Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
Separatist leaders were largely silent about the inauguration of Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and his speech in the Rada. Instead, the „People’s Republics“ were again dogged by rumours that Vladislav Surkov, their chief architect in the Kremlin, is about to resign. In Donetsk, the already powerful government was given even more powers.
No mention of Zelenskiy taking office in Donetsk and Luhansk
Separatist-controlled media largely ignored the inauguration of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s new president on May 20. Neither the evening news of the Donetsk-based First Republican Channel nor the “LNR” state TV news mentioned Zelenskiy at all that day. The only official reaction came from the “People’s Republics’” ombudspeople, who released similar statements in Donetsk and Luhansk, saying that they were ready to carry out a full prisoner exchange. During his inauguration speech, Zelenskiy had offered a fresh dialogue with Russia and stressed that this would have to lead to a release of all Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Recent talks about a prisoner exchange have been futile, largely because Ukraine demands the release of 24 sailors that were captured and brought to Moscow following the Kerch Strait incident in November. A UN maritime tribunal ruled on May 25 that Russia must immediately release the sailors, but Russia argues that the Hamburg-based tribunal has no competence in the issue.
A meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, where these negotiations take place, was postponed from 22 May to 5 June, as most Ukrainian negotiators had resigned and Zelenskiy had not appointed new ones.
Surkov rumours rebuked only to resurface again
“DNR” leader Denis Pushilin meanwhile made a public appearance with Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov in what was clearly meant to rebuke recent rumours that Surkov would give up overseeing the “People’s Republics” (see Newsletter 56). The two were seen sitting next to each other on 19 May during a martial arts tournament in the neighbouring Russian city Rostov-on-Don.
However, the rumour reappeared on 24 May, when the popular Telegram channel Nezygar and subsequently other anonymous online sources claimed that Surkov had handed in his resignation. The alleged news was eagerly picked up by nationalist news sites who have long opposed Surkov. However, it was firmly denied by Moscow political scientist Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin official who is sometimes described as Surkov’s mouthpiece.
In an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, published on 27 May, Chesnakov said that the rumours were not true and that Surkov knew who was spreading them. Pressed to say who was behind the ongoing campaign, he added that Surkov had said “by our own people” – thus alleging that a “black PR” campaign is being waged inside the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also weighed in on 27 May, when he said that the Kremlin “traditionally does not comment on rumours about staff changes.”
More powers to former Vneshtorgservis executives
Another rumour swirling around Donetsk was that the son of former Ukrainian President Vyktor Yanukovych, Oleksandr, had visited the city, apparently in order to inspect economic infrastructure. However, this was denied on 21 May by Yury Kirasir, apparently Yanukovych junior’s lawyer. A dentist by training and known by his nickname “Sasha Stomatolog”, Oleksandr Yanukovych was long linked to his father’s corrupt business practices. He is seen as close to Serhiy Kurchenko, the fugitive Oligarch who has been linked to the secretive Vneshtorgservis holding company, which took control of key industrial assets in Donetsk and Luhansk after their de facto nationalization in 2017.
Vneshtorgservis executives have taken up senior leadership positions in the Donetsk “People’s Republic” after the assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko in August 2018. The company’s CEO Vladimir Pashkov became a deputy Prime Minister in April, where he is serving under Prime Minister Alexander Ananchenko, a former adviser to the Vneshtorgservis management (see Newsletter 55).
Pashkov’s government position was further strengthened on 15 May, when Pushilin sacked deputy Prime Minister Igor Martynov, who had overseen the economy before Pashkov and is now apparently no longer needed in the government. Martynov was subsequently appointed an advisor to Pushilin, a move that is most likely a sinecure since Pushilin is said to have largely surrendered his say over the economy to Ananchenko (see Newsletter 49).
The former Vneshtorgservis executives’ powers were further stepped up on May 24, when the separatist “parliament” voted to create a government presidium, which can fast-track decision-making by bypassing the cabinet. Such a “core cabinet” also exists in Russia, whose government structures are increasingly being copied by the “People’s Republics”.
More prison sentences, including a man implicated in “Givi” murder plot
The Donetsk “State Security Ministry”, known by its Russian acronym MGB, said on 22 May that a man had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for taking part in the assassination of “DNR” field commander Mikhail Tolstykh. The “ministry” published a video confession, in which the man, identified as Dmitry Batrak, claims that he had been working for the Ukrainian intelligence service SBU.
Tolstykh, better known under his nom de guerre “Givi”, was killed in February 2017, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his office outside Donetsk. Ukraine has rejected the accusations by the separatists that it was behind the assassination.
The “LNR” also handed down long prison sentences to people on espionage accusations. Thus, the Luhansk “MGB” said on May 16 that a man from Alchevsk, identified as Vitaly Buyanov, had been sentenced to 12 years by the “LNR” supreme court for high treason. On day earlier, a court in the “DNR” sentenced a former fighter to 14 years in prison on spying charges.
Eight government soldiers captured
In a highly unusual incident, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry said on 22 May that eight of its soldiers had been captured by the “DNR” after they had lost their way driving a military truck near Novotroitske south of Donetsk. The Donetsk “People’s Militia” said on the same day that it had captured a group of Ukrainian special forces on a sabotage mission. It did not say how many soldiers were captured.
While it is not uncommon that soldiers lose their way, it is hard to believe this happening in the area described, where the road Mariupol-Donetsk crosses the contact line and the locations of military positions are well known to both sides.