Former Russian Defence Minister, First Deputy PM Sergey Ivanov Profi


Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Moscow
29 Mar 07

Text of article by Mikhail Rostovskiy: "The Russian Federation’s
Station Chief" by Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets on 29 March

Will the "Lone Secret Service Man" become our third guarantor?

Sergey Ivanov will be able to celebrate the eighth anniversary of
his choice as Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s official successor this
November. In fall 1999, Yeltsin asked Prime Minister Putin, the former
secretary of the Security Council, to name his candidate for the empty
Security Council seat. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin chose FSB [Federal
Security Service] Deputy Director Ivanov. Will the same thing happen
with the presidency? It is possible that even Vladimir Vladimirovich
and Sergey Borisovich do not know at this time. We could bet a million
dollars without any hesitation, however, on the certainty that Ivanov
will play a key role in the "changing of the Kremlin guard in 2008."

If Putin is a card player and the entire political elite is a deck
of cards, then Ivanov is indisputably the joker – the "wild card"
that can pop up at any time and send the game careening in the most
unpredictable direction.

The Sphinx from Yasenevo

"I have been working with Sergey Borisovich for more than seven years,
but I cannot say I know him well. He is not the kind of man who opens
up right away." In this casual remark to me, a close colleague of
Ivanov’s concisely conveyed the essence of the first vice premier’s
character. Once known in the intelligence service as "The Quietest
One," Sergey Ivanov is one of those politicians who drive people
to distraction when they try to compose a political profile of
the man. As soon as you think you know something about him, that
"something" slips out of your grasp.

Ivanov cannot be called dull or indistinguishable, however. Sergey
Borisovich has always been distinguished, for example, by his unique
imagination and sense of humour. In the middle of the 1970s, Serezha
Ivanov, a graduate of the Philology Department of Leningrad State
University, once went out to find a taxi for some guests who had
lingered at his place until late at night. Cabs were in short supply
on Vasilyevskiy Island that night, but Ivanov was resourceful, so he
hailed … a street cleaner’s vehicle!

Sergey Borisovich is able to stay calm in a crisis. When the defence
minister was in London a couple of years ago, a fire alarm went
off in his hotel late at night. Everyone started to panic. To the
amusement of the few passersby, the hotel guests ran outside in
various stages of undress. Ivanov was one of the few who managed to
keep his dignity. He made his way outside in a leisurely fashion,
dressed in a fluffy white bathrobe.

The first vice premier is exceptionally charming when people meet him
in person. Like Putin, he can charm anyone in a small group. When
Sergey Borisovich was the minister of defence, his assistants
frequently had to listen to comments like this one: "Your boss is
wonderful. It is too bad all of you are such idiots!"

Ivanov is no stranger to common human weaknesses. The first vice
premier is an inveterate smoker, but he is quite ashamed of this
habit. Photographers and TV cameramen are always begged not to take
pictures of Sergey Borisovich with a cigarette.

Sergey Ivanov is extremely proud of his English language skills.

During official meetings, he embarrasses protocol officers with his
frequent need to correct the interpreters. Ivanov’s security guards
are not particularly happy with their boss either. When the first
vice premier goes to a basketball game or a soccer match, he usually
refuses to go to the VIP box and prefers to sit in the bleachers. In
addition to his passion for sports, Sergey Borisovich loves classic
Western rock, especially Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Before his transformation into a high-level official, Ivanov was
distinguished by his unaffected style of dress. His university
friends remember that "he always wore the same wool sweater, and his
hair stuck out in every direction." A short time later, when he was
working at intelligence headquarters in Yasenevo, Sergey Borisovich
loved to wear jeans, turned inside out, after work. In recent years,
however, Ivanov naturally has abided by the strict official dress code.

In contrast to most of the high-level officials of the Putin era,
Sergey Borisovich is highly considerate of reporters. During the
annual conferences on security in Munich, Defence Minister Ivanov
always took his pool of reporters to one of the famous local beer
halls. According to people who were present at many private briefings,
the former head of the military establishment may not always have
provided specific answers to some questions, but his responses were
never ambiguous and were always thorough.

