Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


The reappointment of Vladislav Surkov, thought to be Moscow’s master of the separatists, failed to make headlines in the “People’s Republics”. The recently revived “Normandy Format” talks also did not result in a new impetus for solving the conflict. And a Ukrainian politician claimed that talks about a peacekeeping mission are ongoing in a format that includes the Normandy Four and the United States.

Separatists silent on Surkov’s reappointment

Arguably the biggest news for the “People’s Republics” in a long time broke on June 13, when the Kremlin announced that Vladislav Surkov retains his post as a presidential aide in Vladimir Putin’s new administration. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the next day that Surkov will continue to be responsible for eastern Ukraine.

Vladislav Surkov is widely believed to coordinate Moscow’s massive influence over the Donbass separatists. Russian media reports that he would lose his job first appeared in early May, triggering speculation about changes in the separatist leadership (see Newsletter 32).

Unsurprisingly, the separatists themselves, who deny being controlled from Moscow, were largely silent about the Kremlin staff decision. A search for “Surkov” returned zero results on the Donetsk “People’s Republic’s” official site and months-old results on the official news sites of both “DNR” and “LNR”.

Only the “DNR Live” website, which is linked to former Donetsk separatist leader Pavel Gubarev and his “Svobodny Donbass” movement, published news about Surkov.

Alexander Zhuchkovsky, a Russian volunteer fighter who has in the past criticized the separatist leadership, said in a Telegram post that many in Donetsk had taken Surkov’s ouster for granted and the long uncertainty had cause volatility and exaggerated expectations both “People’s Republics”.

“Obviously everything stays as it is – foreign policy (the Minsk agreements) and the unhealthy domestic situation in the DLNR. Sad.” Zhuchkovsky wrote.

Ukrainian observers agreed that with Surkov changes are unlikely to occur. “Putin is absolutely happy with the status quo (and not just Putin, let’s be honest), the Donetsk guys can breathe easily – Zakharchenko can definitely stay until November and also Tashkent (“DNR” deputy “Prime Minister” Alexander Timofeyev) can feel at ease,” Andrei Dikhtarenko, a Kiev-based journalist originally from Luhansk, wrote.

The “People’s Republics” are expected to hold elections in November, when their leaders’ four-year terms expire. Preparations began earlier in 2018, when both “LNR”-leader Leonid Pasechnik and “DNR”-leader Alexander Zakharchenko presented programmes on how to govern over the next five years. The elections are expected to cause fresh troubles for the peace talks, because they run counter to the Minsk Agreement, which stipulates them to be held under Ukrainian law (see Newsletter 28).

Both separatist leaders could easily win an election, as long as they are backed by the propaganda and security apparatus. In Donetsk however, Zakharchenko’s sharpest critic, former commander Alexander Khodakovsky, disappeared from public view in early May. Instead, Gubarev seems to be waging a pre-election campaign. In an interview published on June 18, he said that his movement was not an opposition but an alternative.

Normandy Four fails to bring impetus

Another major event was the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Normandy Four format, i.e. Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, in Berlin on June 11. The meeting was the first after a 16-month hiatus, but brought no meaningful results apart from the fact that the ministers declared their support for the basic provisions of the Minsk agreement, i.e. a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons.

However, Martin Sajdik, the envoy of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said two days later that he is “convinced that the activation of the Normandy Four .. will give significant political impetus to the Trilateral Contact Group talks. Sajdik was speaking after the latest  meeting of the group, which consists of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, on June 13 in Minsk.

But that impetus did not materialize at this meeting, at least according to the separatist negotiators, who participate in the talks. Both “DNR” and “LNR” complained, that Ukraine sent only an low-ranking “expert” to the talks’ political working group.

Secret talks for peacekeeping force

The Normandy Four also agreed to continue talks about deploying a UN peacekeeping force to eastern Ukraine. However, comments from Ukraine and Russia made it clear afterwards, that a consensus is far out of reach. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin suggested in an interview published on June 18 that the separatist rule needs to end before an international force can be deployed. “A Russian-controlled Donbass can never be part of Ukraine” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, by contrast, rejected the notion of an international mission taking political control: “Turning this peacekeeping mission into some political-military Kommandatura, which takes control of the whole territory (of the “DNR” and “LNR”), fully destroys the Minsk agreements,” he said in comments posted on his ministry’s website. Russia’s vision for peacekeepers is a protection force for the existing OSCE Monitoring Mission that would be deployed only along the Contact Line.

A possible UN peacekeeping force has been the subject of four meetings between Surkov and US Special Representative Kurt Volker, the last of which took place in January.

Apparently, an unofficial group, comprising the Normandy Four and the United States, has been discussing the issue, at least according to former Ukrainian defence minister Anatoly Hrytsenko. The group includes experts, diplomats and politicians from the five countries, Hrytsenko said in an interview published on June 12. He added that he was taking part for Ukraine, but did not name any other participants. The existence of such talks has not been confirmed by any other source so far.

The separatists have warned in the past that they won’t allow an international mission to take over control in their areas, calling this an attempt by Ukraine to let these territories be seized by others.