Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is known to be one of the closest aides to President Vladimir Putin, a founding member of the inner circle where key decisions are prepared with absolute confidentiality and zero leaks. That loyalty helps Putin to remain a master of the state apparatus even in his “lame duck” position, and two weeks ago he asserted his control with a surprise reshuffling of the government. This cadre “mini-revolution” was expertly interpreted by Moscow commentators as preparation for a controlled transfer of power in 2008 (Expert, November 21). Most attention was focused on the appointment of Dmitry Medvedev, the former head of the presidential administration, to the newly created position of first deputy prime minister (Kommersant-Vlast, November 21). Medvedev, while formally promoted, is now effectively removed from the Kremlin, while the real winner in that rotation was Ivanov, who became deputy prime minister while keeping his command over the Ministry of Defense (Ezhednevny zhurnal, November 15).
His new responsibilities include coordinating the implementation of the Ministry’s acquisition program, the so-called “defense order,” which in 2006 is scheduled to increase to approximately $8.2 billion from $6.4 billion in 2003 (Lenta.ru, November 17). Ivanov expressed his irritation that the steady growth of funding did not bring a corresponding increase in deliveries of modern weapons, since the enterprises manipulated the prices upward. For that matter, only six or seven Topol-M mobile intercontinental missiles are purchased for the Strategic Missile Forces every year, while the production of the new tactical Iskander missile that was promised last year is delayed due to lack of funding. There is no shortage in coordinating and supervising committees in the government, and it is rather doubtful that Ivanov could deploy his newly expanded authority over this bureaucratic super-structure to achieve a new level of efficiency (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, November 25).
Making a positive start, he visited several industrial giants in the Urals last week and promised new orders and money to the workers who had grown skeptical about stingy, small-scale customers like the Russian military. In Nizhny Tagil, he took a test ride in the new T-90 tank and was so impressed with its performance that he announced to the accompanying media that 31 such tanks would be purchased for the Army next year (Kommersant, November 23). The target figure for this year was 90, but only 14 tanks have been actually paid for and delivered. The management of this huge Soviet-era tank plant would hardly be impressed with these figures, since sales to the Ministry of Defense currently account for only about 5% of its portfolio, while the main business is done through orders from India (Izvestiya, November 22). Ivanov appeared unconcerned with such mundane details and concentrated on photo-ops and solid one-liners that would make good headlines (Ezhednevny zhurnal, November 24).
In Putin’s entourage, Ivanov has probably the best PR-spin and can consider himself very lucky this year. He was just a few hours from disaster in August when Putin sent him to Kamchatka to take charge of the rescue operation to retrieve the mini-sub trapped on the ocean floor– but when the British Scorpion crew arrived on scene and delivered a miracle, Ivanov basked in the best possible coverage. In September, his career was again on the line when Putin decided to fly a strategic bomber and launch a several new cruise missiles – but again everything worked perfectly and Ivanov scored an important point with the Commander-in-Chief. In just a few short weeks, his luck turned yet again when a Russian Su-27 fighter crashed in Lithuania where it had no right to be, and the investigation quickly turned into a diplomatic scandal with considerable “patriotic” chest-beating. Escaping with only minor scratches, Ivanov nevertheless made sure that the unfortunate pilot was duly punished (Gazeta.ru, November 25).
Only one dark cloud loomed over Ivanov’s bright PR horizon: Back in May, his son Alexander, driving his modest Volkswagen Bora, hit an elderly lady crossing the street and she died as the ambulance arrived. A court case could have generated unnecessary embarrassment but the Moscow militia understood perfectly the delicacy of the matter – and on November 21 the case was quietly closed due to the absence of evidence or even the basic elements of a crime. Indeed, no witnesses were ready to testify and even the ambulance crew could not be located (Ezhednevny zhurnal, November 24).
Unfortunately, some journalists just could not shut up about that non-issue. Olga Romanova, the top commentator at the REN TV cable channel tried to include a short story on the closed case in the evening news bulletin, but the new owner of the channel, Alexei Mordashev, is a very reasonable “oligarch” – so the story was blocked. Romanova complained in her regular Wednesday feature program on the popular Ekho Moskvy radio channel (November 23). The next day three security guards physically prevented her from entering the TV studio to present the evening news (Ezhednevny zhurnal, November 25). Nobody would have paid much attention to the outcry in some pro-liberal Internet journals, but the story was picked up by the high-circulation Kommersant (November 25). Certainly, nothing in the mishandled investigation or awkward censorship could be traced back to the minister of defense, who is busy preparing for the important end-of-the-year meetings at NATO Headquarters.
In fact, he likes this sort of easy-going international networking much better than meetings with his always-grumpy generals and money-demanding enterprise directors. He speaks fluent English and Swedish and possesses a natural talent for changing from “Mr. Nice Guy” into “Mr. Nyet.” For that matter, spearheading the Russian campaign for sheltering Uzbekistan against international pressure after the massacre in Andijan last May, he showed real anti-terrorist ardor. One might suspect that Ivanov could play Putin’s international role rather better than Putin himself. Unfortunately, the story about the late Svetlana Beridze does not register at all in this PR campaign.