All news

Sergey Ivanov: Don't think the Kremlin always decides everything, sometimes it doesn't

The chief of Russia's presidential staff in TASS special project Top Officials
Andrey Vandenko 
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
About Saddam Hussein, refined liberals, the law of the jungle, foreign policy ambitions and lessons of history

The chief of Russia's presidential staff dwells upon the most acute issues of Russia's politics and society in an interview with TASS.


- The world learned that Russia was about to go to war against the Islamic State in Syria when you presented the president's request for permission to use the armed forces outside the national territory to the Federation Council (upper house of parliament).  You were the one who broke the news, so will you please tell us: 'Why now?'

- Let's begin at the beginning. Memories are still green of how our US partners and colleagues in the late 2000s were explaining to me in great detail how very important it was to bring democracy to the Middle East. Now they've brought it there… For the whole world to see the results.

The operation Enduring Freedom lasted in Afghanistan for thirteen years. The United States launched it in response to 9/11. It was the longest war the United States had ever fought. Its ultimate goal - victory over the Taliban - remained unachievable.

As long as Saddam stayed in power, no one ever had the slightest idea some kind of terrorist groups might crop up in the territory of Iraq

I don't think I'll have to explain to anybody what the Americans have plunged Iraq into more than a decade of chaos and lawlessness. One should remember that Saddam Hussein hated Al Qaeda and all other terrorists. Take it from me. True, while fighting against them he employed methods one can hardly call democratic. He was sending them to the gallows and he had them shot without inquest of trial. That was his way of settling scores with opponents. As long as Saddam stayed in power, no one ever had the slightest idea some kind of terrorist groups might crop up in the territory of Iraq. But then Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows himself. With all the ensuing consequences.

Next, to Libya. The country has now been turned into another Somalia. This says it all. The goal of North Africa's and the Middle East's conversion to democracy was again offered as the underlying motif

Or take Egypt. Now it is somewhat outside the spotlight of public attention. Some other trouble spots are far hotter. But just recently, in 2012 the CNN was telecasting hours-long bombastic reports about waking popular masses in Cairo, and at times it came pretty close to presenting the Muslim Brotherhood as refined liberals and democrats… To cut a long story short: but for the courage and far-sightedness of the then Egyptian defense minister, General El-Sisi, the country these days would have been looking very much like Libya. In that situation there might've followed a merciless free-for-all. Mind you, Egypt is the most densely populated country of the Middle East with a population of more than 80 million. It was fortunate history turned it another way…

Now, we have Syria…

- I'm not sure about the 'now' part. The civil war there erupted back in 2011.

- Correct. The conflict there has lasted for several years now. A large territory of the country is under the control of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. It's a hard fact! All of us have been witnesses to how very successful the international coalition has been in its more than twelve-month-long military campaign against the IS.

- Are you being ironic?

The way I see it, the world is at a turning point in international relations. On the one hand, there are the universally recognized institutions, like the UN Security Council. But for them all of us would've had a really hard time these days. And on the other, there are individual countries which position themselves as benchmarks of democracy and offhandedly defy international law. There is no written law they may agree to recognize. In fact, the sole rule they agree with is: "Might makes right." And that is a real menace. After all, the place where we all live is not the jungle, and nobody should feel free to ruin the established world order.

In a sense, Syria is a litmus test. I won't be retelling now what exactly President  Putin told the UN General Assembly session, or review in detail the background of his request to the Federation Council for permission to use our armed forces to help the government in Damascus. I will just say once again that Russia in this particular case is pursuing no foreign policy ambitions whatsoever. It is crystal-clear that military means alone will never bring about a settlement in Syria. In the final count a political solution will have to begin to be looked for. A future solution will be complex and hard to achieve, but Syria as such is a no simple country. By the way, originally, the idea of an intra-Syrian alliance in the struggle against the Islamic State was not ours: it came from the French President, Francois Hollande. He speculated that the government troops under Bashar Assad and the so-called Free Syrian Army might present a common front. Of course, if the latter does exist in reality, and is not a virtual brainchild of some armchair pundits in the West. Any sensible opposition can be negotiated with and compromises are to be mutual - that's pretty clear.

In the meantime, while this is still a matter of distant future, I would mention one more argument why Russia had to intervene in the Syrian conflict. As you may have heard, there are thousands of Russia or CIS-born people fighting for the Islamic State. So will you advise us to just watch and wait for them to be trained there and then get back home?

Many are still not in the mood of saying certain things aloud. They just don't dare state them outright. But I will… Crowds of refugees from the Middle East are now heading for countries in southern Europe, hoping to cross it to Western Europe. How can one be sure that among the migrants there are no "sleepers" - sleeping agents or undercover terrorists who are on the way to the Old World for the purpose of settling down inconspicuously somehow and waiting for the D-day to come? And on that D-day they will emerge in the forefront again to play the very well familiar role. For instance, of a suicide bomber who is prepared to give up one's life for faith and take as many other human lives as possible? I wouldn't like to utter gloom prophecies, but I personally have no doubts it will happen this way. I am dead certain!

- But aren't we provoking these radicals by getting involved in this war? Didn't the just-prevented terrorist attack in Moscow ring the first alarm bell?

- We will do our utmost to ensure that nobody ever comes to Russia from the Islamic State, that all of them remain in Syrian soil.

- But you haven't answered the question what was the reason for us to join the fight at this particular moment.

- The situation has turned intolerant.

- Some western media have been quoting anonymous sources - traditionally anonymous, I should say - in the Kremlin that President Putin was talked into beginning an air operation in Syria by a trio of Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and you. Was that really so?

- I believe I should thank you first for mentioning me in such a good company… I am being ironic again, don't you see, so will you please forgive this habit of mine. Making serious comments regarding such "leaks" is always very hard. But if we are to stay neutral and discuss only the hard facts, I will say this: the mentioned "anonymous sources" got it all wrong. How it all happened was very different.

