Why you should care
Because this is the Kremlin’s next generation.
If we’ve learned anything about global politics this past year, it’s to expect the unexpected. So as Russian President Vladimir Putin readies to run for another six-year term in 2018, the 64-year-old ruler has no obvious successor — by design. But what would happen if we awoke to a world without him? This week OZY examines “Life After Putin” and points to the players who could ascend if Russia’s singular leader suddenly leaves the stage.
For years, he had Putin’s back — literally. Alexei Dyumin was a Kremlin bodyguard and often played goalie, the last line of defense, on Putin’s ice hockey team. Now the 44-year-old is a popular regional governor, after a rapid-fire ascent through the military and security services. Dyumin stands at the forefront of a class of governors who could rise yet again if Putin departs the scene, and whose relative youth and external political experience could be an asset in an opaque Kremlin power struggle.
Dyumin launched his career in the mid-1990s, not long after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. He became an officer in Russia’s version of the Secret Service, protecting Putin for much of his time in office and developing a personal bond with the president. In 2013 Dyumin joined the military. By the end of 2015, he was a two-star general and deputy defense minister. Boris Zilberman, a Russia specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, says Dyumin clearly is on the “fast track.” And, most important, “Putin has been his sherpa along the way.”
His defining moments might have come in 2014, when Dyumin was the chief of Russian special forces, and media reports indicate he played a critical role in the invasion of Crimea and helped evacuate deposed Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych to Russia amid a revolution in Kiev. Dyumin has denied the stories, but has not explained why Putin gave him the Hero of Russia medal at the time.
In 2016 Dyumin made an abrupt transition to politics, when Putin appointed him governor of the Tula region, just south of Moscow. Dyumin won reelection with a reported 84 percent of the vote in September, though it’s unclear how long the strapping general’s feet will rest on this stepping stone.
Moscow climbers [are] being posted to the regions … possibly as trial runs for greater responsibilities in the Kremlin.
A mere 30 years old, Anton Alikhanov presides as governor of Kaliningrad. While Tula is close to the capital, Kaliningrad is a world apart: It sits on the Baltic Sea, wedged between the NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania, and used to be German territory before the Soviet Union annexed it at the end of World War II. Both strategically, as home to Russia’s Baltic fleet, and emotionally, it’s important to Moscow. “It’s an isolated island of Mother Russia — so it’s a special region,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist.
The “island” is also a constant source of tension: The U.S. and other NATO partners recently deployed thousands of troops to Poland to send a message to Russia, which is placing more of its own missiles and troops in Kaliningrad. That’s why the baby-faced governor’s appointment by the Kremlin in October 2016 could be a harbinger of bigger things.
Alikhanov is an economist by training who spent his early years in federal ministry posts before being dispatched to the Baltic. Now he’s trying to spur development and maintain the remote province’s access to Russian transportation and natural gas lines. Come September’s election campaign, he will face the first real test of his strength with the public, and he’s already showing a fondness for Putinesque sarcasm. When Lithuania proposed building a border fence to deal with the Russian “threat,” Alikhanov told Russian TV that he could send some bricks.
Dyumin and Alikhanov are part of a trend of Moscow climbers being posted to the regions in the past two years, possibly as trial runs for greater responsibilities in the Kremlin. The new breed includes 40-somethings like Alexander Brechalov, who in April was installed to lead Udmurtia, some 700 miles east of Moscow, after the sitting governor was arrested for bribery. Brechalov’s prior government service had focused on developing Russia’s civil society. Alexei Tsydenov, a former railroad minister, was tapped in February to lead the Siberian republic of Buryatia. Igor Rudenya, a former agriculture minister in Moscow, is drawing increasing media buzz as head of Tver for major infrastructure projects.
Kremlinology is an inexact science, of course. Schulmann says that grooming high-powered Kremlin figures in this way would be unprecedented, and she’s skeptical even though there is “the halo of expectation” around the new governors. “I still believe that if you want to rise in Moscow, you have to be in Moscow,” she says. But then again, she admits, “the rules may have changed.”