Despite rumors of resignation, Putin’s gray cardinal Surkov keeps job

Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov with his boss. Photograph: WikiImages 

Analysis & Opinion

After months of rumors or a possible resignation, Vladislav Surkov, proverbially known as “Putin’s Rasputin,” was reappointed as Putin’s advisor. Surkov is considered to be an unofficial curator of Russia’s policy in Ukraine, and particularly, the Russian-run pseudo-states in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (“DNR,””LNR”).

Who is Mr. Surkov?

Vladislav Surkov has been one of the top brass in the Kremlin since 1999. He was a first deputy chief of the Presidential Administration (1999-2011), a deputy prime minister (2011-2013), a personal adviser of Putin on relationships with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ukraine (September 2013-now).

Russian-occupied enclaves in the post-Soviet republics: Crimea, “LNR” and “DNR” (in Ukraine), Transnistria (in Moldova), South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in Georgia).

Surkov became an architect of the modern Russian politics, having coined the term and the concept of so-called sovereign democracy in 2006 as a doctrine of the Russian politics to counter democracy promotion conducted by the USA and European states. According to Surkov, sovereign democracy is:

a society’s political life where the political powers, their authorities and decisions are decided and controlled by a diverse Russian nation for the purpose of reaching material welfare, freedom, and fairness by all citizens, social groups and nationalities, by the people that formed it.

Following the 2007 Russian parliamentary election topped by Putin’s United Russia Party, the doctrine came to life in the form of a dominant-party system with Putin’s party atop, which resembles the Soviet concept of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a leading and guiding force in the country.

As the Moscow Times reported, Surkov exerted his influence to have Ramzan Kadyrov appointed as Head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, since then Kadyrov has remained in office and became known for numerous humans rights abuses.

Vladislav Surkov is believed to be a founder of the modern pro-Kremlin state propaganda machine, which involves the Kremlin’s direct control of the most online and offline media outlets and the state-sanctioned trolling.

He was one of the organizers of the annexation of Crimea, as a result, the US and the EU placed Surkov on their sanctions lists, barring him from entering the United States and the EU, and freezing his assets there in March 2014 following the unconstitutional Crimean status referendum which was conducted by Russia under heavy presence of the Russian troops in the Ukrainian peninsula.

Surkov was behind the attempts to politically destabilize Ukraine in 2014-2015 to break the state apart and create the so-called Novorossiya, “New Russia,” out of the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions.

Read also: Kremlin organizing “fifth column” in Ukraine’s parliament — Kremlinologist (2014)

The “Novorossiya” project was aimed at cutting Ukraine off from the access to its sea coast, providing Russia with a land corridor to annexed Crimea as well as with control of the most of the Ukrainian industries, including defense, space, ship-building and other branches.

A map of Ukraine circa 1918-1928 with the Ukrainian People’s Republic’s claims in pink and the border of Soviet Ukraine in 1928 in red.

Read also: Putin aide linked to Maidan killings

One of the instances of the Novorossiya project was the proclamation of two unrecognized states in eastern Ukraine, the “LNR” and “DNR,” with Russian encroachment on the territory which later turned into the direct military invasion. As “Novorossiya” failed in general, Surkov focused on overseeing the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” the statelets Russia had created in what is officially called by Ukraine and the OSCE “the certain areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts” (ORDLO).

Kremlin trolls and “Surkov propaganda”

Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky believed that a “special brigade” of the Russian internet trolls emerged in 2000-2001, however, it wasn’t numerous at the beginning. According to him, the web brigade’s mission was “using comments in blogs and forums, under articles to discredit the position or texts unwanted by the authorities.”

Another analyst, Mikhail Tulsky, stated that in 2005 Vladislav Surkov developed a plan to counter the “color revolutions threat” to Russia, following the 2003 Revolution of Roses in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The Kremlin believed that the West orchestrated both protest movements which resulted in pro-Western peaceful changes of power in both post-Soviet countries. The part of Surkov’s plan was to form blogger groups, “each group was attached to a LiveJournal community or an opposition website,” according to Tulsky.

Anyway, the activity of the Russian pro-government internet trolls surged during and after the Orange Revolution, and it’s been intensifying until now. In 2011, the term Surkov propaganda emerged and became memetic in Russia, which described the boosted pro-Putin propaganda on TV, in the online and paper press, in the comment sections of forums, blogs, social media.