- So, how did it all happen? Conspiracy theory fans are claiming that Syria is just a decoy operation, launched to switch attention from the east of Ukraine to the Middle East, to push Donbas into the background.

Attempts to punish Russia are senseless and ineffective

- It's absurd to refute plain gossip. I've already explained why we found it right and appropriate to respond to the request from Syria's legitimate leadership for help in fighting against terrorists of all sorts. What attempts to switch attention are you talking about? Look here, it was not us who staged the anti-constitutional coup in Kiev, right? I am ready to discuss the theme of Ukraine in greater detail, if you wish. Just as our efforts to get out of the so-called isolation no matter what. I love history and I do know that Russia has always been looked at as a threat and with great suspicion, to put it mildly. That was so when Russia was an empire and ruled by tsars, it was so throughout the Soviet years, and we still see the same today. Alexander Solzhenytsin said perfectly well that from time immemorial the West had felt scared of Russia's enormity. Enormity, mind you! We saw sanctions taken against us back during the rule of the Romanov dynasty. There's nothing new about them. Trade barriers were put up and financial obstructions posed again and again… Those measures were far harsher than the current ones. But we managed. We didn't get scared in the past, and we will stay firm this time. The West grossly exaggerates the influence of the latest sanctions on the Russian economy. True, they do pose certain hindrances to us, it would be foolish to deny the obvious, but I will say again and again that in the past we lived through far greater problems.

Attempts to punish Russia are senseless and ineffective. Take the expulsion from the G8. Some must've thought we would get very much upset. But the G8 is certainly not the place where we would like to get back. Honestly! In the 1990s Russia spent much time and effort for the sake of being admitted to this club of select few; it eventually got there only to see for itself that the G8 was no longer capable of addressing any of the fundamental issues humanity was confronted with at the current stage. True, it is possible to get together to talk about the western attitude (western, mind you) to this or that issue, but the world today is very different. The G20 - that's the worthy level. It is there that truly important themes are being discussed and solution mechanisms can be devised. Here is a Syria-related example. The need for eliminating the arsenals of chemical weapons in that country was agreed on within the G20 format, and not the G8 or G7 group. So there no regrets about the demise of the G8, believe me.

As for the procedure employed to make the decision to dispatch a Russian air group (which in the past would've possibly been called a limited troop contingent) to the base near Latakia, there was no haste or anything spontaneous. All steps had been considered well beforehand and agreed with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. It is common knowledge that the combat aircraft and some special units of the Russian armed forces had been dispatched to Syria well in advance…

- Although we kept denying everything at first.

- We didn't. We neither confirmed nor denied the reports. We merely refrained from comment. That's standard international practice. And quite legitimate, by the way. But let's be realistic: everybody understands that the redeployment of several dozen planes cannot be kept secret. Everything can be seen well from space.

The final discussion on the operation in Syria, with senior military officials taking part, was held at a meeting of Russia's Security Council late in the evening on September 29. We considered all the pros and cons, all strengths and weaknesses once again. The presidential request to the Federation Council followed only after that. I brought the text to the FC building in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street early the next morning…

- The Americans have already predicted the losses the Russians will soon sustain in Syria. It's clear that there can be no war without losses, but how large is the risk of such developments? What do you think?

- As I've said, we gauged all likely risks.  Our troops will not be involved in clashes on the ground. We declared that from the outset and in very clear terms. The air base from where our planes fly combat missions is inside an area under the full control of Syrian government forces. There is a certain level of protection, and a very serious one. Apart from the air pilots and the maintenance personnel based in Latakia there is a small commando unit responsible for guarding the airbase. That's a natural precaution and any other country would've taken it. So I wouldn't say there is a serious risk of an attack against the Russian air group in Syria. Theoretically everything is possible, but all precautions have been taken.

As for what has been said about the expected losses, we'd prefer to be more tactful and to avoid counting the US Marines who've already lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.


About Ukraine, channels of dialogue, sanctions, causes of the crisis, import substitution, good cheeses, pampers and destruction of counterfeit products 

About corruption, a conflict of interest, arrests, jailings, the year 1937 and high-profile investigations 

About work “in the field,” spymania, the government’s fear, the split of elites, the yacht of Andrei Melnichenko, sad Roman Abramovich and the prospects of Transaero airline 

On general shoulder straps, retirement at 47, the snows of Kilimanjaro, traitor Gordievsky and human weaknesses

Part 2
About Ukraine, channels of dialogue, sanctions, causes of the crisis, import substitution, good cheeses, pampers and destruction of counterfeit products


- Now about Ukraine, as you've suggested. When he made a trip to Sevastopol in September, Vladimir Putin declared it was necessary to restore full-scale relations. Is it a soluble task against the background of what we can see today?

- Clearly, our relations with the authorities in Kiev have fallen to a record-low. But there are two factors one should keep in mind. That it happened so is no fault of ours. Secondly, Ukraine is a special case. That country remains a home to many of our people. And not in some virtual sense, but in a very specific one: somebody's parents, brothers, sisters, grandpas and grandmas… This illustrates how right and to the point Putin was when he said that in fact we were one people. We have a whole universe to share: mentally, religiously and culturally. The language included.  We are one Slavic people, there's no arguing about that.

- But in Kiev this kind of approach causes strong rejection. People there argue that we are very different and that their language is certainly not a dialect.

- True, it is possible to rewrite history again and again, but that will not change anything. I do believe that sooner or later the day will come when relations between our countries will begin to mend.

- Oddly enough, the "later" part of the formula works far more often than the "sooner" one.