Ivanov’s behaviour with his subordinates is completely different. A man
of few words, he demands the same of others. The first vice premier
despises long conversations and conferences and cannot bear being
"burdened with unnecessary details."

Enemies of the first vice premier are able to learn about another facet
of Ivanov’s character. Ivanov’s first years as the defence minister
were marked by an intense fight for control of the ministry with
Chief of General Staff Anatoliy Kvashnin. Outwardly, however, Sergey
Borisovich’s relationship with his rival appeared quite cordial. Even
the ultimate dismissal of Kvashnin was arranged to look almost like
a promotion.

Which of Ivanov’s many public images is the real one? Probably none of
them. Sergey Borisovich can only feel completely free to be himself
among the friends and family he carefully screens from the eyes of
outsiders. In his relations with the outside world, it is as if Ivanov
is always clad in invisible armour.

"Feelings of Comradeship"

Ivanov’s rise to power fit the typical pattern for most of the St
Petersburgers Putin brought to Moscow. Sergey Ivanov, a new officer of
the First Division of the Leningrad KGB, met his colleague Vladimir
Putin approximately in 1976. There is no need to tell what happened
after that….

The first vice premier’s position in the government hierarchy cannot
be called typical, however. Even Ivanov’s foes admit that he is not
only an important subordinate of Vladimir Putin’s, but also his friend
and associate. There are not many of these even in Putin’s inner
circle. Here is what Putin said, for example, about Igor Sechin,
"the president’s right-hand man," in 2000: "He asked to come to
Moscow with me, so I brought him along." Putin chose completely
different words to describe his relationship with Ivanov: "feelings
of comradeship." Only Vladimir Vladimirovich and Sergey Borisovich
know why they have this kind of relationship, but the reasons for
Ivanov’s latest promotion easily can be guessed.

In the last seven years, most of the important members of
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s retinue have become the centres of
political-bureaucratic empires. Igor Sechin, for example, is relied
upon by dozens, if not hundreds, of little-known but influential
middle-level officials and businessmen. Dmitriy Medvedev does not
have a team of his own, but he is supported, almost publicly, by the
old Yeltsin family, which has not lost its influence and resources.

Sergey Ivanov, on the other hand, is the typical political "lone
wolf." Despite the colossal number of his friends and associates, there
is no Ivanov team or family. Of course, an official on that level has
to have an inner circle, but its members can be counted on the fingers
of one hand, and all of them perform purely technical functions.

Former FSB analyst Andrey Chubotov, an extreme workaholic, is still
the chief of the minister’s staff in the Defence Ministry. Sergey
Rybakov, also from the FSB, is in charge of analysis and the media.

Former intelligence officer Vladimir Chernov, who worked with Ivanov in
the Finland station, now heads the first vice premier’s staff in the
White House. Sergey Borisovich once brought Nikolay Pankov, a former
instructor at the KGB Higher School, to the Defence Ministry, but in
his present position as the military establishment’s states-secretary,
Pankov has been "naturalized" in the ministry and has almost ceased
to be regarded as one of Ivanov’s personnel.

Another of Ivanov’s important distinctive features is his virtual
lack of ties to the business community. It is almost impossible to
believe something like this could be true under present conditions,
but I heard this from more than 10 informed sources, friends and
foes of the first vice premier, with only one exception. The only
difference was in their explanations of this phenomenon.

According to his friends, Sergey Borisovich is no ascetic, of course.

He was overjoyed during the Soviet era when he was able to buy a Volga
and move into an apartment in a 16-story building in Orekhovo-Borisovo
after he returned from an assignment abroad. For Ivanov, however,
making money is not the main thing. "For a long time after he became
the defence minister, he kept wearing a coat he had bought when he
was working in Finland in the 1980s," a good friend of the first vice
premier told me. "Sergey also took a long time to move into the new
apartment they had given him. It seems to me he just did not have
enough money for the renovations."

