Kremlin ‘Grey Cardinal’ Surkov’s Deal for a ‘Donetsk Transdniestria’?

July 9, 2014
Vladislav Surkov (L) and Sergei Kurginyan (R)

Boris Rozhin, editor of Golos Sevastopolya and a popular blogger under the name “Colonel Cassad,” published a LiveJournal entry 7 July speculating on the origins of the campaign that has begun to discredit Col. Igor Strelkov, self-declared commander in chief of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” He traces it to an attempt to orchestrate a scenario arranged by Kremlin “grey cardinal” Vladislav Surkov for an end to the armed conflict in southeastern Ukraine by producing something like a “Donetsk Transdniestria” — a region that will remain disputed and a thorn in the side of the new Kiev government.

Yesterday at a press conference in Donetsk
, ultranationalist leftist leader Sergei Kurginyan clashed with leaders of the pro-Russian separatist movement Pavel Gubarev and Igor Bezler, after he denounced Strelkov for fleeing Slavyansk. During the course of the shouting match, which ended with the separatists walking out, Kurginyan stlil managed to outline just how much aid the separatists have received from “civil society” in Russia, even if the weapons were sometimes poor quality — and indicated “more modern” vehicles and artillery were being sent in since 3 July. This was a fact not lost on the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Andriy Lysenko (translation here and below by The Interpreter):

“In particular, yesterday during a press conference in Donetsk, the leaders of the militants confirmed that they receive armored vehicles, artillery systems, antitank, anti-aircraft and small arms from Russia. We have reported this many times. Now the militants themselves have openly admitted it,” he said at a briefing in Kyiv on Wednesday.

As we reported on our Ukrainian Liveblog today, Andriy Parubiy, Chairman of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, also commented on in-fighting among the separatists:

“Mr. Paribuy stated that the source of the tension was that Strelkov had received large amounts of money from the Kremlin and was not appropriately sharing it with the various other leaders. This tension has become highlighted as it seems that Russia may be quietly ignoring please for more help from separatists holed up in Donetsk.”

Paribuy’s sources may ultimately link back to a purported Kremlin-inspired campaign to discredit Strelkov, but it’s also likely that Moscow keeps the insurgency off balance by channeling aid through multiple leaders.

Rozhin does not explain his sources but a number of Moscow opposition figures have found his blog persuasive. His thesis is that Surkov, together with various Moscow-leaning or at least self-interested oligarchs in the industrial southeast of Ukraine, are in the process of making a deal with Kiev in which Strelkov is in the way.

By moving to Donetsk and assuming leadership of the main separatist warfare there, Strelkov has supposedly become a “wild card” and messed up Surkov’s script. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, is really a key figure in this story.

It was clear in April that Akhmetov may be “double dealing” by using the threat of separatism as a bargaining chip with Kiev, even though by May he was calling on pro-Kiev forces to “fight, fight, fight”, as we reported on our Ukrainian Liveblog.

On May 16, Akhmetov organized patrols to keep order from the mayhem instigated by the separatists, but in the end, signed an agreement with the DPR to keep the peace in the steel factories in Mariupol. Now something like that was put into play for Slavyansk.

Says Rozhin:

“In fact, the hidden political agenda for the retreat from Slavyansk was no less significant than the military. If the point about the military necessity was already earlier explained in detail, it is time to explain the political agenda behind Strelkov’s maneuver.

After the turn in Russia’s foreign policy toward Ukraine in April 2014, practically all the threads for decisions regarding the Donbass began to lead to Surkov, and [Vyacheslav] Volodin [first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia] was de facto removed from managing the issue. After it became obvious that the sending in of troops was either delayed, or removed completely from the agenda, the question arose what to do with what was happening in Donbass. Since for internal political considerations, merging the DPR and LPR was fraught with internal upheavals (the risk of which was much greater than some realized), they chose an interim option, whereby against the backdrop of retreat by official diplomacy, Moscow continued its silent support for the insurgents from the republics (which then propagandists took for whole cloth).

Meanwhile, the course was set to form Novorossiya, which was supposed to be headed up by [Oleg] Tsarev, who while in Moscow began to receive financing (along with a number of other people who were to replace him in the event of failure) and on whom various so-called people’s governors of Russia began to close in, numbering 7-9 people, most of whom are virtual figures.

The first attempt to seat Tsarev in Donbass ended in failure – Tsarev proclaimed Novorossiya, and a number of figures like Bolotov and [Aleksandr] Boroday stated that Tsarev could declare what he liked on his own, but decisions were being made by other people, after which began a singling out of suspects with charges against local authorities of self-interest. With the second attempt, Tsarev was nevertheless installed in Donbass, since Moscow ran some of the channels for financing and humanitarian aid through him, and local leaders were forced to swallow their pride.

The problem of the DPR is essentially that Akhmetov still has a major influence on the leadership of the DPR and the Donetsk elites. Moscow is taking this point into account and trying to come to an agreement with him (through Surkov and a number of other officials). But the junta and the US are of course mindful of these movements and Akhmetov, whose financial assets are in the West, is being held firmly by the short hairs. Therefore this bargaining does not bring closer, but puts farther off the liberation by the DPR and LPR, although the managers of the Ukrainian issue seriously believe that their plan with Akhmetov will come off.”

Rozhin concludes that Akhmetov is motivated to make a deal with both the separatists and Kiev, with whom he has close contacts through his people, to protect his properties and investments in Ukraine, so that they are not attacked by artillery fire.

Meanwhile, looting, murder, mafia business, the assassination of Pushilin’s aide, and an attempt to kill Gubarev have all occurred in Donetsk, while “no serious efforts were made to seize the tank warehouse in Artyomovsk although nothing prevented them from advancing the tanks and BMP they had from Donetsk to Artyomovsk by adding 2-3 regiments of militia and taking it over,” fumes Rozhin.

