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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Former Defense Minister Sergeyev Dies

Marshal Igor Sergeyev, a career soldier who rose to command Russia's nuclear missiles and then became defense minister, presiding over a deteriorated military until being fired in 2001 in the aftermath of the disastrous sinking of a submarine, died Friday in Moscow. He was 68.

The cause was blood cancer, Vyacheslav Klyuzhev, director of Burdenko Military Hospital, told the Russia and CIS Military Newswire.

Sergeyev was the first general promoted to the rank of marshal in post-Soviet Russia and was the only person to hold that rank at the time of his death. After President Vladimir Putin fired him as defense minister in March 2001, Sergeyev continued to serve Putin as an adviser on strategic issues.

In 1997, President Boris Yeltsin, who had vowed in his re-election campaign to transform the military machine into an effectual force, appointed Sergeyev defense minister. Yeltsin charged him with creating "a mobile, well-equipped new type of army and fleet."

The Washington Post suggested that reasons for his selection included his reputation for being untainted by corruption and the prestige of his previous job, head of the Strategic Missile Forces, which had retained higher priority than regular army units, then in serious decay.

Another reason may have been to add Sergeyev's expertise and credibility to Yeltsin's campaign to persuade the State Duma to ratify the Start II arms limitation treaty, signed in 1993.

Sergeyev did not bolster conventional forces as Yeltsin had proposed, but strove to increase the combat readiness of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which was his expertise. War games in 1999 showed conventional forces were indeed weak: simulated nuclear strikes were needed to beat an unidentified opponent, which newspapers said was clearly NATO.

As defense minister, Sergeyev became the first high-level Russian since 1979 to visit Iran, where he signed a weapons deal. He proposed an all-European anti-missile system and a method for shooting down missiles after launching. He warned the United States against attacking Iraq, and accused it of aiding the Chechen rebels Russia was fighting.

By the summer of 2000, Sergeyev's rivals, who favored conventional forces, appeared to be gaining ground. On Aug. 6 of that year, Putin dismissed six generals allied with him.

Then on Aug. 12, 2000, the submarine Kursk sank after two onboard explosions in the Barents Sea and the military's response was fumbling. Sergeyev accepted responsibility. He was dismissed as defense minister in March 2001 and was replaced by Sergei Ivanov.

Igor Sergeyev was born on April 30, 1938, in Verkhnyu, Ukraine. The authorities released no information on survivors. He was briefly in the navy, then spent most of his career in the Strategic Missile Forces. He held some of its highest posts, including deputy commander of the forces for combat training. He became commander in 1992.