Is Vladislav Surkov the true father of the "Little Russia" project?
The veteran political operative was, after all, the first -- and thus far only -- Kremlin official to endorse the Russian-backed separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko's call last week to replace Ukraine with a new state called Malorossia, or "Little Russia," with its capital in Donetsk.
Shortly after both Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Boris Gryzlov, Russia's main negotiator on Ukraine, distanced themselves from the idea, Surkov weighed in saying: "all this hype about the fantasy Malorossia state is useful."
He added that Zakharchenko's initiative shows that he "is fighting not to separate from Ukraine but for its territorial integrity, for all of Ukraine and not for just a part of it. There is a civil war in Ukraine between forces that see its future differently: Kyiv wants a pro-European utopia, Donbas replies with the idea of Malorossia."
Surkov's reaction is worth noting because he is the Kremlin's point man on Ukraine and is involved in formulating -- and not just executing -- policy.
Moreover, the Malorossia initiative -- a fake virtual state conjured up by a Kremlin proxy that serves the regime's interests, albeit with just enough plausible deniability -- bears all the main hallmarks of a Surkov project.
It was just the kind of thing he excelled at when he manufactured fake political parties, social movements, and assorted other cutouts as the Kremlin's top domestic political manager.
And it is in line with the Kremlin's needs of the moment.
Russia doesn't want or need a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine -- and that is exactly where this war appears to be heading.
The war in the Donbas has never been about the Donbas. It has always been a means to the end of crippling and controlling the entire country.
As military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer notes, the Malorossia project "is in line with the Kremlin’s longstanding strategic goal to take back all of Ukraine under Russian domination as part of the so-called 'Russkiy Mir.' In essence, Zakharchenko followed up with what the Kremlin has been seeking to obtain all along."
Resetting The War
Moreover, when Kremlin spinmeisters or proxies start dreaming up new names for Ukraine -- or, more accurately, digging up old Tsarist-era names -- it's often a sign that trouble is on the way.
Russia's war in the Donbas, of course, commenced as the term Novorossia, or "New Russia," came into vogue in Moscow to refer to the crescent-shaped strip of land stretching from Kharkiv in the north to Odesa in the south.
But there is also another piece to the puzzle.
According to Ukrainian Security Service chief Vasyl Hrytsak, in a meeting of top Russian officials in May, Vladimir Putin sharply criticized Surkov for failing to "destabilize the socio-political situation in Ukraine."
Hrytsak added that according to his information, Putin "also set a new task - to achieve in the shortest possible term the so-called, verbatim, 'reset of the ruling regime in Ukraine.'"
The claim, of course, is hard to verify. But what is clear is that the past two months have witnessed a marked increase in tensions in Ukraine.
Ukraine was the target of a massive cyberattack and two of its military intelligence officers were assassinated in June.
Moreover, the Observer Mission in Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says that there was a 20 percent increase in cease-fire violations during the second week of July. And according to the Ukrainian military, Moscow-backed separatists launched 27 attacks from July 24 to July 25 alone.
Additionally, Ukraine's General Staff says Russia has increased its troop presence on Ukraine's border, amassing three divisions of motorized rifle troops capable of conducting rapid offensive operations.
Switching To Plan C
The Malorossia initiative needs to be viewed not in isolation, but in this broader context.
"The Kremlin never was interested in the Donbas. Instead, it triggered the conflict in 2014 because it thought this would swiftly force Kyiv to capitulate and accept Moscow’s hegemony," Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague wrote in BNE Intellinews.
"Since this failed, the Russians have found themselves stuck with recalcitrant bandit kingdoms dependent on support from their already-overstretched federal budget."
Russia appears ready to switch to Plan C on Ukraine.
Plan A, of course, was to seize all of so-called Novorossia, establish a land bridge to Crimea, and use the eastern Ukraine as a beachhead,
That plan failed when locals in much of eastern Ukraine proved more loyal to Kyiv than expected and the Ukrainian armed forces performed much better than anybody dared hope.
The Kremlin then switched to Plan B: Force Kyiv to reintegrate the Moscow-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into a decentralized and dysfunctional Ukraine.
But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has played a very bad hand very well and has prevented Moscow from getting its way in implementing the Minsk peace deal.
So it appears to be on to Plan C: a fresh effort to destabilize Ukraine on multiple fronts.