The explanation I was given by Ivanov’s enemies is less flattering,
of course. They say Sergey Borisovich lacks the knowledge and skill
to channel the flow of money in his own direction.

In Russia today, everyone is free to choose the explanation he prefers,
but it appears that the people who love to scoff at Ivanov for being a
"loser" are losing sight of one important fact. Sergey Borisovich’s
lack of a team and a business makes him an extremely valuable player
in Putin’s eyes now that a change of government is approaching. This is
the absolutely ideal set of qualities for a potential successor. After
all, this means that Ivanov’s only government asset is Vladimir
Vladimirovich himself. This trump card in the hands of a lone player
can "beat" Sechin’s entire army. In fact, this has already happened.

The Duel with Sechin

It is easy to guess the worst day of Sergey Ivanov’s political
career. On 25 January 2006, during the defence minister’s visit to
Armenia, he was asked: "What can you tell us about what happened in
Chelyabinsk?" Ivanov replied: "I have been high up in the mountains for
the last few days and I have not heard what happened in Chelyabinsk. I
am certain it was nothing serious. Otherwise, I would know about
it." When all of the TV networks started reporting the story of Private
Andrey Sychev, who had lost both legs in Chelyabinsk, the public saw
Ivanov as the personification of callousness and incompetence.

After the spectacular failure of the American attempt to overthrow
Fidel Castro in 1961, President Kennedy declared that the chief
executive was ultimately to blame. According to this completely logical
line of reasoning, the head of the Defence Ministry definitely is to
blame for the terrible tragedy in Chelyabinsk. The fact that many
of the key details of what happened to Sychev still are unclear
is not that important. Even the fact that the number of non-combat
casualties in the army fell from 1,264 in 2001 to 554 in 2006 is not
that important.

There is another facet of this situation, however, and it would be
foolish to ignore it. Former Kremlin staff member Aleksey Volin
recently amused the readers of the New York Times by relating a
conversation he had with a current member of the presidential staff:
"Why would you watch television? It is only for the population,
after all. People like you should be using the Internet!"

Unfortunately, this is only half a joke at best. Television in our
country is a source of propaganda rather than information. The very
fact that all of the TV networks were full of stories about the
Sychev tragedy means only one thing: Someone at the very top wanted
this very much.

Who wanted this? Members of the political elite believe it was Igor
Sechin. Few people now remember when or how the fight between Igor
Ivanovich and Sergey Borisovich started. It probably was less of a
personality conflict than a systemic clash. According to people who
know the ethics of the Kremlin: "Sechin is extremely jealous of anyone
who can go over his head to get to Putin, and Ivanov and Putin have
a close relationship Sechin cannot possibly influence."

In any case, on the orders of Sechin’s relative, Procurator-General
Vladimir Ustinov, the military procuracy started "uncovering crimes"
in Ivanov’s ministry with incredible zeal in 2005. After the tragic
incident involving Sychev, the assault included "heavy artillery"
– television.

It is important to realize that the organizers of the assault were
not focusing on public opinion. People in the Kremlin regard it as
a sort of clay, which easily can be moulded into any shape whatsoever.

The target audience was one and only one TV viewer – Vladimir
Vladimirovich Putin. They wanted the country’s leader to be irritated
by the head of the Defence Ministry – in about the same way, for
example, that he obviously is now irritated by Zurabov.

They did not succeed, however. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin first
reformed the informal system of TV administration and put the networks
under even stricter control. After that, Aleksandr Savenkov, the chief
military procurator, and Vladimir Ustinov, his boss, both lost their
jobs within the next year. Members of the political elite are still
arguing about the extent to which the conflict with Ivanov led to
Ustinov’s fall, but everyone agrees it was an important contributing

The "Philologist" in the Army

Sergey Ivanov obviously had no chance of becoming the army’s favourite
person. He cannot be called a total civilian, of course.

