After Putin, a Putina?

After Putin, a Putina?

The rising profile of his cousin, Anna Putina, suggests Vladimir Putin may be set on dynastic succession.

Vladimir Putin has now entrusted Anna with a critical task dealing with the ocean of returning veterans and bereaved families. She has cited the shabby treatment of Afghan and Chechen veterans as a key motivation for her founding of the Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation (DFF). That Putin would turn to Anna is not surprising. She has displayed a high level of competency in Russia’s rough-and-tumble coal business. A rarity for the Putin elite, she is articulate and charismatic. As head of the DFF, she has forged robust ties with military and regional elites. Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff responsible for domestic politics, chairs the Foundation’s Board of Directors, a very significant indicator of the Kremlin’s support. The Russian media regularly spots Anna together with the key Kremlin powerbrokers. But she is also careful to be seen with bereaved mothers and maimed soldiers.

Concerning her task, Anna Putina claims, “The main aim of the [Veteran] fund is to help everyone who is returning home from the front to socialize, adapt, and return to a peaceful, creative life. This process must take into account all nuances. Our job is not to miss a single detail in their lives and to help veterans and their families for as long as necessary.” Recently established in April 2023, the organization has already opened eighty-nine centers in nearly all regions of Russia and occupied Ukraine. She has received 445,000 requests and, she boasts, has fulfilled 354,000 of them) On September 22, 2023, the Russian Government allocated over 5 billion rubles ($55 million) to her fund. It’s a safe bet that Russian oligarchs will be obliged to “donate” much more. 

In May 2023, Russian national TV launched a carefully calibrated campaign. With great fanfare, nightly news rolled out the Herculean plans for Anna Putin’s organization. At first, Russian national news on May 16, 2023, announced that a “presidential academy” would train over 3,000 people to help families who have lost men in the war. This “academy” would be led by none other than Anna Tsivilyova Putina. “The main goal of the fund’s work,” she declared, “is targeted support for every veteran and every family of a dead soldier, assistance in solving problems and returning to normal life. To do this, it is important to reach each of them, personally communicate, and delve into the features of a particular life situation. To do this, we have begun training social coordinators who will receive the necessary for such work and will be in touch with the wards of the fund 24/7.”

On May 21, the Russian Sunday flagship news, Vesti Nedeli, showcased Anna (Putina) Tsivilyova: for the first time, Russian TV viewers saw mothers grieving for fallen sons.By June 2023, Anna Putina’s “academy” would morph into the Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation. Her TV appearances would soon become a regularity, and her “spontaneous initiative” would receive massive state funding. In a typical scene, on July 20, 2023, Russian TV news spotlighted a speech by Anna Putina given to a hall full of veterans. 

During the first year and a half of the war, Russian news censored any coverage of wounded soldiers or grieving mothers. But by July 2023, Anna Putina had wisely broken this taboo. Her social media posts and TV appearances feature stage-managed scenes that, nonetheless, bring home the brutality of war. In a typically theatrical display on November 24, 2023, Russian state TV highlighted Anna Putina in Moscow holding a virtual meeting between Russian soldiers on the front lines and their mothers. In emotional scenes, viewers see soldiers cry. Anna then counsels these mothers. In this meeting, she appeared with Andrey Vorobyov, governor of the Moscow Region and a key figure in the technocrat wing of Russia’s power elite.

Importantly, Anna Putina is the sole political figure publicly confronting the fallout from the Wagner Group insurrection in June. On August 24, 2023, Russian state TV news reported Vladimir Putin offered his brusque condolences to the recently perished Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. But soon after this jarring scene, Russian TV moved to Anna Putina. She stated that all members of “private military organizations” would receive equal benefits to those serving in the regular army. In this broadcast, Sergei Kirienko and war correspondent Evgeniy Poddubny (two figures associated with Prigozhin) rushed to heap praise on Putina.

While the faint-hearted Russian media avoid the name “Wagner,” Anna Putina has repeatedly celebrated them. For example, on November 11, 2023, Anna Putina (with Father Kiprian) handed out veteran identity cards to the Wagner fighters. She proclaimed, “All veterans of the special operation are heroes of our time. All defenders of the Fatherland should have the same rights, independent of their status.” The Wagner warriors are to be honored and glorified by the state, she declared.

