Moscow’s Man on Minsk
Who is Vladislav Surkov, beyond the hype?
Last week, the new United States Special Representative to Ukraine Ambassador Kurt Volker met with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov in Minsk to discuss the implementation of the peace agreement and the ongoing war in the Donbas. Surkov has now met with two U.S. representatives, the first being former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland during the Obama administration, making him Russia's undisputed point man for international talks related to the Minsk peace agreements.
Surkov has earned an international reputation for his influence in the Kremlin, earning titles as grand as “the hidden author of Putinism” and “dark prince of the Kremlin” from his role in organizing the information environment and political system of Putin’s first two terms as president. While much as been written about Surkov’s role in solidifying central rule over Russian media and the creation of “sovereign democracy,” less attention has been given to the exact nature of his relationship with Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine and the extent of his power in managing them. Open source materials can give us a window into this relationship, thanks to leaked materials and interviews with officials and ex-leaders of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR).
The so-called “Surkov Leaks” involved the published inboxes of Vladislav Surkov’s official e-mail account, which were handled by his assistants in Moscow. These leaks were published by the Ukrainian hacker group “Cyber Hunta” in October 2016, and provided the public with a rare glimpse into the daily, routine work conducted by Surkov and his assistants. For the most part, the leaked emails were a bore — daily reports on media activity, proposed edits for columns, meeting reminders, and so on. There were also emails that showed the public how Surkov does manage the Donbas, and the relationships he has with key leaders in the so-called separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. Among these were specific documents on handling the financial budgets of departments within the so-called DNR, appointing specific leaders, and managing the editorial lines of separatist and Russian media in regards to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
For example, in one leaked email, we can find a document showing an early draft of weapon withdrawal details, shortly before the second Minsk accords were agreed upon following the Battle of Debaltseve.
This sort of document is expected to be found in Surkov’s inbox, as he was one of the key negotiators from the Russian side in the Minsk negotiations. However, other emails show that Surkov is not just the Russian representative to international discussions related to eastern Ukraine, but rather, he is something closer to an overseeing body for the supposedly independent “self-proclaimed” separatist republics, providing support and acting as a ultimate authority for key decisions. This role is clearly illustrated in an email sent to Surkov’s inbox on December 15, 2015 providing a list of proposed candidates to lead the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic’s (LNR) ministries. A similar email was sent to Surkov for approval for so-called DNR ministers, with additional input from Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeyev.
In these documents sent to Surkov, we can see the specific separatist officials he was in direct contact with. Along with a number of emails from so-called DNR leaders Denis Pushilin and Aleksandr Zakharchenko, there is a close relationship evident in the emails between Surkov and Zakhar Prilepin, one of the most renowned living Russian writers — and current commander of a volunteer battalion under the so-called DNR. As @DFRLab described in previous report on the Surkov Leaks, correspondence regarding a book being written by Prilepin — then just a writer, and not a separatist militant — was found in the leaked inbox.
A look into Surkov’s leaked inbox shows us a fascinating view into his connections and responsibilities, but is only a small part of describing Surkov’s role as one of the Kremlin’s main connection to Donetsk. A Reuters article from May 2017 cites three former “separatist” leaders to illustrate how Surkov “played a key role in the appointment of Alexander Zakharchenko as leader” of the DNR, reflected by documents in the leaked inbox. With the ascension of Zakharchenko, two key figures in Donetsk — Aleksandr Borodai and Igor “Strelkov” Girkin — stepped down following a “verbal order from Surkov’s office.”
The Reuters report goes on to clarify that Surkov is not merely a representative meeting with U.S. representatives on the situation in eastern Ukraine — including former Assistant Secretary Nuland and, now, Ambassador Volker — but instead the representative responsible for management and negotiations of the so-called separatists republics:
Surkov’s activities, which began at least six months before the internationally-brokered Minsk peace deal, focused on choosing personnel to take senior posts, on creating a structure for the separatist administration, on formulating a media strategy for the separatists and planning local elections, according to the people who spoke to Reuters.
In July, so-called DNR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko made a surprise announcement that Ukraine — not just the Donbas — was being transformed into Malorossiya, with a political transition “ready” to be put in place. This announcement was met with more laughter than consideration from the West and Kyiv, and surprise from many in Moscow.
However, according to some in Moscow and Donetsk, Surkov may have had a part in this “Malorossiya Initiative.” Surkov himself told RIA Novosti that the idea of Malorossiya was “hype” but also “useful,” as it presented a plan for all of Ukraine “and not just a part of it.” A quoted Russian official told RBC that the Malorossiya initiative was “100%” not from Surkov, but former separatist commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin said otherwise in a post on his personal Vkontakte (VK) page.
In his post, Girkin said that the idea of Malorossiya was “provocation” and a “loud and important political statement.”
[This idea] could not have been born without the direct participation of the political technologists attached to [DNR President] Zakharchenko — Misters Kazakov, Prilepin, and so on — the figures that undoubtedly originate from “Surkov’s nest.
Kazakov is a frequent figure in Surkov’s inbox, and Surkov’s ties to Prilepin are widely known due to their common literary interests.
Surkov’s level of involvement with the Malorossiya Initiative — which died almost as soon as it started — is still unclear, but the announcement of a new state meant to replace Ukraine is, to put it mildly, not constructive in the frame of the current Minsk agreements or negotiations.
Post-modern master, or master of self-promotion?
The mythology of Surkov has grown over the past decade with his mysterious literary pursuits (he writes under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky), his affinity for Western culture (his favorite parts of America are Tupac, Allen Ginsburg, and Jackson Pollock, which he noted he “does not need a visa for,” after being placed under U.S. sanctions), and his power behind the scenes (he is often called the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal”). However, we should keep in mind that Surkov worked in advertising and propaganda for most of his adult life, and that he is also able to sell a grand image of himself to the world.
The recent flap with the “Malorossiya Initiative” shows that Surkov is not an infallible master of post-modern propaganda — either he helped come up with the idea that isolated Donetsk’s allies in Luhansk and Russia, or he was not able to control his chosen leader of Zakharchenko in Donetsk to keep the idea from being announced. Open source materials allow us to cut through the hype surrounding Surkov and see how his propaganda operations actually work — and the results are not exactly overwhelming, with close connections to nationalist publications and fake letters sent from the “public representatives of the Donbass” to be published in RT.
Understanding Surkov’s real influence and capabilities is essential for assessing potential progress in talks between him and Ambassador Volker. While Surkov is not quite the all-powerful figure he is made out to be in much of the Anglophone media, he is still one of the most connected and influential players in the close relationships between Russia and the so-called DNR/LNR, with leaked digital materials showing the levers of power he has been able to use to influence the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.