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In First Interview Since Departure, Russia's Former 'Gray Cardinal' Questions Existence Of Ukraine

Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov attends a meeting in Moscow in August 2018.
Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov attends a meeting in Moscow in August 2018.

Vladislav Surkov was once "the man" in the Kremlin -- the "gray cardinal" and ideologist who oversaw Ukraine policy during the now six-year war that has killed more than 13,000, displaced more than 1 million, and ruptured ties between Moscow and the West.

Since Ukraine’s president fled the country in February 2014, following months of street protests, Moscow has consistently suggested that the government that assumed power in Kyiv was illegitimate. Ukrainian sovereignty over separatist-controlled areas of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where war erupted in March 2014, was also in question.

Surkov was central to this thinking before his surprise departure from the Kremlin was officially announced on February 18.

In an interview published February 26, his first since leaving, he said the very idea of a Ukrainian state is open for debate.

"There is no Ukraine. There is Ukrainian-ness," Surkov said. "That is, it is a specific disorder of the mind, sudden passion for ethnography, taken to its extremes."

"Local history there is so bloody. It's a muddle instead of a state...there is no nation. There is only a pamphlet: 'The Self-Styled Ukraine,' but there is no Ukraine. The only question is, is Ukraine already gone, or not just yet?" he was quoted as saying.

The interview was conducted by Aleksei Chesnakov, a longtime confidant of Surkov, and published on February 26 on the little-known Russian news site Actual Commentaries.

The comments elicited anger in Ukraine, whose forces have been pitted against Russia-backed separatist fighters.

"Surkov, with his pearls about Ukraine, looks like a self-hating 'strategist' who thinks more about himself than is wise, like that mutt trying to bark at an elephant, feeling his greatness in it," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a response posted to Twitter. "Do not make noise, sir. Ukraine lives on, regardless of the idea of a retired chauvinist."

Kremlin Talking Points?

It is unclear to what extent Surkov's comments reflect the thinking behind Kremlin policies on Ukraine, particularly considering that Surkov's departure from the Kremlin took place under a cloud. Some analysts suggested he may have been forced out as part of an informal deal with Ukraine's government in a bid to reinvigorate peace talks.

Asked by reporters about Surkov's comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Surkov was no longer a government official. "This is the opinion of a Russian, albeit very authoritative and competent," Peskov said.

His replacement, with oversight of Kremlin's Ukraine policy, is Dmitry Kozak, a deputy head of administration under Putin and a longtime aide to the Russian leader.

But while Surkov is purportedly no longer speaking from the inner circle, his comments echo past remarks by Putin and other Russian government officials who have dismissed or mocked the idea of a fully sovereign and independent Ukraine, in part to undermine the aspirations of Ukrainians wanting closer relations with NATO and the European Union.

Vladislav Surkov (left) has long had Vladimir Putin's ear on policy, both domestic and foreign.
Vladislav Surkov (left) has long had Vladimir Putin's ear on policy, both domestic and foreign.

In 2008, Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush that "Ukraine is not a country," according to a memoir published years later by Bush's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

As recently as February 21, Putin suggested that Russia and Ukraine should unify. "Any integration of Russia and Ukraine, along with their capacities and competitive advantages would spell the emergence of a rival, a global rival for both Europe and the world," he told the state news agency TASS in an interview.

Moscow has long denied direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict, including supplying or equipping the militia fighters, despite substantial evidence to the contrary gathered by journalists, independent monitors and Ukrainian officials.

When Surkov's e-mail inbox was hacked and its contents leaked in 2016, the correspondence showed Surkov had direct hands-on involvement in the minutiae of how the separatist authorities tried to administer the territories under their control.

In November 2019, Dutch prosecutors investigating the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 released audio intercepts of phone calls, purportedly between local officials in eastern Ukraine. Surkov's name is mentioned repeatedly.

Managed Democracy

Surkov, who has dabbled in gangster-fiction novels and hip-hop lyrics, served as a close aide since the early part of Putin's term, when oversight of domestic politics was among his main duties. During that time, he adopted the term "sovereign democracy" or "managed democracy" to describe Russia's political system.

Domestic politics were shifted from his portfolio following Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, but analysts believe he's kept Putin's ear on many internal political matters.

What's next for Vladislav Surkov?
What's next for Vladislav Surkov?

In January, Putin unveiled proposals for a substantive change in the country's political system, shifting some presidential powers to parliament, and giving new legal authority to an advisory body called the State Council.

Putin also proposed eliminating language regarding consecutive presidential terms, sparking speculation on whether he might be angling to stay in power beyond the end of his final, six-year term in 2024.

In the interview, Surkov suggested that the constitutional amendments Putin proposed would reset the clock on presidential terms, meaning he could stay in power until 2036. "If, as a result [of the amendments], the powers of the president are somehow clarified...then the legal logic leads to the need to restart the countdown of the presidential terms. Because with new powers it will be like another institution of the presidency," he was quoted as saying. "The restrictions of the current presidency will not be able to apply to him."

"This is my private opinion, of course. But based on the experience of lawmaking," he said.

I'm A 'Ukro-Optimist'

After casting doubt on Ukraine's current sovereignty, Surkov claimed he was optimistic about Ukraine's future. Then he went on to say the country might have different borders or be fragmented in the future, prospects that might seem like the opposite of optimism to many Ukrainians.

"Oddly enough, I'm an 'Ukro-optimist.' That is, I think that Ukraine does not yet exist. But over time, it will. Ukrainians are stubborn folks, they will make it happen," he said.

"However, what kind of Ukraine it will be, what its borders will be, and even, maybe, how many Ukraines there will be, these are open questions. And one way or another, Russia will have to participate in resolving these issues."

And he suggested that Ukrainians historically were upstarts who needed to be restrained by force. "Relations with Ukraine were never simple, even when Ukraine was part of Russia. Ukraine has always been troublesome for the imperial and Soviet bureaucracy," he was quoted as saying. "Forceful coercion for brotherly relations, this is the only method that has historically proven effective when it comes to Ukraine. I do not think that any other will be invented."

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected Ukraine's president last year in a landslide vote, has made resolving the conflict with Russia a priority. In December, he met in Paris with Putin for the first time to try and advance a peace framework known as the Minsk accords. The talks did not yield substantial progress, however.

Asked whether he believes the areas held by separatists in eastern Ukraine, a region often known informally as the Donbas, will ever "return to Ukraine," he suggested it would not happen any time soon, and threw in another derisive remark.

"My imagination is not strong enough to imagine this," he was quoted as saying. "The Donbas does not deserve such humiliation. Ukraine does not deserve such an honor."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.