While mainly appearing with members of the Orthodox Church in her photo ops, Anna does not neglect the role of Muslim soldiers. Notably, she has made several trips to Chechnya. On June 3, 2023, Russian state news showed Ramzan Kadyrov opening one of Anna Putina’s veteran centers. In North Ossetia, Anna announced that her centers follow the “one window” principle, where all legal, medical, employment, and psychological issues can be handled without bureaucratic snafus. Veterans, she reiterated, must be provided dignified jobs. 

Anna Putina’s main institutional support for her Veteran Fund comes from Valentina Matvienko and Andrei Turchak, the son of one of Putin’s Leningrad judo Partners. In photos, we see clues to her place in the Kremlin hierarchy. For example, she is seen sitting, on equal terms, opposite her mentor, Matvienko. Moreover, Anna is sitting on the side of the office where Putin himself always sits with his interlocutors. This is not likely a coincidence.

Anna Putina is doing what others in the Putin elite cannot: she is forming a wide range of clientelistic bonds throughout all levels of Russian society. By crisscrossing the entire nation to build her veteran centers, she has made sure to showcase her meetings with regional elites. As part of her organization’s social footprint, she is seen with prominent cultural figures, from theater manager Vladimir Kekhman to the widow of celebrated crooner Iosif Kobzon. In one social media post, Anna Putina notes patronage from far-right media magnate Konstantin Malofeev.

Putina ensures her messages always end on an inspiring and hopeful note. She promises that her veteran organization will be “creative and personal.” In a typically upbeat event, on December 6, 2023, she opened a national skiing competition for wounded soldiers. In another example of her “creative and personal” approach, on July 28, 2023, Russian state news covered Anna Putina’s visit to a summer camp for the children of soldiers at the front. She stirred the children with tales of “the history of Russia, the glorious deeds of the heroes of the Fatherland of different eras, which everyone should know about.”

In sum, Anna Putina’s veteran organization provides her with a powerful political springboard. Her growing sway was cemented in December 2023 when Putin confirmed he would run again for president. Notably, Matvienko issued this call for elections in March 2024 from the Senate floor. The next day, Artem Zhoga, the son of a fallen Donetsk fighter and a key figure in the veteran organization, begged Putin to run for office once again. His plea was immediately seconded by Maria Kostiuk, a leader of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and DFF’s point woman for her veteran organization branches in occupied Luhansk and Donetsk. ​​

A Future President?

Russian media, day after day, present Anna Putina as an effective manager and a consensus unifier of the technocratic, intelligence, and military clans in the Russian power elite. It’s clear that Vladimir’s cousin is a political force. But what exactly is her function? 

For a long time, it has been clear to Kremlin watchers that Putin is weary of the day-to-day demands of managing Russia from Moscow. Still, until now, he has not been able to identify anyone both competent and loyal enough to ensure his family’s and his cronies’ personal safety and assets. There are many things to criticize Putin for, but he has displayed uncanny political gifts over twenty-four years in holding onto power. Perhaps he sees these skills in his cousin.

Moreover, Putin is clearly planning for a long war with the West and realizes the dangers. His military and political strategy is premised on causing political chaos abroad while maintaining iron rule at home. His successor can’t be a phony, Dmitry Medvedev-type with no real clout. Looking ahead, the Russian elite must eventually circle around a consensus figure. These elites realize all too well that other pretenders to the throne, such as Nikolai Patrushev or Igor Sechin, for example, represent narrow parochial interests. Ideally, the successor should be of the next generation to ensure continuity of power and policy, the essence of Putin’s plan.

Despite making sure to circumscribe the reach of all his subordinates, Vladimir appears to have made Anna Putina the sole figure allowed to spread her influence over wide realms of politics, the economy, and culture. This is what makes her case so compelling. While increasingly well-known in Russia, she is virtually unknown outside of Russia. Two years before Putin became president, he too was little known in Russia and totally unknown outside the country. Inexperience is not necessarily a deal-breaker.