- Far from everything depends on us. If the other side stays reluctant and defiant, compulsion won't help. It takes two to tango…

- That's why I am asking you what you personally do these days for the sake of bringing fraternal peoples closer together? Say, do you contact Boris Lozhkin - your opposite number in the Ukrainian presidential staff  - often enough and what themes do you discuss?

If necessary, I can put a call through to Kiev any momen

- There are contacts at different levels. Through the Russian government, the Foreign Ministry and the presidential staff… I am not in the position to disclose the details of confidential negotiations that we've had so far and are still having, but I can tell you that at the beginning of the conflict, when active combat operations, in fact, a civil war in the territory of Ukraine, were in progress, we had more frequent contacts in a bid to put an end to the bloodshed and fratricidal clashes. That was before the Minsk Format. Now the situation has changed and there is a new stable channel for a dialogue. Many things have been delegated to the level of contact groups, in which Russia is represented as an equitable partner. But if necessary, I can put a call through to Kiev any moment. Accordingly, Boris Lozhkin feels free to phone me any time. We do contact each other, whenever the need arises. The situation is now better than it was a year ago, thank God. At least there are no active combat clashes in Donbas. True, the problem cannot be resolved without a political settlement and the implementation of the Minsk Accords to the full extent is now in the forefront. The Normandy Quartet has stated that clearly. A direct dialogue between Kiev's officials and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk are number one issue on the agenda. The purpose is to determine the modality, the rules of the game, and to eventually hold elections in compliance with Ukrainian legislation to let the people of Donbas feel their rights enjoy steadfast protection, international guarantees and obligations included. After that it might be possible to move on to a final peace arrangement.

- The implementation of Minsk-2 is one of the conditions for the lifting of sanctions from Russia. You say the sanctions caused no big trouble to us, but you would agree there is nothing about them that can makes us happy.

- I'd put it this way:

We will never do anything to harm our national interests just for the sake of seeing the sanctions lifted

. Never ever! It was not us who took those measures, and we are not going to discuss in any format what is necessary for canceling them.

- But peace in Ukraine does not run counter to the interests of Russia, does it?

- Of course, it doesn't. But I would avoid any linkage here. Are you certain that the sanctions will be lifted even after impeccable compliance with Minsk-2? Are there any guarantees? Personally, I have big doubts on that score. There is no reason why we should offer excuses or ask for forgiveness.


Let's be frank: the financial and economic situation in the country is really grave

. The sanctions did cause certain losses. The GDP is on the decline, and not on the ascent. We don't deny that. But! The root cause for the Russian economy's slowdown is not sanctions, but the fall in the world prices of oil and gas. I agree that this has demonstrated again our strong dependence on hydrocarbons and how very bad this is. But on the other hand, we've been able to realize the vector of future action to be taken to ease the pressures of the raw materials factor.

- Are you satisfied with progress in import substitution, which is now the focus of attention?

- I would split your question in two. The task of global and effective substitution for certain products that are being imported from other countries can be accomplished in 5-7 years' time at the earliest. Although there may be economic sectors where meeting far tighter deadlines may be possible. For instance, the military-industrial complex. A great deal has been done there along these lines already, believe me. Incidentally, it is Ukraine that has been the hardest-hit as a result. I am saying so in all seriousness, without a shade of irony. Our neighbors have lost their space rocket industry and aircraft and shipbuilding as well. True, they have risen to number one place in the world as the exporter of … sunflower seeds. I learned that from a piece authored by one of your fellow journalists. If the authorities in Kiev do care about the future of their state, they should do something serious about what is really happening. Once an agrarian-industrial country, Ukraine is being turned into a forsaken backyard - will you excuse me for saying so - a second-rate farm growing agricultural produce with very slim chances of ever finding a buyer who would agree to have it. There's 100-percent certainty the European Union will not have it. I can tell you that right away. Ukraine's another role under the current scheme of things will be that of an exporter of cheap labor to other countries. Don't forget that since the Donbas unrest began three million Ukrainians have fled the country. Where did they go? Right, they went to Russia. More than one million of them are refugees. And the others have full-time jobs here.

It's up to our neighbors to decide what kind of country they would like to live in tomorrow

Anyhow, it's up to our neighbors to decide what kind of country they would like to live in tomorrow.

Now, let's get back to the theme of import substitution in the Russian economy. In agriculture the changes are not so significant as they have been in the defense industry, although products from domestic manufactures are already taking far more space on the shelves of our supermarkets these days. Far more than just a couple of years ago. Is this good or bad? To me the answer is obvious.

- The dialectics laws seem to fail once in a while. Quantity does not always transform into quality. At least, the Russian agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor said just recently that nearly eighty percent of Russian cheeses is not cheeses at all, but forgeries containing vegetable fat. A short while later, though, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asked certain officials not to scare the customers with forgery statistics and they backtracked. But the quality of cheese has hardly improved since.

- I agree that the situation cannot be improved overnight. But, as you understand, we've got accustomed to rely on imports and made no good cheeses of our own for a hundred years or so. So it would be naïve to think that good cheese will suddenly emerge out of nowhere. It never happens.

But apart from cheese there is poultry, pork and vegetables. We've managed to meet the entire domestic market demand. That's a real chance for our farm producers. I recall saying once that sanctions may end some day, God forbid, and the window of opportunities will be shut down again! We've got to take advantage of the situation and to build up production. There are such plans at the federal level and in many regions, where the climate is favorable for farming. The plan will take time to materialize, or course, but some positive results are already well in sight.

Total import substitution is no goal of ours

Please, remember, total import substitution is no goal of ours. We have no intention of screening ourselves from the outside world. It would've been ridiculous, if we'd had such plans. Those who are discussing sanctions these days for some reason quickly shift to the theme of Russia's international isolation. What do they really mean? The world is not confined to Western Europe, the United States, Canada and some other states. The other countries and regions are not closed to us. Asia, Africa and Latin America… They are open to holidaymakers and to trade as before.

