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The Week In Russia: 'Not Telling' (Or How The Kremlin Holds Back Information)


Dmitry Kozak -- the Kremlin's new point man on Ukraine -- is widely perceived as the exact opposite of his predecessor: a hard-nosed and hard-working official who gets down to tasks with a sense of pragmatism.

The architect of "managed democracy" is managed out, and President Vladimir Putin reveals almost zero about the motives for Vladislav Surkov’s departure. Same goes for the dismissal of Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet, with Putin’s telling remark about the timing of the move being, "Not telling."

And the Kremlin keeps Russians guessing about whether it will reach in and shorten the sentences handed down to seven men convicted in a terror trial marred by torture claims.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

The Short Answer

In a terse, two-word response to an interviewer’s question, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he “won’t say” when he decided to fire the government led by his longtime protégé and tandem partner Dmitry Medvedev. In a terse, two-sentence decree, he didn’t say why he fired his longtime aide Vladislav Surkov, a chief architect of his policies at home and in the nearby lands where Moscow meddles the most.

And in full poker-face mode, Putin’s spokesman made a statement of fact about the harrowing, highly controversial Network case that could be taken at face value -- or as a hint that the prison sentences imposed on the seven defendants, who claimed they were subjected to electric shock and other forms of torture in a trumped-up prosecution over a terrorist plot that did not exist, could be shortened or overturned.

All in a week’s work of information management at the Kremlin, perhaps. Much was said by Putin, Peskov, and others in and around the Kremlin -- but little of it had substance, at least on the surface.

Speaking of managing, Surkov, who is seen as the architect of “managed democracy” -- a term used to describe a system Kremlin critics charge consists of a great deal of management and a vanishingly small amount of democracy, aside from the framework of parliament, constitution, elections, and such – appears to have finally been managed out of the Kremlin.

Whether it’s for forever would be hard to say. Surkov has been out before, only to come back in – albeit with his once all-but-unparalleled influence diminished, like a wizard running low on hit points.

But there was an air of finality to Putin’s decree.

Often, these ukases include wording seemed designed to soften the blow – saying, for example, that someone has been dismissed “in connection with a move to another job,” even if that job is not described. This time, the document said only that Surkov was “relieved of his post” with immediate effect.

What it did not say was why.

One pretty straightforward reason is that he was quite simply out of a job, or part of one. On February 11 – more than two weeks after an acquaintance of Surkov’s said he was leaving the Kremlin because of a change of course on Ukraine policy – Peskov told reporters that Dmitry Kozak, the deputy Kremlin chief of staff, was replacing Surkov as Putin’s point man on Ukraine and efforts to resolve the conflict in the Donbas, where a war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of two Ukrainian provinces has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a writer on Russian affairs, suggested that Surkov had essentially failed in that position, or at least was seen to have failed by Putin.

The “pseudo-states” of the Donbas “turned out both impossible to control with his brand of promise, threat and cajolery, and also impossible to sell as real entities, let alone victims of Ukrainian prejudice, to a skeptical and hostile West,” Galeotti wrote in The Moscow Times.

Surkov Vs. Kozak

Surkov was Moscow’s chief negotiator with Kyiv on the Donbas conflict, but was toxic in Ukraine because he is strongly associated both with Russian interference as a whole and more specifically with indications that earlier in the war, Moscow was out to seize a large swath of southern Ukraine, up to the Moldovan border, that Putin and others for a time were calling Novorossia – or “New Russia” -- a tsarist-era term for an area encompassing maybe half of present-day Ukraine.

Surkov’s negotiations with Kyiv produced little apparent progress, as did his talks with Kurt Volker, who was the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine for more than two years before resigning in September.

Galeotti described Surkov as less of a “political technologist” than a “political theatrician” -- a “circus barker who could promise the greatest show on Earth, but not himself deliver it.”

Kozak is widely perceived as perhaps the exact opposite, a hard-nosed and hard-working official who gets down to tasks with a sense of pragmatism.

Vladislav Surkov: Less of a “political technologist” than a “political theatrician”
Vladislav Surkov: Less of a “political technologist” than a “political theatrician”

So, the personnel switch suggests that Putin wants the job done better. But what job, exactly?

