Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, on Aug. 12, demoting him to a menial position in what could arguably be called the fall of one of the most powerful men in Russia. Among the Kremlin elite, there are only a handful of Russians who can be considered influential, or who can claim to be a part of Putin's true inner circle, and Ivanov has long been one of them.
Ivanov, like Putin, is from St. Petersburg. He was also a member of the KGB alongside Putin and served in Germany. Ivanov has been close to the Russian leader for some time, and when Putin was named chief of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's successor, in 1999 by then-President Boris Yeltsin, he named Ivanov his deputy. During Putin's reign, Ivanov has shuffled between posts, serving as defense minister from 2001 to 2007, deputy prime minister from 2008 to 2011, and most recently chief of staff.
There are rumors among Kremlin watchers, however, that Ivanov has always wanted the country's highest position. In 2008, after Putin was barred from running for a third presidential term, Ivanov was the most likely candidate to replace him. But according to the official story, Putin sidelined Ivanov and his hawkish FSB loyalists in favor of the more liberal progressive faction led by Dmitri Medvedev. But there has been speculation that Putin's real motivation was to prevent Ivanov from becoming powerful enough to threaten his own leadership. Regardless of Putin's reasoning, Ivanov is said to have been bitter over the slight, and he challenged Medvedev during his entire four-year term.
Now that Ivanov has been pushed from the highest ranks of government, it appears likely that Putin does, in fact, see him as a threat. A particular faction of the FSB is drifting outside of Putin's control, and it includes Ivanov, Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev and Rosneft head Igor Sechin. Moreover, loyalty to Putin among the all-powerful FSB is becoming increasingly uncertain. This faction has made several major power grabs in recent years, particularly over the past few weeks. It was also highly active when Putin went missing in March 2015, leading to speculation that the Russian leader had been deposed.
Meanwhile, Putin has been insulating himself with ultra-loyalists of late, none of whom are former KGB or current FSB members. Putin has even gone so far as to create his own personal military, the National Guard. Ivanov — who was demoted to the nominal position of the president's special envoy for activity, ecology and transport — has been replaced with a nondescript loyalist, Anton Vaino. Vaino has held various presidential administrative positions and has even been photographed carrying Putin's umbrella. He will also replace Ivanov on the Kremlin's Security Council.
Though there are never any clear answers to be found in the murky world of the Kremlin, it seems obvious that Putin is becoming more worried about the possibility of a coup. The Russian leader enjoys widespread support from the Russian people, but divisions within the Kremlin are widening, over both policy and shrinking benefits for the elite. This reshuffle is another signal that Putin is pushing Russia's most powerful figures to the fringes in an attempt to safeguard himself from the threats they pose.