By the time of the “ceasefire,” a “party of defeatists” who had kept up negotiating with the Kremlin were ready to surrender Donetsk. The “junta” had cut off Strelkov’s supply line to Slavyansk and he relied on Nikolayevka alone. No Russian troops came to the rescue – it was for their sake the separatists were holding Slavyansk as an important communications hub. Seeing that he was going to be made the scape-goat, Strelkov decide to flee Slavyansk and make the move to Donetsk, which was about to be betrayed – and, so the story goes, ready to be handed over to Kiev:

“Strelkov’s arrival with fighters upset the hidden plan and Akhmetov’s hope to keep the war out of Donetsk and obtain a promise from Kiev not to bomb it. Strelkov gathered together the garrisons from the remaining cities and came to Donetsk in order to turn it into a reinforced district and to conduct an active defense with reliance on Donetsk and Gorlovka. That is, he ruined all the plans for a peaceful turn-over of Donetsk to the junta. Hence all the yelps from Akhmetov, ‘don’t bomb Donetsk’ and the junta’s promise that ‘we will not bomb Donetsk.’ Of course Strelkov is bringing war to Donetsk, because of a firm desire to surrender Donetsk to the junta without a fight and bury the DPR. With this fact, Strelkov threw all the defeatists’ cards into confusion and ruined Surkov’s maneuvers with negotiations with Akhmetov, in which Strelkov simply had no place.”

Strelkov then is in the way of Akhmetov’s deal-making, but he with “his right-wing monarchist views,” says Rozhin, he has had the support of nationalists and semi-fascist types in Moscow like Yegor Prosvirin, “accepting aid from anyone who will give it, without particular discretion on principle.”

“Surkov and Co. do not need a right-wing Novorossiya, with a nationalist taint, which some figures are trying to lend to the image of Strelkov, who openly supports Putin and has not advanced any projects of a state name for himself, although this intention of seizing Rostov and marching on Moscow has been ascribed to him – total and obvious nonsense.

People like Surkov find people like Akhmetov, Medvedchuk, Tsarev much more kindred, which in the event of the creation of a ‘Donetsk Transdnestria’ will be delegated local authority. Leaders from the people, like Mozgovoy or Gubarev will hardly be allowed to make key decisions – such people frighten those who have grown accustomed to ‘resolving’ everything in a close circle of ‘their own people.’”

Surkov has a delicate task here – he has to prevent a “patriotic Maidan” from challenging Putin, but come out of the conflict with Ukraine with a manageable “Donetsk Transdniestria” intact to continue to keep Kiev off balance. Surkov has failed at such delicate tasks before, when his maneuvers led to mass unrest after Putin’s re-election in December 2011, leading ultimately to the loss of his own position in charge of domestic policy, in favor of Volodin and his All-Russian Popular Front, who was able to bring Putin’s ratings up from 36% in January 2012 to 86% in April 2014. Strelkov has complicated his life considerably:

“Strelkov, coming out of the encirclement near Slavyansk, already led to some of the potential figures of a merger of the DPR and the talks with Akhmetov to flee; Khodakovsky, who was on the payroll of Akhmetov (but who nevertheless hung around Moscow), has fled Donetsk for unknown parts (to Mariupol, according to some rumors). That is, Strelkov (with likely the help of certain circles in Moscow) is simply destroying the base for the deal with the junta and Akhmetov, since giving up the city with a bunch of militia still fighting the junta would not be realistic, and Strelkov has one of the largest formations of armed people and significant authority among the residents of the DPR and the militia. That authority was necessary to destroy immediately, since it was beginning to pose a threat for the proposed policy.”

Rozhin believes Kurginyan is the instigator but not the originator of the plan to discredit Strelkov, and that the level of hysteria around it shows how hastily it was concocted. He believes Strelkov will be targeted for assassination, just as Bolotov and Mozgovoy have been as well as Gubarev because they represent the “real” DPR where oligarchs like Akhmetov and Medvedchuk do not have a role.

Today, Rozhin pointed to a tweet from ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin explaining where separatist military leader Khodakovsky has turned up:

Translation: As had been supposed, Khodakovsky has taken up the defense at Makugla. Fighters loyal to Novorossiya are quitting the Vostok Battalion.

Rozhin said he was checking this information, but noted that in his TV interview yesterday, Strelkov had spoken about the Vostok Battalion fighting well outside Snezhnoye under “a smart leader,” but had not given the name. That means it might not be Khodakovsky if he is in Makugla.

Rozhin notes that now Dugin, whom he sees as part of the “party of war” is directly blaming Surkov and the “party of defeat” for his dismissal from Moscow State University.

Dugin is convinced Surkov — who is actually on the US and EU sanctions lists over the Ukraine conflict — is plotting with the US and the oligarchs to take control of the Ukrainian conflict and should be removed to save Russia:

“Now he is preparing the last blow: his intrigues are blocking decisive support of Novorossiya, setting patriots against each other, engendering false expectations, setting up clever schemes which he himself is leaking and so on. All of this is to complete the Bolotnaya Affair: to unite the fifth column of liberals with Russian patriots who with every hour are growing more and more disenchanted with Putin due to the fact that the impression is created that Putin is dumping the Russian Spring.”

Technically, Surkov is now supposed to be in charge of relations with Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, not Ukraine, and several weeks ago there was a coup in Abkhazia for which Surkov is now being blamed — although as the outcome has been peaceful, he is taking credit for solving it.

It remains to be seen how much he and his allies can pull the strings as events may get ahead of them in southeastern Ukraine.