In a word, we will keep developing normally, stay in touch with each other, and, if need be, find alternatives to products we are still unable to produce ourselves. But spending hard currency on pampers, the way we did just recently, is hardly reasonable today. That's not a precision instrument for a space rocket. I believe that launching the production of such consumer goods in Russia will be no problem.

- Without forgetting about quality, though..

- It goes without saying. We don't need an illusion of the process. We don't need box-ticking, to put it bluntly: no situations where a newly-made commodity proves by far inferior to foreign counterparts. Moreover, in the global economy hardly any producer manufactures products meant for the domestic market only. If something is to be manufactured, then only with a view to exporting the item. Otherwise it will just make no sense. I know that from my own experience with aircraft-building.

- And what would you say about the public destruction of products under sanctions? Not as the chief of the Kremlin staff, but as someone who was born in the city of Leningrad, which experienced the horrors siege and famine during World War II?

- Mine is a very unequivocal attitude. By virtue of my main profession… 

- Of a career intelligence officer?

- Right. I've spent many years in the West, and I do know well that any civilized country mercilessly does away with counterfeit products. Be it foods, alcohol, tobacco, clothes, footwear, medicines, household appliances or electronics. Everything is burnt down, crushed by caterpillar tractors - in a word, disposed of in any conceivable way. That's how the civilized world goes about this business. Everywhere!

- In front of TV cameras that film the process  for primetime news?

- I don't insist on that. I'm talking about the principle. There is no other way of fighting forgeries. I have my own experience on that score. When in 2001 I took the defense minister's post, we started bringing the armed forces back to normal. I remember well the moment when I ordered a large naval exercise in the Caspian to check the flotilla's combat readiness. Then we'd just received the new generation ships, the very same ships that on October 7 this year attacked Islamic State positions in Syria with cruise missiles.

- On Vladimir Putin's birthday… By the way, did you congratulate your chief?

- Naturally. Made a morning phone call to Sochi.

- Gave him a birthday gift?

- I did. But I won't tell you what kind of present it was. Also, I'd keep quiet about birthday wishes. They were meant only for him.

…But we've strayed away from the Caspian naval exercise theme somewhat. It was in the early 2000s. When it was all over, the heads of the Astrakhan Region and the Republic of Kalmykia came up to me with words of praise and thanks. At first, I was curious what the two men were talking about. Soon it turned out that sturgeons had reached the spawning grounds upstream the Volga River for the first time in many years! Then it dawned upon me that while conducting the exercise we cleared the Volga River's delta of several dozen kilometers (and that's not a slip of the tongue!) of poachers' fishing nets. We ruined all their criminal business plans! To my recollection, there followed a long discussion of what was to be done to the confiscated black caviar. Under the previous laws, it was to be marketed. That meant that the local police force would have to open retail outlets to sell the confiscated caviar. Thereby creating an ideal environment for corruption. It's hard to think of a better one. The Interior Ministry spent a long while persuading the top authorities to agree to the elimination of poacher caviar on site. The caviar lobby was resisting that for several years for it was about to lose a real bonanza. Putin was firm and all illegal black caviar has been destroyed since 2006. The market was restored to order.

There is no official lobbying as an institution in Russia (which is bad, to tell you the truth), but unofficial lobbying was always thriving. I know what I am saying. I come across it almost every day. So I can say once again it's my firm belief that the elimination of forged foods is the sole correct way. There will be no alternatives, if we are to struggle against corruption effectively enough. As for those who say that senior citizens who survived the siege of Leningrad are unhappy… Naturally, I was born when that war had been over, but my own parents remembered well enough what that siege was for them. Only demagogues can capitalize on this theme. It's very wrong to play with emotions, let alone in such a mean way. 

Part 3
About corruption, a conflict of interest, arrests, jailings, the year 1937 and high-profile investigations


- This means that everything again depends on a particular person … This is what Audit Chamber Head Tatiana Golikova said in a recent interview with TASS: the problem is not even in the absence of budget funds but in the irresponsibility of officials who are required to oversee the rational spending of budget appropriations.

- So, what can I say in this regard? This is absolutely true. It is necessary to fight this state of things by all available means, using both instructive and punitive measures.

Unfortunately, little is achieved in Russia without instructions from “the above” [the upper echelons of power] but these are the problems of mentality rather than logistics or economic schemes. Honestly speaking, budget funds should be spent efficiently not because we have found ourselves in a difficult financial situation. This should be done every time, both during the “fat” years and the years of austerity. This is a general rule, an axiom. Another thing is that during the fat years many officials, above all, regional heads, were accustomed to live with the awareness that there was a “safety cushion” and the central authorities would come to their rescue, if the economic situation deteriorated. They believed the center would have no other way out but to help them because otherwise this would increase unemployment and intensify social tension. They were accustomed to think that the central government would come to help them and give them some more money, even if some program was not implemented on time or was fulfilled inefficiently. Thousands of reasons could be found for an excuse each time as officials are very skilled to find an alibi for themselves and in this regard they are very talented people. You show an official a protocol made five years ago and remind him: “You promised to do this or that and you signed this document!” But the official only shrugs his shoulders: “I can’t do anything. The circumstances have changed.”

Yes, they are different now. The federal center will no longer assist everyone indiscriminately. A regional head should first explain why the regional authorities have failed to fulfill the obligations they have assumed. The further, the more difficult it is for regional heads to conceal their failures. The All-Russian Popular Front public movement is contributing to this process along with the media and the Internet. However, the Internet is a stick that has two ends: it can do good service but it can also be a real garbage place. In any case, control has become tighter, including from ordinary citizens who find a way to declare violations they have seen.

The heads unwilling or unable to realize that the times have changed are surrendering their powers in one way or another and quitting the scene.

