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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia This Week: December 1-5, 2014

Publication: Russia This Week
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Is Moscow's Policy on Ukraine Changing with Dismissals in Surkov's Shop?

In case anyone had any doubt, an independent centrist Russian online news service has a story today, December 5, exposing Kremlin manipulation of pro-Russian movements and disarray in policy as Russia and its proxies in southeastern Ukraine experienced fierce armed conflict with Ukrainian forces this summer.

Now all the Muscovites who had been commanding the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic" have been dismissed or have resigned and returned to Moscow or the Crimea, and Russians native to the Donbass are in charge. Yet Moscow continues to meddle, a fact most demonstratively seen in the fact that it is Russia, not the supposedly independent separatists, who have signed the recent truce with Ukraine.

In a story titled "Don't Rock the Boat: What is Behind the Resignations of Russian Bureaucrats Responsible for Ukraine," cites sources close to the "Novorossiya" project of support for Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine to portray a shocking picture of officials both micro-managing and bungling the Kremlin's war on Ukraine.

Analysts scrutinized Putin's speech yesterday to the Federal Assembly and found it significant that he didn't even mention "Novorossiya" or the "Russian World" concepts, although this was a speech for domestic audiences. There was still plenty of ethnic Russian nationalism and Orthodox crusading within the speech to worry non-Russians inside and outside of Russia.

But takes a look at the actual foreign policy shop in the Kremlin under the "grey cardinal" Vyacheslav Surkov, and sees that something is changing. As we have reported, a number of people have resigned or been dismissed from this department for relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States, the regional body formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.'s source says there have been more than were known:

The division is small, at first several people were removed in staff reductions in early October. Then another two we left, and finally [Vladimir] Avdeyenko and [Boris] Rapoport were dismissed.

Other reports said they resigned of their own volition.

The source says that Sergey Glazyev, a co-founder of the nationalist Rodina [Motherland] party who was appointed as an aide to Putin to coordinate the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and is described as "notable for his hawkish views" was said to have "great influence" on Russian policy. 

But while Glazyev had a lot of influence at the start of the conflict -- he once infamously called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a "fascist" -- he has now receded:

At first his network in Ukraine was stronger than Surkov's but then Vladislav Yuryevich [Surkov] seized the initiative. Today Glazyev does not influence Moscow's work in the region.'s correspondent personally saw Rapoport and his colleagues from the division in meetings on the southeastern Ukraine in the Federation Council and in the Moscow office of the Novorossiya Popular Front on Ilyinka Street. Several protest actions in eastern Ukraine failed in September; the officials dismissed were the ones involved in analysis of the situation and "informational support" of the action -- i.e. war propaganda.

At the time, various forces unhappy with Kiev, from Communists to former Party of Regions members to Crimean activists as well as advocates of federalization and support to the self-declared "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk organized a demonstration in September in Kharkiv, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk and several other areas, but they only drew several hundred people despite their Moscow backing and had no affect on the situation in the region.

By the end of the summer, the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] had begun to take under control all the pro-Russian activists and separatist supporters in the area. claims there are "thousands of pro-Russian activists in the DPR and LPR who are considered political prisoners" -- although the separatists themselves don't seem to make this claim as such. These are cases of people arrested for terrorism, extremism, treason, undermining territorial integrity, separatism, and so on, says While there are many such arrests, the figure of "thousands" is not confirmed.

The tasks of Rapoport and his colleagues was to create, so to speak, pro-Russian sentiments in the south-east. they did not cope with this task in building trust toward Russia in the region. And to this day, the direction of the very Novorossiya project itself is not clear. They have not worked sufficiently with people in the southeast and led an information command. There were even rumors of the resignation of Vladislav Surkov in the works, but for now it has passed.

Another informed source close to Surkov tells a different story:

Ordinary staff people left the division after the rather successful elections in the DPR and LPR and in Ukraine, which all sides remained satisfied with. People signed specific contracts, now the situation is completed. All of this change occurred in the framework of an ordinary rotation.

There have been constant rumors of Surkov's involvement in "Novorossiya" and his possible dismissal. Boris Rozhin, who blogs under the name of Colonel Cassad on Live Journal and who has provided news support as well as material assistance to the pro-Russian movement in Ukraine wrote an article titled "Why Rapoport Replaced Surkov in the Ukrainian Division."

The theory was that in early November, when Surkov was bargaining with Kiev, Rapoport would replace him. But this rumor was dismissed as "delirium" in Surkov's office and Rapoport was said to be Surkov's man anyway.