While he was still in school, Ivanov spent a month at a military
training camp near Petrozavodsk and later underwent parachute
training in the Pskov Division of the Airborne Troops. His work in
the intelligence service and in the FSB was not a completely civilian
occupation either, but Sergey Borisovich certainly does not have the
mindset of the model "paternal commander" in the army.

The exceptionally refined Ivanov addresses all of his subordinates by
their name and patronymic and uses the formal pronoun "you" when he is
speaking to them. According to his colleagues, "he drinks less than
he should," never uses obscenities, never yells, and rarely raises
his voice. It is not surprising that the army wits gave their former
boss the ambiguous nickname of "The Philologist"…. The defence
minister is no 100-euro bill, however. He cares more about results
than about popularity.

There is no doubt that Ivanov left the army in an incomparably better
condition than it was in when he took office. I will not lapse into
bombastic talk about "rebirth" and the "start of a turning point." If
I had ever had this inclination, it would have disappeared after I
spoke with the "non-elite" officers making less money than most of
the salesclerks in Moscow. Nevertheless, the army that was so lifeless
for the last decade is slowly beginning to show signs of life again,
even if these entail pain and the intense creaking of joints.

"Voronezh," the latest radar station, certainly is not a typical
military unit, but even a tour of this elite subunit proves some
sense of the intense contradictions making up the life of today’s army.

On the one hand, the equipment is ultra-modern. The station still
has no counterparts even in the NATO countries. Its predecessors
used 71 times as much energy and cost 10 times as much. The station’s
officers deserve unqualified respect and are fully capable of finding
a more lucrative occupation in the civilian sector. On the other hand,
housing conditions are deplorable. The construction of official housing
has been promised, but not for another two years. In the meantime,
the 17 unmarried officers, ranging in rank from lieutenant to major,
are all living together in one big room!

The 320,000 servicemen now in units on permanent alert status, the
resumption of brigade and division training exercises and regular
deliveries of new equipment and vehicles, the transfer of 78,000
soldiers, sergeants, and sergeant-majors to contract-based service, the
provision of servicemen on the waiting list for housing with 140,000
homes and the reduction of the list by more than one-fourth, and the
slight improvement of morale in the officer corps – all of these are
tangible accomplishments rather than mere promises "on paper."

The superficiality of the "state’s renewed concern for the army"
is a different matter. The sky-high prices of oil enabled the state
to increase defence expenditures from $8.2 billion in 2001 to 31.3
billion "greenbacks" this year. The main question, therefore, is this:
Could more have been accomplished with this amount of money?

I never was able to come up with a satisfactory answer to this
question. It is highly possible that the very qualities in Ivanov
that are so valuable to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, including his
disinclination to form his own team and to manipulate financial flows,
were not necessarily the right qualities for a minister of defence.

"Any civilian defence minister is only able to make radical changes if
he arrives with a large and knowledgeable team of administrators and
financial experts," a respected government staff member with ties to
Ivanov told me. "Military administrators are a genuine caste, leading
everyone else around on a leash. Ivanov and Kudelina, the head of his
financial service, were rarely able to reach any agreements with them."

On the other hand, this same White House source admitted that Ivanov
was somewhat justified in avoiding radical "demolition." Any demolition
must be preceded by the precise knowledge of what will be built in
place of the demolished object. The transition period in Russian
history is not over yet, however. The profound geopolitical changes
in Eurasia are just beginning. Today, therefore, it is difficult to
say exactly what kind of army the country needs. Should it be set up,
for example, in opposition to NATO? Or is there every indication that
we will be on the same side as America in about 15 years, trying to
ward off China’s growing muscles?