- Actually, only the Kremlin can remove governors. Vyacheslav Dudka [former governor of the Tula Region] and Vasily Yurchenko [former governor of the Novosibirsk Region] have quit their posts as they have lost the president’s confidence. Alexander Khoroshavin [former governor of the Sakhalin Region] is under investigation for bribes worth millions of rubles while Vyacheslav Gaizer [former head of the Republic of Komi], as it turns out, organized a criminal group. Will this series be continued?

- Do you want us to arrest someone every week? Or do you believe, perhaps, that every governor in Russia is a swindler and a thief? I personally don’t think so. I’m confident that an overwhelming majority of officials, both at the regional and federal levels, are honest and nice people. You can’t smear black paint on everyone.

All the necessary anti-corruption legislative acts have been adopted in Russia. Now they have to be strictly observed. For example, government officials have been publishing their income declarations for many years now.  I published my declaration for the first time back in 2000 and it was a completely natural and customary process for me. Another thing is that apart from direct corruption we still have a very unfavorable situation with the so-called conflict of interests. How does this look like in practice? Perhaps, you know the examples when a particular official makes a decision on the distribution of procurement orders for the fulfillment of works financed from the state treasury or under state purchases and it subsequently turns out that the tender contract was surprisingly awarded to a company affiliated with that official. It turns out that the official’s daughter is working at this company as its president or his wife sits on the company’s board of directors. Such practice is widespread. On October 6, President Vladimir Putin signed a law, which clearly defines a conflict of interest for government officials, ways to avoid it and measures, which an official is obliged to take (precisely what he is obliged to do) in cases when there is a threat of the emergence of a conflict situation. You know, the law started to work even before it officially came into force. I’m head of the presidium of the Anti-Corruption Council under the Russian president and we examine non-publicly in the “Miscellaneous” section the inquiries by officials, including high-level functionaries, who inform us that a conflict of interest may emerge under certain circumstances. Or let us consider a different situation: a person quits government service and wants to continue work in a company, which in the past had relation, say, to the ministry where this official worked. People ask the question: can we accept the invitation? We have a lot of such inquiries. Sometimes, we give our permission but refusals also occur. Everything depends on a particular situation.

And this is very good. Anti-corruption behavior is gradually becoming normal practice. Of course, high-profile probes are always much spoken about and the media likes such cases. One governor was jailed, another governor was removed from his post … But you want more. Are you calling us into the year 1937 when the revolutionary justice was administered without court proceedings and investigation?

- Why so? This should be done properly, under law.

- Look, there must be weighty arguments to place a person under arrest. Is it clear? For your information, nine governors have been criminally prosecuted over the past few years, both incumbent and those who have left their posts. But I want to say about a different thing. High-profile cases are much written and spoken about and this is perhaps right but you should know that Russian courts annually pass dozens of thousands of guilty verdicts for corruption-related crimes. Dozens of thousands!

- What is the level these crimes are committed at?

- This is what I’m talking about. When a doctor or a school teacher is convicted for a bribe – and this happens in a majority of cases – this seems to be dull and uninteresting. But there is an uproar when the convict is a governor or a minister. The struggle against corruption is not a campaign or a PR-action, with the help of which the authorities try to gain additional points and raise their popularity. There must be no witch-hunt just to please someone. And there can be no selective justice depending on the defendant’s post. If there are grounds, charges are brought against a person without a backward glance at the person’s post or status. The most important thing is that there are no unpunishable persons in anti-corruption activity. Otherwise, governors would not be arrested and their fate would be decided in a somewhat behind-the-scenes process.

- I recall your interview you gave three years ago to TV Channel One where you said what you knew: people who were previously treated with trust were stealing. But you had to tolerate this and give no sign…

- This was the case about large-scale embezzlement of budget funds from the GLONASS federal program [for the development of the national satellite grouping]. At that time, I had a closed-door meeting with Interior Ministry officers investigating the case. They told me about the details of the probe but it had been going on for a long time and it was important for me not to give myself away so as not to frighten away the suspects. I didn’t mention this in the interview but I believe it is clear to everyone that when we learnt about the theft we changed the scheme of the project’s financing to exclude the embezzlement of budget funds. This is absolutely obvious! Some eighteen months later, we opened a criminal case and brought charges. Today some of these persons are no longer alive while others are far off, serving their prison term … You should understand that a suspicion is not yet a proof and the presidential administration is not the Investigative Committee…

- But the corrupt officials submitted tax returns in accordance with the established procedure, in which everything, perhaps, looked fine, but a closer examination would reveal …

- The laundering of budget funds and their withdrawal into offshore havens are not declared and bank accounts in Cyprus or somewhere on the Virgin Islands are not indicated either. But there is no direct relationship here. Corruption has become very intricate and latent and proofs in corruption cases are obtained quite rigorously and carefully. This means that consistent efforts were taken to look into and find the proofs against corrupt persons.

- There is a widespread opinion that there are files with incriminating evidence on everyone and a particular file is taken out at the right time and put on the president’s desk.

- Absolute nonsense! If such files exist and they should be called cases, then these are in law-enforcement agencies. Perhaps, there are such cases there. This is even for sure and not just probably. People are not arrested without reason in our country.

- When did you learn about the arrest of Gaizer, for example? 

- When it was reported in news programs. The reports came either from the TASS news wire or TV news. And I don’t consider it possible to comment on this case because I haven’t seen it and I don’t know the details. No one informed me in advance or consulted with me about where to carry out this special operation, if you’re talking about this. Don’t think that everything is decided in the Kremlin. Much is decided but not everything.

 Let me repeat again: the presidential administration, indeed, analyzes the income declarations of officials, above all, top-level persons. We check the correctness of data indicated in such declarations. Apparently, I’ll speak separately on this topic at the end of the year to inform how many cases we have revealed among officials submitting untrue data, which served as the ground for their dismissal due to the loss of confidence. But this does not mean that they are criminals and you shouldn’t confuse different things.


