Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


Rumours about an imminent replacement of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man for the separatists, did not make it into the headlines of the separatist media. Nevertheless, early consequences may already be felt in the region. The fact that Ukrainian military took control of another “grey zone” village might be one of them.

Rumours swirl about Surkov

The past week was characterized by what could be some of the biggest news for the “People’s Republics” since their inception four years ago – the ouster of Vladislav Surkov from his job as their point man in the Kremlin.

Surkov’s influence on the “People’s Republics” is believed to be enormous because practically all meaningful political decisions from their onset in spring 2014 are widely believed to have been taken in the Kremlin – where Surkov has been presidential aide overseeing Russia’s relations first with Georgia’s and later Ukraine’s breakaway regions since September 2013.

However, both the Kremlin and the separatists have always staunchly denied any such links and the tightly controlled “LNR” and “DNR” media did not mention the report at all. Asked about Surkov’s departure, “DNR” chief negotiator Denis Pushilin told RBC, the Moscow-based media group that broke the news, that these were “rumours”.

Surkov also had an important international role as Russia’s envoy to talks with the United States over Ukraine – first with Victoria Nuland and since 2017 with President Donald Trump’s special representative Kurt Volker.  He and Volker met four times until January 2018, mainly to discuss Putin’s proposal to deploy a peacekeeping force. These talks have taken a time-out since then, and it is not clear whether this is just because of the March 18 Russian Presidential Election or because of an imminent replacement of Surkov.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not confirm or deny the RBC report about Surkov’s departure, saying merely that the Kremlin does not announce staff changes in advance. The RBC report, published on May 11, quotes anonymous Kremlin sources in addition to Moscow political scientist and Surkov confidant Alexei Chesnakov as saying that Surkov is unlikely to retain his post.

Putin, who was elected to a fourth term in March, is currently reshuffling the Russian government, and although staff changes have been slight so far, they might also occur in his presidential administration.

The RBC report cited two possible reasons for Surkov’s ouster. One is that the Kremlin wants a fresh impetus after efforts to implement the Minsk agreement are believed to have reached a dead end. The other explanation is that Surkov wants to give up his job after losing a fight with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, over the recent power struggle among the Luhansk separatists.

The FSB is widely believed to have backed former “LNR” intelligence chief Leonid Pasechnik in his struggle against separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky, who in turn was believed to be Surkov’s man. Last November, Plotnitsky was ousted by a coup that brought Pasechnik to power and was supported by armed troops from the “DNR” (see Newsletter 25).

However, the Luhansk “People’s Republic” has not behaved out of tune since Pasechnik took power: The new leader has sought to improve relations with his Donetsk counterpart Alexander Zakharchenko by initiating talks for a customs union (see Newsletter 26) and has said that he will stand for elections this autumn in what looks like a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign (see Newsletter 28).

While it is too early to speculate about the consequences, it is clear that a departure of Surkov would leave a large gap to fill. The recent escalation of fighting along the contact (front) line might be an early sign of what may come.

Ukrainian soldiers enter another “grey zone” village

The Ukrainian military on May 17 confirmed that it had taken news positions in a small hamlet just outside Horlivka, a separatist-controlled city northwest of Donetsk. It said that the positions in Pivdenne (locally known as Chyhyri or Chyhari) were taken after separatist fighters had attempted to take the village under their control. However, the separatists claimed that the village was of little strategic value. A blog post by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that the Ukrainian positions are low-lying, while the separatists hold elevated positions.

According to the Ukrainian military, Pivdenne was taken without losses. However, the “DNR” military said on May 11 and 12, when the fighting took place, that four of its fighters had been killed and three were injured.

Pivdenne, or at least its eastern outskirts, is a “grey zone” settlement, meaning that it is so close to the contact line that there is no administration, civilian or military.

The Ukrainian military has entered and taken up positions in a couple of such settlements over the past years. The last instance was reported in early February in Katerynivka, a small settlement just south of Zolote in the Luhansk region. In November, government forces took up positions in Hladosove and Travneve, two villages north of Horlivka. As a result, the hostile parties are sometimes located very close to each other, making armed clashes more likely.

Violence continued to simmer during the ensuing week. The Donetsk Water Filtration Station, which provides drinking water for several hundreds of thousand people on both sides of the contact line, was repeatedly forced to halt work because of shelling. At the Minsk Contact Group talks on May 16, the OSCE chief envoy Martin Sajdik deplored that further ceasefire violations near the Station occurred despite security guarantees from both sides and reinforced OSCE patrolling.

On May 16 and 17, two schools were hit by shelling (first in separatist-controlled Sakhanka, then in government controlled Svitlodarsk), luckily with no injuries.

The Donetsk People’s Republic said on May 17 that it had set up a foundation to help the families of servicemen killed in the fighting with government troops. The foundation, called “Ruka Pomoshchi” (Helping hand), is an initiative of “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who announced its setting up in early March.

Because of the reluctance from both “People’s Republics” to publish any information on their own losses, there are no reliable casualty figures from the separatist side.

Donetsk average wage less than 150 euros

The precarious economic situation inside the “People’s Republics” was highlighted earlier this month, when a Donetsk official said that an average salary in the “DNR” amounts to 10,000 roubles (136 euros). This is less than half than the 8927 hrywna (287 euros) in the government-controlled part of Donetsk Region. Even allowing for some price differences, this is sufficient evidence that the quality of living in Donbass is significantly higher in government-controlled areas.

While the “DNR” number has been around since at least October, it has risen considerably since 2016, when Radio France International reported that “DNR” fighters are paid 20,000 roubles per month (then 270 euros), adding that this amounted to four times an average wage, ie 5,000 roubles (68 euros).

Such a low figure is still the rule in the Luhansk “People’s Republic”, where according to separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik an average teacher’s salary is currently less than 5,000 roubles (he promises to raise this to 10,500 roubles by 2023).

Pensions, according to estimates a vital source of income for about one million people in the separatist-held areas, are also miserable. In the “DNR”, the average pension in September was 4118 roubles (56 euros), the minimum pension stood at 2,904 roubles (39 euros) in January 2018. For comparison, the average Russian pension was 13,304 roubles (181 euros) in December.

The average pension in the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region was 3268 hryvna (105 euros), significantly higher than the national Ukrainian average of 2480 hryvna (80 euros). The minimum pension in Ukraine was 1452 hryvnia (47 euros) in January.