Meetings among officials at various levels on the conflict in the Donbas are often called “peace talks.” But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who faces formidable pressure not to capitulate to Russia or be seen as doing so, has made clear that doesn’t mean peace at any cost. The same probably goes for Putin – and critics charge that his main priority in the Donbas is not to make peace but to squeeze as much influence on Kyiv as Russia can out of the conflict.

Since Kozak’s appointment, there has been no sign of a shift in Moscow’s stance on key obstacles to peace, and a flare-up in fighting earlier this week underscored the war’s persistence.

Another priority for Putin, analysts say, is to improve ties with the West – or more precisely, to repair relations enough to improve its standing, increase its clout, and win a reduction of the sanctions imposed over Moscow’s interference in Ukraine.

For goals like that, Surkov may not be the best fit.

'Geopolitical Solitude'

As the chief champion of “managed democracy,” also known as “sovereign democracy” – seen by Kremlin critics in the West as terms that really mean, if anything, non-democracy – Surkov to some extent embodies Russia’s public turn away from Europe and the United States under Putin – despite his apparent interest in American culture -- from the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock to the groundbreaking rapper Tupac Shakur.

He appeared to double down on the idea of a turn away from the West in a magazine article published in 2018, writing that “Russia’s epic journey toward the West” is over and that it faces "100 years (200? 300?) of geopolitical solitude."

That is not what Putin wants, though he often suggests to the people that Russia could endure it.

Putin is "symbolically demonstrating a change of course," Russian political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky told RFE/RL, by "replacing the man who symbolizes one approach with a man who symbolizes the other."

If switching out Surkov for Kozak is a move both symbolic and potentially practical, Putin suggested that his decision to replace Medvedev with Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known tax service chief who is now prime minister, was all about practicality and pragmatism.

In an on-line interview with TASS -- a new format for Putin and the state news agency that still bears its Soviet-era initials – Putin said Mishustin has proved to be “a good practitioner who understands what must be done, knows how to do it, and does it, achieving a concrete result.”

'I'm The Decider'

Few Western media outlets published articles about the interview – a sign that reporters may have sifted through it for news but found mostly propaganda.

Arguably, the main point of Putin’s remarks seemed to be to convey the impression that he is very much in charge and that he knows best. That’s an idea that he may be seeking to emphasize as he prepares to steer a successor into place as he hits up against term limits in 2024 or to retain power in a position other than president – or to do both, as many analysts predict.

Putin said that he was presented with three or four other suggestions for a new prime minister but batted those aside and picked Mishustin.

When the interviewer called the move a surprise and asked who had known about it, he quipped: “I knew…. Isn’t that enough?”

"The decider": Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on February 21.
"The decider": Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on February 21.

Several of Putin’s responses consisted of one or two words in Russian, including his answer to the question of when he decided to dismiss the cabinet: “I won’t say,” he said -- though it could also be translated as, “Not telling.”

Putin’s spokesman was a little less parsimonious – with words, at least, if not actual information – when he commented on the so-called Network case, which has drawn criticism of Russia’s law enforcement and judicial systems ahead of the fifth anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s killing.

On February 10, seven members of an anti-fascist activist group were convicted of plotting terror attacks and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years despite their claims of torture in custody and what supporters said was a glaring lack of evidence. The defendants denied the very existence of the Network, the name investigators gave their alleged organization.

Trial And Torture

Like several other controversial cases over the past year, the trial and verdicts generated a wave of anger in Russia and prompted calls for justice.

On February 18, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated the obvious: that Putin was aware of the public outcry. He did not state what many in Russia believe is obvious: that the ultimate outcome of high-profile, politically charged cases is often decided in the Kremlin.

But even as he made clear the Kremlin would not comment on the verdicts and sentences, he pointed out that the rulings by a military court in the provincial city of Penza could be appealed and that “it’s necessary to wait for the result.”

On one level, that was a simple statement of fact. On another, it could be taken as a hint that Putin is at least considering reaching in to alter the fate of the defendants. In any case, the drawn-out process gives Putin plenty of time to decide. At this point, there’s no clear answer.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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