Col. Igor Strelkov, nicknamed "the downed pilot" in Moscow as he has fallen from disfavor after being dismissed from the command of the DPR forces, has pushed the Surkov theory most aggressively. Aleksandr Chalenko, a journalist from the state Rossiya Segodna media company complained his interview of Strelkov was "twice censored," a story covered by Novaya Gazeta and others. All the criticism of the current leadership of the self-proclaimed republics was removed from the piece, says

In Rapoport's place is Igor Udovichekno, a former deputy head of the division of domestic policy, considered also to be Surkov's man. And Surkov is still on Ukraine policy, says a source.

Yet another expert, Aleksey Chesnakov of the Center for Current Politics said Rapoport left due to health issues and was not responsible for the DPR and LPR anyway. Avdeyenko was fired from the department of financial and infrastructure issues related to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so "these resignations were not connected" to Ukraine, he said. He thought the personnel changes were "routine."

But still another source says policy is in disarray:

In 9 months, the general line regarding Ukraine has changed 3 times. You cannot name a successful curator of the Ukrainian issue at all, regardless of who is curating it. No 'iron-clad plan' is available, everything is situational. It's the same with selecting personnel.

"Curation" is a term Russians use to mean managing -- and sometimes manipulating -- a situation for state purposes.

This source said that Russia's role in supporting protest movements in Ukraine diminished after the SBU arrests, and now people are told to go underground and not protest openly. This source said he believed there were "1,400 political prisoners in Kharkiv alone." He said Moscow helps these movements with financial aid, appearances on federal TV and aid to newspapers and web sites.

"In the organization of armed resistance, bureaucrats are completely useless; here other organizations help, and help fairly concretely," he said.

That means the Kremlin bureaucracy itself is not tasked with control of the armed insurrection, but the Russian intelligence agencies, military intelligence (GRU), and domestic and foreign intelligence (FSB and SVR).

The source also noted that "another division" in the presidential administration answers for "promoting the necessary agenda in the federal media" and Surkov's subordinates are forced to coordinate with them.

A source close to the administration and the "Novorossiya" issue commented to

The chief purpose of Russian authorities at this time is the preservation of the 'Russian world' and pro-Russian sentiments in Ukraine. This is the chief purpose people there are working on. All the personnel changes are necessary because this task was not being fulfilled properly. No one needs war, they want to preserve the 'Russian World."

This source said at first, Moscow wanted to preserve the integrity of Ukraine but with a pro-Russian government. But after September, they wanted to stop the war, achieve certain compromises between the DPR, LPR and the rest of Ukraine, even up to a referendum on annexation to Russia.

In August, Russian launched a series of invasions in Ukraine and reportedly lost hundreds of soldiers in battles in Ilovaisk and other cities, which led to the Minsk "ceasefire" agreement September 5, honored now mainly in the breach.

"But psychologically, we lost Ukraine in the end, now there is the premise that Russians are enemies," the source complained.

With the concept of the pro-Russian Ukraine gone, now DPR and LPR are seen as independent states, said the source.

"Now we are leading an information war, we are trying through blogs, through media appearances, opinion leaders to break public moods in Ukraine. The government can be changed in Kiev, but time is needed for that and people have to recognize their mistakes and the failures of the current authorities."

Valery Solovey, director of public liaison with the Moscow State Institute for Foreign Relations, commenting on the dismissals with an even harder line:

"A regular army was needed with saboteur activity in the rear guard. The republics exist, and that is already unquestionable success. But their future looks like the future of Transnistria. But with one important caveat. Russia will pay the expenses for their upkeep. Perhaps it will be possible to force the Ukrainian elite which fled to Russia to take some of those expenses on themselves. But in any event, the Donbass is turning into a 'black hole' of the Russian economy, politics and geopolitics. There was no strategy regarding Ukraine at first. but the axiom of strategic direction says: no tactical and operational successes can compensate for the lack of strategy; the side that doesn't have a strategy always loses."

Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky, who has the interesting title of "non-humanitarian aid coordinator for the DPR" said he couldn't see any long-term strategy either in Moscow or the Donbass.

"From here, it all looks a mess," he said, adding that it was "like reading coffee grounds." Only substantial humanitarian -- and military aid -- would prove there really was a plan, he said, implying that is not what they were getting. He wanted Russia to invest in the region and create jobs.

All of these conflicting perspectives together seem to indicate the policy is a mess, and yet the Kremlin has managed to keep the situation destabilized enough always in its favor, which is perhaps all that is needed for a grand strategy.