he also criticized the use of Russian experts by the Moscow Times. “Better stick to Putin”, he argued.

Maybe not surprisingly, those Russian experts M.Aslund sees as “visibly distorted” have a different view on Ivanov’s departure. Stanislav Belkovsky, for example, sees the dismissal of Putin’s chief of staff not as a political fight between the two, but rather as the replacement of Putin’s old friends with younger, just as loyal but less close, bureaucrats. Several Russian news outlet also quoted an anonymous source arguing that Ivanov, traumatized by the death of his son in November 2014, had already asked to leave several times. If this was true, this would also go against M.Aslund’s theory.

The wilderness of mirrors

Is it true, though? After all, the Kremlin is well-known for using the media to achieve political objectives, sometimes in an over-the-top way that leaves no room for doubts, sometimes in a much more subtle fashion.

The most obvious –but not the least efficient- is kompromat, the contraction of “compromising materials” in Russian. The release of footage showing a political opponent in an unflattering situation (often, a sexual one) in order to discredit him has been a staple of Russian politics for the last two decades, and it doesn’t seem like it will go away anytime soon. In May, a TV channel close to the Kremlin broadcasted a report showing an opposition leader in bed with a female assistant who was not his wife. The scandal that ensued was enough to sow discord among an already divided opposition movement, with other opposition leaders calling for his resignation.

And then there is the less brutal method of “strategic leaks”, the well-placed but anonymous source who whisper interesting information in the ear of a journalist. In a closed political system such as Russia’s, those little bits of insider information are very much appreciated by russian as well as foreign journalists, which makes it an ideal way of spreading disinformation. Indeed, in the case of Ivanov’s dismissal, the story about the death of his son could very easily be a way to push the official Kremlin narrative of Ivanov having asked himself to leave.

Those leaks also allows everyone in Russia’s political life to get an idea about which direction the wind is blowing, in a political system where signals often matter more than official declarations. The disgrace of an official can for example be “prepared” by leaking his wrongdoings in the press.

Everything would be simpler if those “strategic leaks” were always done on the Kremlin’s order. But the Russian elite isn’t the monolithic entity some would like it to be, and the many competing group of interests inside the sistema regularly use the media to attack their opponents or publicize their grudges. The investigation on the death of opposition political Boris Nemstov was for example littered with leaks, that experts attributed to the exasperation of Russia’s security agencies to see Kadyrov, the infamous leader of Chechenya, being protected by higher-ups (suspects in the case of Nemstov’s death belonged to paramilitary organizations close to Kadyrov).

There is also always the possibility that a comment from an anonymous source is just that, an insight by an insider without any convoluted agenda. But how does one know which is which without being stuck into this state of permanent doubt that James Angleton, the chief of the counterintelligence staff at the CIA for much of the Cold War famously called the “wilderness of mirrors” ?

“We don’t know”

Of course, experience, studies in a relevant field, handling of the language and a good grasp of intelligence analysis can help. But they aren’t enough, argues Mark Galeotti in a piece dedicated to this very issue: in the end, “we rely on our own gut sense of “kak eto bylo,” how things were, and thus how they probably are and will be, and put together these bits and pieces in a pleasing pattern”. And if the British scholar disagreed with the Swedish economist about Ivanov’s dismissal, they both agree on one thing: “we don’t really know what’s going on”.

Things will probably not get any better: traditionally opaque, Russia’s political system has gradually closed down after the 2012 protests and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The decision making circle around Putin also shrunk, while the uproar of patriotic rhetoric and talks of “besieged fortress” since the conflict with Ukraine has apparently made Russian officials less likely to talk. That is at least Mark Galeotti’s experience, which he related in an interview for Sean’s Russia Blog’s podcast:

“Ever since Crimea this has become more and more a problem. People I essentially knew as contacts, that I don’t have a personal relationship with, it’s now very difficult to speak to them if they are in an official position. And if you do, you’ll just meet them in a formal setting with at least one another person who, I think, is there to be the “alibi”. And you’ll get the party line, which is useful sometimes but not particularly satisfying and not the experience one would get before Crimea.

The people whom I can talk more freely are those I’ve known for five, ten or, God help me, twenty years, including some people I met while doing my doctoral research. Of course I never age but weirdly enough, they do, and some of them have retired, which can make them more eager to talk. But nonetheless if they are currently in a government or pseudo-government position they are much more careful in what they say, even people whom I know.”

The use of Kremlinology is a consequence of this growing opacity of Russia’s Sistema and, argues Alena Ledeneva, carries the risk of “excessively personalizing the workings of the state”, that is, forgetting that Russia is a huge bureaucratic machine with considerable inertia, and that individuals can only do so much. Taking into account this role of bureaucracy is what Fabian Burkhardt did in its piece on the new chief of staff: rather than to dissect the personal struggles, he chose to focus on an institution barely mentioned when it comes to elite renewal in Russia, the cadre reserve, and analyse Ivanov’s dismissal under the light of electoral cycles.

That’s not to say one should never use Kremlinology: when combined with more traditional political science (including interview of knowledgeable sources), paying attention to nominations, speeches and what is going on during meetings can certainly help in giving a sense of what is happening. A think tank such as the Carnegie Center produces extremely insightful pieces on Russian politics (including one about the dismissal of Sergei Ivanov) in a section called “Putinlogy”, which is another word for Kremlinology, except focused on the president. In a closed system such as Russia’s, Kremlinology is just one of the tools that can be used to pierce the fog of war that surrounds the Kremlin walls.