Part 4
About work “in the field,” spymania, the government’s fear, the split of elites, the yacht of Andrei Melnichenko, sad Roman Abramovich and the prospects of Transaero airline


- You referred to your previous service, as if unintentionally, already twice. I mean the special service. Does this experience help you in your current work?

- Perhaps, not very much now. When did I quit the service? This was in 2000. After that, I worked as defense minister, and the first vice-premier. I know a saying, although, that there can be no former intelligence officers… Yes, indeed, I spent the larger conscious part of my life in the Foreign Intelligence Service. Twenty-five calendar years are no joke. The past experience undoubtedly offers some help, for instance, when international issues are discussed, thanks to a good command of the English language. 

-  I’m talking about a different thing, about the mind-set and a peculiar view on the world.

- Maybe. The ability to switch from one thing to another and the quick reaction…

- And what about the saying: “trust but verify?”

- Ah, you’re talking about this. You know I was engaged in political intelligence and largely worked in the field and finished the overseas part of my service as a resident. This is how it was: I had to trust comrades blindly because there were no possibilities to verify. You can’t suspect your comrades because this is even worse and more dangerous.

Spymania and the fear of betrayal only block the will and harm the cause

. Another thing is that you should read people well and know whom you can rely on.

- But a weak link may not reveal itself immediately. Incidentally, the West imposed sanctions against Russia in the hope of the elites’ split. It expected that the close circle of Vladimir Putin would be discontent with the infringement of its freedoms and … Has this plan worked, in your view?

- Yes, but only in a mirror-like manner. It seems to me that the elites have split abroad rather than in our country. You, perhaps, analyze the western media. Haven’t you noticed that when officials – ministers, speakers and, all the more so, presidents or the heads of governments – speak, they criticize Russia unmercifully with a frown on their faces and a quivering voice. It follows from their speeches that we’re wrong in everything and everywhere, in Ukraine, Syria and wherever else. But when politicians who have left the upper echelons of power for various reasons start to speak, the tonality of their speeches changes dramatically. Foreign and defense ministers and other reputable persons who have left their posts suddenly begin to openly show solidarity with our position on many issues. What does this suggest? This suggests that you are obliged to talk this way and no other way while you are in power. It is only after you resign that you can express your own thoughts and views. This is not forbidden but only for ex-officials and not for persons holding posts. Those who return to power, start to criticize us with a new vigor. I have long grown accustomed to this. And look at it with humor.

- And what about our elites?

- What do you mean? Give the examples.

- One part of the business elite has been hit by sanctions due to friendship with Vladimir Putin and is deprived of the possibility to go to Europe and use its money and real estate there. Meanwhile, the world’s largest yacht worth over $400 million is set afloat in Germany for [Russian billionaire businessman] Andrei Melnichenko. Also, [Russian billionaire] Roman Abramovich has been rejoicing at the successes of his FC Chelsea in London for many years.

- This is a provocative question. Where is the conflict? I don’t understand. First of all, about the elites. I have said on many occasions that I dislike this word very much. To my mind, this word can be used for those who have done something useful, necessary and tangible for the home country in the course of several generations. Too many volunteers in our country award themselves with this title without sufficient grounds for that. This is the first general remark. Excuse me for departing from the theme.

Now, let me speak to the point. What is the name of the yacht’s owner, as you say? 

- Melnichenko.

A: Where did you get the information about the vessel’s cost?

- This is an expert estimate. The yacht was built at the German shipyard Nobiskrug…

- I strongly doubt that this figure is true but there is another thing that matters. The question is whether Mr. Melnichenko acquired this yacht with legally earned funds. This is the main and the sole thing that matters for me. I understand that wealthy and successful people are disliked and even hated in our country, unfortunately. But if a man buys something with his earned money, this is his personal matter.

- I asked not about a specific yacht but about the relations between those who can go abroad and those who are deprived or, to be more exact, limited in their freedom of travel across the world.

- Yes, some representatives of the business circles (but not elites) have suffered from the sanctions, as you put it. But everything is relative. I believe, although I do not assert, that [Gennady] Timchenko or [Arkady and Boris] Rottenberg [the Russian billionaire businessmen hit by the western sanctions] also have yachts. No one has taken these yachts away from them. This is point No. 1.  They are still free to travel aboard their yachts everywhere they want. Let me repeat again: the globe is not limited by the Old and the New World. This is point No. 2. So, don’t bother much about them. As for Abramovich, his FC Chelsea has made an unfortunate start in the English Championship and holds a place at the bottom of the tournament standings. This can hardly please the club’s owner. This is point No. 3. But the key question again is the money with which Roman Abramovich bought the London team many years ago. If the money is legal, then the theme is closed for me.

 As for how some businessmen look at others and how, it is better to address this question to them. I believe that no problems arise in interpersonal communication there and everything is understandable to everyone. But this is my presumption. Strictly speaking, in the context of the influence of sanctions on business, it is more appropriate to talk not about the freedom of travel across the world but, say, about the restricted access to the capital market, which, indeed, has serious economic consequences for companies included in the sanctions lists.

- Let us switch from yachts to aircraft to reduce the heat of our discussion. Let us talk about private rather than personal planes. Airline Transaero has gone bankrupt. Will Aeroflot become the monopoly on the market after its departure? Please, answer me as the person who oversaw the transport sector in the government for a long time. Is it good or bad?

