Eurasia Analyst

Volume V, Number 3                                   August 24, 2017

     Unfinished Business by Susan J. Cavan

Unfinished Business

Looking through the Kremlin website for some background on the Zapad series military exercises, I came across an image from the most recent Security Council session where Putin is shown meeting with the top leadership of the government, security, and the military in a sort of repetitive reassuring photo opportunity that lets the country and Kremlin outer circles know who is in and who is out within the Putin collective. Noting quickly that Sergei Ivanov was once again at the table, I wondered: How can I miss you if you won’t go away?

One year after the removal of Sergei Ivanov from the Russian presidential administration, and I am still puzzled by the move. This confusion stems not only from Ivanov’s continued proximity to Putin and at the Kremlin’s decision-making crux, but also that this personnel shake up was always strange. Ivanov has been too close to Putin for too long and survived too much to simply be dismissed in a jovial Kremlin-released video in which VVP smiles and gushes praise about his friend. And then there was that decision to keep Ivanov on the Security Council (SC). If Putin were Yeltsin, it would be clear that the SC was no longer to be an executive body with any influence. But Vlad doesn’t think in quite the same stale Soviet bureaucratic (read: pickled) way that Yeltsin did.

I have to admit, my first assumption was that Ivanov was sick. He hasn’t looked healthy, especially in contrast to his boss, Russia’s sport fisherman-in-chief. Perhaps removing him from the chief gate-keeping duties at the Kremlin was a way to ease the tedium and consequent pallor of administrative under-the-rug infighting. But then there is that appointment as special adviser on ecology and transport. Odd combination that. Unless Russia is looking to curtail its reliance on fossil fuels and invest in public transportation systems, why would a former KGB officer, minister of defense, Security Council chief, first deputy prime minister, and Kremlin chief of staff be assigned oversight of Russia’s ecological environment and retain not just a nominal seat on the still-essential policy board that is the Security Council, but be among its permanent “small group” members?

A March 2017 presidential trip to the Franz Joseph Land archipelago provided an inkling. There, Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, Defense Minister Shoigu, and Special Ecologist Ivanov frolicked in the chill air and posed for ample photo opportunities. All the while, they succeeded in highlighting a recurring Putin theme: the Arctic is Russian, and we are militarizing it to make sure it stays that way. During the trip, Putin seemed to shine a clarifying light on what Ivanov’s job might entail as he expressed Russia’s goal of building a “broad partnership with other nations to carry out mutually beneficial projects in tapping natural resources, developing global transport corridors and also in science and environment protection.” (1)

As for the fact that the military and security services are thicker on the Arctic ground then the rapidly depleting ice on a glacier, Putin noted the military presence was necessary to “implement their plans to protect national interests, our defense capability and protection of our interests in the Arctic.” (2) So, OK. Perhaps with Putin’s go-to project manager (Dmitri Kozak) busy with a bridge over Kerch, Putin needed a trusted hand to keep a watchful eye (yes, yes. mixed anatomical metaphors) over the rapidly expanding military mission in the Arctic. Ivanov has been a faithful commissar in the military camp before. It would make some sense.

In October 2003—yes, for those keeping track, please note this was before any “color” revolution in any state in the former Soviet Union—Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s minister of defense in the earlier years of his administration compiled (“wrote” seems the wrong verb here) a White Paper on defense that managed to declare “NATO a close partner and, at the same time, a potential enemy.” (3) Putin then dispatched Ivanov to the United States to explain not only that paradox, but also why the retention of Russia’s first strike nuclear policy both was and wasn’t a threat. Here’s how Ivanov explained that element to reporters in the States: “The doctrine does not specify any preventive nuclear strikes, it merely implies that Russia retains the right to use military might for prevention, CIS countries included.” (4) Uh. Hmmm.

Ivanov’s White Paper seemed to have about as much impact on the military as Putin’s earlier attempts to put actual political commissars back in Russian military units had demonstrated back in 2000. But those were the days before Putin was the great champion of all things Russian military—when his KGB-bred suspicion of the military concocted a variety of monitoring and oversight schemes. But time—and Crimea and Syria—seemed to have healed that wound.

In June 2017, on a trip to Moscow to participate in the Primakov Readings Forum, US elder statesman Henry Kissinger met with Sergei Ivanov to discuss foreign policy (and, surely, the ecology and transport?). Perhaps Ivanov was the original point of contact, the one who brought Putin and Kissinger together. In any event, despite last year’s public display of dismissal, Ivanov seems mainly to have traded his domestic portfolio for a foreign policy brief. (5)

So, one year later, Sergei Ivanov still appears at Putin’s right hand—just a bit further down the table—in the Kremlin photos meant to show the leadership hard at work and to signal just who still sits within the inner circle. Whatever his role, Ivanov has proven to be a survivor once again.

By Susan J. Cavan



1) Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin visits Arctic archipelago to reaffirm Russian presence,” AP News, March 29, 2017, The AP photos from this trip are worth a look.

2) Ibid.

3) Pavel Felgenhauer, “MILITARY DOCTRINE OR ELECTION MANIFESTO? The Ivanov Doctrine,” Perspective, Volume XIV, No. 2, January-February 2004,

4) Ibid.

5) “Sergei Ivanov met with Henry Kissinger,” Kremlin website, June 30, 2017,

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