According to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, Surkov’s “spot approach” to internet propaganda failed since online media supported the mass opposition protests amid the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia, which were organized via social media. Meanwhile, the team of Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy of the Russian Presidential Administration, tested a new strategy of public consciousness manipulation through new media. As Vedomosti stresses, Volodin’s work “was recognized so efficient that a decision was made to also target this weapon abroad – at the American and European audience,” which resulted in the foundation of the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) also known as the troll factory in 2013 by Putin’s close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Volodin’s propaganda machine changed the scale of the Kremlin internet propaganda campaigns but the basic strategies remained the same as Surkov’s – the troll factory uses paid trolls to push and promote Kremlin-desirable public narratives and to suppress dissident opinions.

The state-sanctioned trolling is backed by the state control of the television and most popular online media.

Surkov is often regarded as the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” who wields enormous power.

More on Russian state “troll farm”:

Surkov leaks

Surkov’s strategy of controlling the “LNR and “DNR,” and Russia’s influence operations in Ukraine generally came to light during 2016-2017 in three tranches of leaked emails obtained by a coalition of Ukrainian hackers calling themselves the Cyberalliance. Tranches 1 & 2, originating from the email accounts of Vladislav Surkov were initially posted by the Ukrainian research community Informnapalm and were vetted as legitimate by the Digital Research Forensics Lab of the Atlantic Council. They describe the Kremlin’s media and political influence operations in Ukraine, Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to legalize its puppet “republics” in Ukraine’s legal field, and the “leaders” it appointed in them. As well, they illuminate the depth of analysis the Kremlin conducted to spot Ukrainian weaknesses which could be seized and exploited.

Tranche belongs to Surkov’s right hand Inal Ardzinba and details the extensive campaign to destabilize and federalize Ukraine which the Kremlin conducted through various channels of influence in the country.

The tactics of Russia’s hybrid war as seen in the Surkov leads will be described in an upcoming report in the RUSI institute coauthored by Euromaidan Press managing editor Alya Shandra and British MP Robert Seely.

More on Surkov Leaks:

T1 and T2 projects

In the leaked Surkov’s emails, the Eastern-Ukrainian occupied territories are referred to as T1 (Donetsk – Russia has been publicly pushing the term “the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic” or DNR) and T2 (Luhansk, “LNR”).

As the Surkov leaks revealed, the “Kremlin’s gray cardinal” was behind the information policy to create an international image of a “civil war in Ukraine” for the Russian invasion and of the breakaway self-proclaimed states for the territories occupied and fully controlled by the Russian-hybrid forces.

Vladislav Surkov (R) with “DNR” leaders – ex PM Alexandr Boroday (R) and current “DNR head” Aleksandr Zakharchenko (C). Rostov-on-Don, Russia, october 2017. Photograph: BBC Russia

He was the architect of the fake government bodies and pseudo-political process in the occupied Donbas sponsoring the creation of ruling and opposition “parties” (called for some reason “public organizations”), fake “people’s soviets” (parliaments) and governments to hide the very fact of the full Russian control of the territories. Actually, the pseudo republics are fully maintained and supplied by Moscow: Russia appoints civilian rulers of the statelets and any significant decisions and statements they made are dictated from the Kremlin, the security is directly controlled by the Russian law-enforcement agencies, and all of the military formations in the occupied territories are under command of the Russian 6th Army.

Read also: Who is who in the Kremlin proxy “Donetsk People’s Republic”

Since the United States was not present in the Minsk talks and Normandy Four – the international formats for negotiations with Russia on Ukraine – the Obama Administration established a direct channel for talks with Russia on Ukrainian issues. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State, represented the US in the US-Russia negotiations while Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov was her Russian counterpart. Under Trump Administration, Kurt Volker was appointed as a United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations to continue the meetings with Surkov.

Read more on the Russian aggression in the Donbas:

Rumors on Surkov’s resignation

The first rumors on a possible dismissal of Surkov emerged after the November 2017 coup d`etat in occupied Luhansk, when “LNR state security minister” Leonid Pasechnik toppled Surkov-controlled “head of LNR” Igor Plotnitsky. The MGB (“ministry of state security”) of both Donetsk and Luhansk pseudo states has been created and fully controlled by the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service). The coup was backed by another “LNR minister” Igor Kornet and his “ministry of interior,” another agency subordinate to FSB. What is more, special forces of the “MGB of DNR” were mass deployed in Luhansk from Donetsk to suppress the potential counterstand to the unfolding takeover.