- There will be no monopoly. Even if Aeroflot had included Transaero in its balance sheet, as was planned, its share would have been from 48 to 52 percent on the market. But the deal fell through. The government is now considering other options. Transaero managers are largely to blame themselves: they were wrong with the business strategy, took planes on lease for foreign currency and then the ruble plummeted and they got into this situation. It isn’t the state that is to blame for this. We supported Transaero as a national airline for a long time and now it is important that passengers and, of course, the airline’s staff – pilots, stewardesses and ground personnel – should not suffer from this. Meanwhile, the enlargement of companies is world practice. Perhaps, you know that the Dutch KLM is now part of Air France while the Scandinavian SAS has been merged into Lufthansa while the Spanish Iberia failed to live through the previous crisis. Weak operators are taken over or swallowed up. This happens everywhere.  But Aeroflot surely won’t be the sole player on the domestic market.

- But no one encroaches on the monopoly of Russian Railways (RZD). It is true, though, that RZD Head Vladimir Yakunin who seemed to hold his post firmly had to resign.

- As far as I know, the resignation was discussed for some time and was no surprise for Yakunin. As for his plans to become a senator and then his decision to give up these plans, this is his personal matter.

Oleg Belozyorov became the RZD head in August and recently informed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that the company planned to reach a breakeven point in suburban railway communication in 2015. For the first time ever! Earlier, billions of rubles were spent in subsides from the federal budget on this.

There are a lot of problems in the sector. Railway carriage tariffs remain very high and I would say excessively high. As a result, we have huge imbalances. Businessmen try to transport any cargo by road. It comes to absurdity when metal and coal are transported by trucks to a distance of several hundred kilometers. This is because you don’t have to pay for the operation of highways and everything is for free. Now we’ll finally start collecting a fee from trucks with a weight of over 12 tons. They damage the roadbed very much!

 Incidentally, I recollected that in the early 2000 we discussed a proposal in the government on introducing toll highways. There were so many heated debates. The question was about whether it was necessary to charge a fee from drivers. Most of the Cabinet members did not support me. I had to explain and prove everything. Did you ride in Sheremetyevo along the new section of a future Moscow-Petersburg toll road? It takes you just five minutes to arrive. Now each person is free to choose: either to pay 100 rubles for the speed and convenience or move slowly in traffic jams. We live in a free country…

- Incidentally, about the airports. What caused your criticism in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski when you lashed at the heads of Dalspetsstroi [the Far Eastern branch of the Federal Agency for Special Construction] as you talked before TV cameras. Were you so struck by the disruption of the local port reconstruction?

- Everything can be understood in comparison. I remember that I used to fly to Vladivostok as the defense minister when the aerodrome belonged to the Pacific Fleet. You couldn’t look without tears at it: a shed and a bad landing strip made of concrete plates. And look at the airport built now there. Or in Yekaterinburg. In Sochi, Novosibirsk. I’m mentioning the facilities from memory. This list can be continued. As far as I remember, we have invested over 380 billion rubles in the reconstruction of airports in the past ten years, including large aerodromes. Of this sum, about 250 billion rubles were invested from the budget.

It is not the money that is a problem in Kamchatka. The funds for the construction of the second strip were allocated in full. The new takeoff and landing strip was built a year ago but planes can’t take off or land because there is no flight control tower there. The schedule of finishing the construction work was delayed by about eight months. When I learnt about this in Petropavlovsk, I decided to look into the matter. In general, the problem is typical and it repeats in miniature what is happening at the construction site of the Vostochny cosmodrome. Budget funds were allocated, contractors received assignments but one of them took the money and disappeared on the vast expenses of Russia or even perhaps left the country.

So I had to reprimand them, to put it delicately. And now I receive reports every ten days on the pace of construction. Dalspetsstroi is completing works in the building of the flight control centre. In early November, specialists of Almaz-Antey company will start installing modern technological equipment for air traffic control. The equipment has been purchased and only has to be installed.

As a result, after a one-year delay, Kamchatka residents and, I hope, most Russians who want to get to these beautiful places will be able to use the new airport. I like Kamchatka very much and consider it one of the world’s wonders. 

- Will you go to accept the works?

- Probably. But at first I’ll wait for a report that everything is finished and ready for operation. 

Part 5
On general shoulder straps, retirement at 47, the snows of Kilimanjaro, traitor Gordievsky and human weaknesses


- Speaking about transport and roads… do you have a car?

- I don’t need one. Honestly, I am using an official car. I gave up driving long ago when I became a subject of state protection in 1999.

But I liked driving. I had a Volga Gaz 24 made for export and coated with lead oxide. A good car! And I put many kilometers on that vehicle, some 300,000. Once I took a drive from Moscow to Petrozavodsk. Without refueling. I had a hybrid Volga car using both petroleum and natural gas. You know, those special tanks in the trunk? I could drive halfway with gas and then easily switch to petroleum and drove for another 500 kilometers casting superior glances at long lines at a few petrol stations. I had the right to feel fair pride. Eventually I honestly earned money to buy the Russian car-making marvel while serving the Motherland abroad.

 - Mr. Ivanov, I’ve noticed that you almost never wear military uniform. But on May 9 this year you suddenly appeared in colonel general’s jacket…

I have worn uniform in public twice in my life. I am stressing – in public. The first time was in 2000 when the 55th anniversary of the Victory was celebrated. I served as Russian Security Council secretary at that time. And the second time was last May as you just noted. Victory Day is a sacred holiday for me, as for many our compatriots. As I had a direct attitude to service, although it was not army service, I deemed it possible to wear uniform.

I’ve been retired since 2000. When I was Security Council secretary Vladimir Putin said my candidacy was considered for the post of defense minister. At that time I was a special service general and told the president I deemed it wrong. In my opinion, an intelligence officer, a serving one, not a retired one, cannot head the armed forces.

- And what’s the problem?

- Can you imagine a police general come and start commanding the foreign intelligence service (SVR)? I cannot picture this. We have written and unwritten rules, some ethics of relations between representatives of different services and troops. It’s hard to explain this to a civilian.

