Sergei Ivanov, 53, Russia’s defense minister, known familiarly as Vara to his friends and by his nickname of “Jacket” (Russian euphemism for a foreign undesirable) to the top military brass and captains of the military industry, is Vladimir Putin’s most likely successor when his eight years in office end in 2008.
That is, of course, if Putin continues to be blocked in his bid to amend the constitution for a third term as president.
Where the Vara handle came from, no one in Moscow seems to know. In Washington, Kremlin watchers joke about its being the code name he carried with him from the KGB in Soviet times through the 23 years he served with the post-Soviet SVR and FSB intelligence services up until 1999.
In the past, Ivanov, married and father of two grown-up sons, firmly denied rumors that he was tagged as the next president of Russia.
That was then. Today, people in the know in Washington have decided to start gearing up for Putin’s departure and the onset of the Ivanov era.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report indications that the two men are already working in tandem on cardinal foreign affairs and defense issues in readiness for a smooth transition.
Putin’s preparations for life after the presidency entail time spent in building up a strategic Russian-German energy partnership as his power-cum-financial base to be run on lines of capitalist ruthlessness and political muscle. Russia already provides a quarter of Europe’s oil and gas and is resisting the European Union’s demand for energy security.
Russia’s powerful state monopoly Gazprom, which is developing the huge Shtokman gas field, will put a new Baltic pipeline to Germany into service in 2010, boosting German imports of 40 billion cubic meters of Russian gas a year to 50-55 billion cubic meters.
Germany will become the European hub for Russian gas exports from the huge reserves under the Barents Sea.
Pipeline Power for Putin
Absorbed in his pipeline power project, Putin is no longer actively engaged in such burning issues as North Korea’s nuclear test or Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He has more or less handed the running of these affairs over to Ivanov, who has clear notions of how they should be handled.
The Russian defense minister was happy to share his views with US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld when they met in late August in Fairbanks, Alaska, at the dedication of a memorial to the Alaska-Siberian Lend Lease program.
According to our Moscow sources, Ivanov was blunt. What he said in effect was this:
We find you hard to understand. Why must you attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and get caught up in a war that will certainly spread across Central Asia and the Middle East. Look at us. We are building Iran’s Bushehr atomic reactor and manage never to get it finished, regardless of the contracts we signed with Tehran and their endless complaints.
Like us, you should entangle them in interminable negotiations which drag on and on – just as we do with the nuclear assistance we promised them. What you ought to be looking out for is not the Iranians, said Ivanov to Rumsfeld, but the Chinese-Iranian connection. Because you squeezed us too hard never to get the Bushehr plant finished, the Chinese were able to walk in with offers the Iranians couldn’t resist. Now Iran has got hold of Chinese technology for operating Natanz and Arak too. Your nightmare is not Bushehr but Natanz.
You must understand Beijing’s tactic. The Chinese don’t treat Iran as any old big country with lots of oil, but as a civilization equal to their own. They talk business with Iran civilization to civilization. The rapport between Tehran and Beijing is the real hazard; nuclear armament is only one of its products.
Rumsfeld heard his Russian opposite number out without comment.
But when US analysts in Washington went to work on the Russian defense minister’s peroration, they concluded he had been laying out a policy line as future head of the post-Putin administration. Implied too was an offer to act as middleman or bridge between the West and the Chinese-Iranian bloc. The offer was rendered subtly enough for the Americans to politely ignore. However if rejected, Moscow would go it alone, and proceed to foster its relations with China and the Muslim world and promote its European connection, in preference to close ties with the United States.
Washington has not yet indicated where it stands on the Ivanov approach.
But already, Putin as Russian president and future European power player is working overtime to displace the United States and American oil interests in Europe.
At one time, Russia considered the US to be the principal buyer of gas exports from the huge Shtokman gas field. Now, it is Germany; the moving force of the enterprise alongside Putin is the German ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom’s subsidiary for running the company’s business in Europe and planning the new Baltic pipeline to Germany.
Plotting Europe’s cutaway from the US
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington believe that Putin and Schroeder are long-time cronies from early 2005, when together they plotted their second careers after quitting politics as the economic czars of Europe.
Just as Putin gave Schroeder the Gazprom job with scope for a wide range of business activities in Europe (on Oct. 10, Gazprom announced the former German chancellor had bought the German soccer team FC Schalke 04 based in Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr Valley for 125 million euros), so has Ivanov agreed to delegate Putin as future overseer of Russian relations in Europe, a step approved by Russian intelligence chiefs.
Thus even after vacating the presidential suite in the Kremlin in two years time, Putin has been promised a fat wedge of delegated authority as the arbiter of Moscow’s European relations.
By common consent with his successor, Putin and Schroeder plan to cut Europe away from the United States and American influence by expanding Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and oil. They also intend bidding for more Russian-German investments and takeovers in the continent.
The German and Russian economies are already intertwined. Germany gets most of its oil and natural gas from Russia and exports to Russia 17.3 billion euros worth of goods. About 4,500 German companies are doing business in Russia and Germany provides more bonds for secure exports to Russia than to any other country.
Many Europeans are running scared of the Bear, fearing his growing power to switch off the gas flow and let them to freeze.
The Bush administration’s relief over getting rid of Schroeder as chancellor in 2005 – their sour relations helped Angela Merkel get elected – was premature. America’s German adversary is returning to a position of influence on his home turf and in Europe at large through the back door, which Putin opened for him.