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The 'Gray Cardinal' Has Left The Kremlin. What Does That Mean For The War In Ukraine?

Analysts say moving Vladislav Surkov (left) out of the Ukraine picture could pave the way both for improved relations with the West and bolstering Moscow's sway in Kyiv.
Analysts say moving Vladislav Surkov (left) out of the Ukraine picture could pave the way both for improved relations with the West and bolstering Moscow's sway in Kyiv.

After seven years overseeing the Kremlin's policy regarding Ukraine – a period which included Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region and the unleashing of a conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine that has left more than 13,000 people dead -- Vladislav Surkov has been dismissed.

His departure has sparked speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be ready for compromises with Kyiv and the West, and bodes well for an end to the war in the Donbas. But some analysts are skeptical, suggesting that the change may be more a shift in symbolism and style than in substance.

Following weeks of rumors that Surkov was leaving, the Kremlin on February 18 issued a terse decree making it official.

It followed one week after an announcement that Dmitry Kozak, a deputy head of Putin’s administration, had been tapped as the Kremlin's point man on Ukraine.

The Cardinal And The Cat

"In his new role, Kozak is in charge and will continue to be in charge of Ukrainian issues," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow.

In a nutshell, Surkov – known in Russia as "the gray cardinal" for his behind-the-scenes political machinations – has been replaced by Kozak, known as "the Cheshire Cat" for his inscrutability.

When the rumors of Surkov's departure emerged last month, Aleksei Chesnakov – a Kremlin insider who is close to Surkov – was quoted as saying Surkov was leaving because of a Kremlin "change of course on Ukraine."

In Ukraine itself, many were skeptical.

"I'm not sure this is a change," former Ukrainian lawmaker Serhiy Vysotskiy told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Ukraine is such an important country for President Putin that there won't be a change of course. The course is gradual movement to the complete absorption of Ukraine as a state."

Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin's new point man on Ukraine
Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin's new point man on Ukraine

However, observers in Russia said that replacing Surkov with Kozak could mark a symbolic end to the ambitious “Novorossia” project, which was associated with Surkov and envisioned the absorption into Russia of considerable swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Putting Kozak in place, some said, does not suggest that Putin is ready for a real compromise – but that he is focused on securing a status quo that could stymie Kyiv's integration with the West and create opportunities for Moscow to reassert its influence over its neighbor.

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin placed the change in the context of the domestic political situation in Russia as Putin's current term comes to an end in 2024 and the constitution bars him from seeking a new one -- the so-called "2024 problem."

As Putin prepares to substantially amend the constitution in what may be a ploy to maintain his political power in Russia beyond that date, Oreshkin says, the Kremlin is seeking stable or improved relations with the outside world.

'Negotation, Fear-Mongering, And Blackmail'

"Politically, I think, we are entering into a period when Vladimir Putin wants to reconcile with the outside world in these new conditions," Oreshkin said.

The Kremlin’s conditions, he said, are that “Crimea is part of Russia” but the areas held by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions “are up in the air, subjects of negotiation, fear-mongering, and blackmail."

Putin is not interested in reconciling with Ukraine at all. Ukraine is a means for reconciling with the West."
-- Political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky

"The main thing is maintaining 'business as usual,' reducing the sanctions…keeping things quiet," he added. "Now [Putin's] task is to settle things with his own population and, to do that, he needs to somewhat smooth relations with Europe and, maybe, even with America. In this situation, he made a knight sacrifice of Surkov."

Oreshkin noted that Ukraine and the outside world see Surkov as "responsible" for the creation of the Russia-backed separatist formations in parts of eastern Ukraine.

"They have no love for him in Ukraine," Oreshkin said, and the moment seemed ripe to present a new interlocutor to Kyiv and the West.

Political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky offered a similar analysis.

"Putin is not interested in reconciling with Ukraine at all," he told RFE/RL. "Ukraine is a means for reconciling with the West…so that the new power construction that emerges in Russia will be recognized as legitimate in the West -- which is both loathed and revered in Russia."

Kozak is known as "the Cheshire Cat" for his inscrutability.
Kozak is known as "the Cheshire Cat" for his inscrutability.

Kozak, 61, was born in Soviet Ukraine and served as deputy prime minister before moving over to Putin's presidential administration. He is reputed to have good working relations with Andriy Yermak, who was appointed presidential chief of staff by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 11. Yermak told Ukrainian television that he considered Kozak an improvement over Surkov.

The Moldova Factor

Earlier, Kozak controlled Moscow's policies in Moldova and, analysts say, achieved results there that probably impressed the Kremlin. When he took the reins, Moldova's government was controlled by an unstable but decidedly pro-Western coalition government. It was a successful participant in the European Union's Eastern Partnership program and had been granted a visa-free travel regime with the bloc.

In 2016, however, former Socialist Party head and outspokenly pro-Russian politician Igor Dodon was elected president of Moldova. In June 2019, Dodon struck an agreement with Moldova's pro-Western parties to form a coalition against oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.

This unlikely alliance of pro-Western and pro-Russian forces was broken in November when the Socialist Party filed a successful no-confidence motion against the coalition government – voting together with Plahotnuic's party to oust the coalition government. Dodon was able to install technocrat Ion Chicu as prime minister and more than half of Chicu's cabinet seats were filled by former Dodon advisers.

Analyst Radzikhovsky said the Kremlin may be hoping for similar incremental results from Kozak in Ukraine.

"The instrumentation of reconciliation [with the West] is the end of active military action in Ukraine, which has already largely been achieved," he said, despite frequent cease-fire violations in the ongoing war between Kyiv’s forces and the Russia-backed separatists. "And also some sort of solution of the political situation in Ukraine. We should see the replacement of Surkov by Kozak in this context. But the essential thing is not about Surkov or Kozak. Both Surkov and Kozak are capable, energetic management bureaucrats. They do not set policy."

Putin is "symbolically demonstrating a change of course," he added, by "replacing the man who symbolizes one approach with a man who symbolizes the other."

With reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Mikhail Sokolov and Vitaly Portnikov