The coup occurred in about two months after the second meeting of Vladislav Surkov with US envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The involvement of the FSB-controlled structures in the “LNR” coup prompted speculations that Surkov lost power as a curator of the “people’s republics” and FSB seized his powers.

However, Volker and Surkov held their next (and the last as of now) meeting in the Gulf city of Dubai in January. The closed-door meeting brought no results.

Days after the interlocutors’ meeting in Dubai, one of the Russian opposition leaders, Grigory Yavlinsky, stated that he sought Putin to appoint him as a Russian representative in the US-Russia talks on Ukraine in place of Vladislav Surkov, however, no Kremlin’s comments followed the Yavlinsky’s statement:

Later in March, Surkov’s rumored successor was Dmitry Kozak, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister who’s also been the second person in Russia’s “shadow government for the Donbas” which is officially known as the “Inter-ministerial Commission for the Provision of Humanitarian Aid for the Affected Areas in the Southeast of the Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.”

In mid-May, the Russian online newspaper RBK reported that Vladislav Surkov may step down according to their multiple official Russian sources – “two interlocutors close to the Kremlin, and three sources, close to the Administration of the Socio-Economic Cooperation with CIS countries, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is overseen by Surkov.”

The RBK sources voiced several reasons for his resignation, among them were:

  • “The strategy in the Ukrainian direction deadlocked in general, the Minsk accords are not being implemented, and no break-through expected.”
  • “Surkov conflicted with other agencies, which supposed him to be interfering with the affairs that are none of his concern.”
  • “Surkov had a conflict with siloviki [“securocrats”], particularly with the 5th FSB Unit (Agency of operative information and international links), responsible for counter intelligence in the territories of the DNR and LNR.” According to two RBK sources in the CIS Administration, the FSB unit supported Pasechnik in his conflict with “LNR head” Plotnistsky, who was in turn backed by Surkov. But one of RBK’s Kremlin sources refuted the statement saying that Surkov himself demanded that Plotnistky resign.
  • “Surkov himself is ready to vacate office, and this is not about the situation in Ukrainian-Russian affairs”

As Kurt Volker commented on the rumors, he had not received word on Surkov’s status or about a new meeting at their latest round of the negotiations.

Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov refused to approve or deny the rumors on Surkov’s resignation, saying that the Kremlin never makes staff reshuffle announcements.

At the end of May, anonymous “sources in government agencies” told the Moscow-based Kommersant newspaper that Surkov’s would-be successor is Mikhail Babich, President’s Political Representative in the Volga Federal District. However, according to the same source, “the option that a silovik [top officer of a law enforcement agency – YZ] may be appointed as a curator for Ukraine might be a sign that ‘it’s all bad in the Ukrainian direction’.”

In the interview published on 5 June, former “prime minister of DNR” Alexandr Boroday, a Russian citizen who returned to Moscow after his resignation, has commented on the new rumors about Surkov’s dismissal,

“I wouldn’t discuss his replacement as of now. Fairly recently, I visited him. He feels perfectly well in his office at Staraya Square [in Moscow] and he sends his warm greetings to all.”

As of now, the months-long rumors on Surkov’s dismissal have been neither confirmed nor refuted.

What does the story with the rumored resignation mean? 

First of all, Surkov’s post was not going to be abolished, meaning that Russia was not thinking of withdrawing its forces and equipment from the occupied Donbas and leaving the Eastern-Ukrainian regions, or Ukraine in general, alone. The Kremlin is going to retain its control over the Donbas and continue influence operations over Ukraine. 

Russia may continue carrying on the same policy of inactive conflict in Donbas to keep the hotspot of tension within Ukraine.

But the consideration of a new person in office may have meant a consideration of a shift in  Russian policy towards Ukraine. Now that Surkov has been reappointed, we can forecast that the policy will continue the patterns of Russian influence exposed in the Surkov Leaks. This makes studying the Kremlin’s modus operandi and elaborating a proper response particularly pressing. 

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