Did Obama Just Sanction Russia’s Next President?

The U.S. sanctions against Russian officials announced this week could have long-ranging effects for years to come, especially if sanctioned official Sergey Ivanov succeeds Vladimir Putin as the next leader of the Russian Federation.

Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

The Obama administration made a deliberate effort to avoid economically punishing President Vladimir Putin directly, But they may have accidentally sanctioned Putin’s successor, Sergey Ivanov, the current chief of staff of the presidential administration.

“It is a highly unusual and rather extraordinary case for the United States to sanction a head of state of another country,” a senior administration official said when explaining the asset freezes and visa bans the United States has imposed on 31 Russian and Ukrainian leaders and one Russian bank. After all, presidents need to be free to conduct high-level negotiations, hold summits, and the like. Hitting them personally is akin to conducting a kind of economic or diplomatic assassination. “So we do not begin these types of sanctions efforts with a head of state.”

The Russians, in turn, did not sanction any senior administration officials when they retaliated Thursday, topping their list with one senior advisor to Obama, Dan Pfeiffer, and two mid-level White House staffers, Caroline Atkinson and Ben Rhodes. Even anti-Russian U.S. diplomats such as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland were spared in an effort to respond proportionally and to maintain the ability of diplomats to do their work going forward.

But if Putin ever steps down—perhaps after his 3rd term as president in 2018—Ivanov tops the list of those who could replace him, according to a report by Foundation Stanislav Belkovsky, the research organization named after the Russian political scientist and communications professional of the same name.

Ivanov’s ties to Putin go back to 1976, when they both served in the Leningrad Oblast KGB Directorate. He was Putin’s deputy when Putin was director of the Federal Security Service in 1998-99. In 2001, Putin made Ivanov Russia’s first civilian defense minister, a post he held until 2007.

“We remember quote clearly that from February to September 2007, Mr. Ivanov used to be the most likely candidate in the ‘race of Putin’s successors,’ but then the National Leader (Mr. Putin) chose to advance Dmitry Medvedev,” reads a 2013 Foundation report, reviewed by The Daily Beast.

In 2011, Putin gave the job of chief of the presidential administration to Ivanov, “who, according to Putin’s basic judgment, thus received his compensation for having been humiliated in 2007,” the report stated. That’s when “Ivanov had been the last to learn that he would not to become the President’s successor because the coveted post had been given to Medvedev.”

In between his close brush with the presidency in 2007 and his return to Putin’s inner circle in 2011, Ivanov strengthened his position inside the highest ranks of the Russian political aristocracy. Despite having a relatively minor position for a once-presidential contender, Ivanov used his post as Deputy Prime Minister for the Defense Industrial Complex to increase his personal wealth and build support in the business community.

“Some say that it was this job that had finally given him a chance to drink from a life-giving fountain of big money,” the Foundation report stated.

Ivanov now has deep ties to Russian big business. His son, Sergey Ivanov, Jr. became Vice President of Gazprombank, the king-sized financial institution, and is tied to Rostelecom, the main Russian telecommunications company. Ivanov Jr. is expected to be named the next CEO of Gazprombank.

There are other contenders to replace Putin in 2018 and one of them might be chosen to replace Medvedev as prime minister as soon as this year, the report stated. If Ivanov is picked, it’s nearly as problematic as if he became president; prime ministers aren’t supposed to be on anyone’s sanction list, either.

One other possible contender is Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, who may have the support of Vladislav Surkov, the “gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, who is influential and close to Putin on several issues, including Ukraine. Surkov, who is on the U.S. sanctions list, is of Chechen ethnicity.

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Alexey Kurdin, the current Minister of Finance, is also said to want Medvedev’s job, in advance of later replacing Putin, according to the Foundation report. Another contender could be Dmitry Rogozin, the current Deputy Prime Minister for the Defense Industrial Complex, who laughed off the fact that he was the target of U.S. sanctions this week.

But Rogozin is a long shot, according to the Foundation analysis, because of his historical clashes with members of the Rodina, or National Patriotic Party, in 2007 and his effort to raise millions from oligarchs for a “peaceful revolution” in Russia in 2005-06. “Rogozin’s promising political career exists primarily in the imagination of his close relatives,” the Foundation wrote.

The conventional wisdom inside the Kremlin is that if Putin relinquishes the presidency in 2018—and that’s a major if—he could stay on again as prime minister or another role that allows him to maintain control.

“Mr. Putin now sends his close company and the lobbying parties messages of the following character: quite possibly I will not go away in 2018 so do not get involved in competing for my throne too soon,” the Foundation report said.

But if Ivanov does become President or Prime Minister, he won’t be able to come to the United States under the current sanctions regime, promising cool relations between Washington and Moscow well into the next decade.