In addition, we have to realize that there are some fundamental
problems no defence minister is capable of solving. This applies,
for example, to the demographic disaster Russia is slowly but surely
approaching. The problem of bringing military salaries up to a
civilized level might be equally difficult to solve. A joke making
the rounds of the military says that the rulers of capitalist Russia
have managed to do something even Lenin could not do, establishing
a genuine army of workers and peasants. There are essentially three
categories of servicemen in today’s armed forces: zealots, hostages
(the ones that cannot leave for various reasons), and people from
the poorest social strata. This obviously is an intolerable situation.

The rest of the public sector is also in a similar position today,
however. There is never enough income from oil to offer everyone a
decent salary, even in this time of Russian "prosperity."

Who Is Mr Ivanov?

"Precise and consistent in his performance, he has an excellent grasp
of the rules of play and of his place in the system and he never steps
out of bounds." That is how one former high-ranking officer of the
Foreign Intelligence Service described Sergey Ivanov’s fundamental
characteristics as a public official.

But how would Ivanov act if he suddenly had to be a leader? Would he
be able, for example, to display the necessary qualities of a leader?

What sort of policy line would he pursue? Obviously, it is ludicrous
to try to predict the exact behaviour of a man as private as Sergey
Borisovich, but we are quite safe in making a few assumptions.

"My reign will be just like my grandmother’s (Catherine II – Moskovskiy
Komsomolets)," Emperor Alexander I said in his first speech to the
Palace Guard after his accession to the throne in 1801.

If Ivanov were to become the chief executive, he probably would say
something quite similar about Putin. Any radical change of policy
line probably would be out of the question.

Only minor details are up for debate. "In contrast to Putin, Ivanov
never was able to overcome the inferiority complex stemming from
the loss of the ‘cold war,’" one of Sergey Borisovich’s former
colleagues in the intelligence service told me, clearly hinting at
an even more intense confrontation with the West if Ivanov were to
become the president. Other people who know the first vice premier
disagree categorically: "Sergey’s most salient characteristic is his
unconditional observance of the proprieties."

There are also diametrically opposed opinions of Ivanov’s ability to
alter today’s "managed democracy" in Russia. Some people base their
views on the fact that Ivanov had a chance to see Western democracy in
action in England and Finland, in contrast to Vladimir Vladimirovich
Putin, who worked in the GDR. The opinions of others are coloured
by the fact that the only elections Sergey Borisovich ever won in
his life were to the Komsomol committee of the Philology Department
(putting him in charge of the sports sector) and to the party committee
of his intelligence subdivision.

"Who is Mr Putin?" I can remember everyone trying to answer this
difficult question seven years ago. If today’s second first vice
premier becomes the president, people will be just as interested in
finding the answer to the question of "Who is Mr Ivanov?"

The Secret Service Man’s Main Secret

Active wives are not rare in the military. Tamara, the wife of Marshal
Igor Sergeyev, the minister of defence, was well known to the members
of her husband’s personal staff, for example. She handled the marshal’s
professional affairs and, as old-timers in the military establishment
recall, "ruled everyone with a rod of iron." Sergey Ivanov’s "other
half," Irina, belongs to the other category of political wives –
the invisible spouse.

Irina Ivanova only accompanies her husband in his official capacity
when it is absolutely necessary, such as, for example, when Donald
Rumsfeld, then the head of the US defence establishment, came to St
Petersburg and the two ministerial couples took a cruise on the Neva.

We know that Sergey and Irina got married when Ivanov was still a
student in the Philology Department of Leningrad University. Irina
moved to the banks of the Neva from Moscow for the sake of her
husband’s career. When Ivanov was working as an intelligence officer
abroad, she chose to improve her skills and earned a Western academic
degree. When they returned to Russia, Irina took a job at a branch
of a large Western company. According to their friends, it was her
salary that enabled the family to survive the 1990s with dignity.

Sergey Borisovich’s salary in the intelligence service in those years
could only be described as "ludicrous."

Ivanov’s sons, Aleksandr and Sergey, are also in business and avoid
publicity as much as possible. Sometimes they are caught up in it
anyway, however, as they were in spring 2005, for example, when
Aleksandr Ivanov was involved in a traffic accident with a tragic