- But Sergey Shoigu, the Emergencies Ministry’s General of the Army, moved to Arbat Square and that’s fine.

- After leaving the Emergencies Ministry, Sergey Shoigu suspended service. He worked as the Moscow Region’s governor for six months and only then became defense minister. All is logical.

So, back in 2000 I had no doubts that a special services officer should not head other ‘institution of force’. And I am still convinced in this. Therefore, I told President Putin then that I’d like to retire for the sake of soonest adaptation at my new position. Vladimir Putin agreed with this logic and signed my resignation, because, as you know, he had also worked for the foreign intelligence service.

So at the age of 47 I became a military retiree and I still am and even getting good retirement benefits. Along with my salary of a presidential staff official.

I’ve now turned to past and recalled a conversation with George W. Bush when he came to St. Petersburg in the early 2000s. We were taking a river cruise along the Neva, standing on the deck and I pointed at the famous “Big House” on Liteiny avenue, the former KGB headquarters in Leningrad and the current FSB headquarters. I told him, “See the window on the seventh floor? It’s the office where Putin and I started our professional career as young operatives.”

- Did you share one office?

- Neighboring ones.

And Bush said in reply, “Sergey, you must know that my father was a CIA director for a long while and then became US president. So the father always told me that Langley, not the White House, was the most interesting period in his life.”

- Are you ready to subscribe to these words?

- Fortunately, I have nothing to do both with the White House and Langley, but I enjoyed my intelligence service. And I think I was doing well. But it’s better to assess from the outside.

- Once you quoted Kissinger in this regard…

- He said that every decent guy should start career with army or secret services. I started with second. Kissinger is a giant of a man, a very interesting interlocutor and I do respect him endlessly. Before I was banned entry to the US over sanctions, I met him there many times and Kissinger even invited me to his New York apartment. And when the former secretary of state visits Moscow, I try not to miss a chance to meet with him.

But of course, we don’t talk about intelligence work.

- Mr. Ivanov, you have a perfect surname for a spy, which makes it easy to mix with the crowd.

- I’ll tell you a funny story. When I served as Russian defense minister in the early 2000s, I often came to London and British journalists always told me, “But you were deported from England!” I was really surprised. And then I learned that some Ivanov Sergey Borisovich had been deported, indeed. But he was born in 1952 and I was born in 1953. My namesake got in a mess in Britain. Such an odd coincidence!

As for my surname, Ivanov is my father’s. My mother’s surname was Petukhov.

So, I’ve confessed everything.

- And why won’t you stubbornly name the countries where you served?

- Of course, this is no big secret today but no one has canceled certain ethics. Under the law all intelligence secrets can be disclosed only after 75 years. My time has not come yet.

- I can quote your interview given 15 years ago, “I saw Kilimanjaro but I won’t tell you from which side.” Just try to guess – from Kenya or from Tanzania.

- And I can repeat it now. But I’ll add that I saw the mountain from both sides… As you see, I don’t reject what I said and don’t deceive anyone.

- Did you follow in Hemingway’s footsteps to the snows of Kilimanjaro?

- I was not a tourist, I was working there. But I sometimes think of those places, indeed. They are worth visiting. East Africa – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda – are known for their amazing national parks where predators and other animals live in their natural habitat and walk at large while people are watching them from a respectful distance. Those sights are sealed in memory forever.

But where and how I worked is not for the media, I’m sorry. Of course, some things are well known as I didn’t conceal them. I’ve already told you that political intelligence was my specialization and I was focused on the West. I ended my service abroad as a KGB resident and then worked as first deputy head of the SVR European intelligence department.

- Once you’ve mentioned that you faced betrayal which affected your career. What’s it all about?

- I can tell you now… I knew a man named Gordievsky. If he can be called a man, of course. I cannot say that his shameful betrayal and recruitment by the British intelligence service broke my life but I got certain problems at work. Roughly speaking, Gordievsky turned me in. After that, I had some foreign assignments but in other locations.

Since then I feel a great aversion to treasons. There were traitors in intelligence in the early 1990s. If you remember, a group of sleeper agents has suffered recently… It is fair to say that CIA and FBI also had defectors to our side. Secret services never sleep.

You know, you’ve asked what marks my previous job left on me. I don’t like long, ponderous and off-the-point answers to simple questions. Intelligence work requires precision and specifics. And I am a quite pragmatic person by nature. There is much work to do, why would I waste my and other people’s time? When a person is making a long and monotonous speech about something for half an hour and you can understand nothing of what he’s saying, you unwittingly get irritated. Why just don’t admit that you don’t know the answer and, therefore, keep drawing circles in the air?

Nobody can know everything. I have never been afraid of telling a professional that he knows the subject better. There is nothing shameful about it. It’s normal! Teaching fish to swim will never come to my mind. Or giving advice to the coach how he should train the team ahead of a decisive match.

- Well, yes, Mr. Ivanov, you are a sports lover.

- What does “lover” mean? As a normal Soviet child, I played football, hockey, volleyball, handball and once even tried to play water polo, which almost killed me. That’s a horsey sport, excuse my French. One should be very strong to endure such loads. And I was not even in my best years. I tried to play golf later but it didn’t go well. Everything needs time, no success comes at once. I was playing basketball for a while and even achieved certain results but suffered an ankle injury and had to become a fan long ago.

- An ardent one. You even remember Chelsea’s table position, as far as I know.

- I don’t follow the English championship intentionally but if I flip through Sport Express daily in the car I look at the results. But I am a CSKA fan. In all sports – football, hockey, basketball.

And, of course, the Russian team led by Leonid Slutsky has made my day. We broke through to Euro 2016 when all chances seemed to be lost. I was at the Otkritiye Arena to support the team at the match with Montenegro when the stadium was full.

Interviewed by Andrei Vandenko

Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.

Andrey Vandenko