Russia’s Ukraine policy: Change to stay the same

The Kremlin is losing long-time Ukraine policy chief, Vladislav Surkov. But his successor has more in common with “Putin’s Rasputin” than first meets the eye.

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Long-time political operator, ideologue, and manager of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Vladislav Surkov, has allegedly quit his post as special adviser in the Presidential Administration, following disputes over the handling of the Kremlin’s Ukraine portfolio. Although official denials have emerged from the Kremlin, signs are that Surkov will depart soon. He has extracted himself from the  preparations for April’s Normandy summit on Ukraine, and from the management of Ukraine matters more generally. A further clue lies in the Kremlin’s decision to move former vice-premier Dmitry Kozak to the Kremlin. Surkov’s likely successor is experienced in the field of foreign policy, including leading negotiations with Moldova on Transnistria.

In the past, Kozak has criticised Surkov’s policy on Donbas, attacking the financial burden inflicted by the conflict – from both Western sanctions and having to finance mini-dictatorships in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Kozak has advocated for Moscow to seek a compromise with Kyiv and bring the conflict to an end. The fact that Kozak was born in Kropyvnytskyi oblast, central Ukraine, has not escaped the notice of the Ukrainian government either. Is there reason to be optimistic?

In comparison with Surkov, Kozak is a politer negotiating counterpart. However, in substance, he is little different. In 2003, he fought hard to press Moldova into accepting wide-ranging constitutional amendments (the “Kozak memorandum”) that would have turned the country into a loose federation. All major laws would have required approval in a “Senate” where Russian-run separatist proxies would enjoy a blocking minority. They would not only have been able to stop big-ticket decisions like joining NATO, but other decisions too, like a free trade association with the European Union. This would also have meant creating “federal” judiciary councils with a blocking minority for Transnistria, which would have stalled judiciary, security sector, and anti-corruption reform. With the Transnistrian authorities and their Russian intelligence services partners up to their necks in organised crime, Moldova would have become another Bosnia: unable to reform or move on, and horribly corrupt.

Kozak is a politer negotiating counterpart than Surkov. However, in substance, he is little different

The similarities between the two men become even clearer on examining Surkov’s proposals for Ukraine while negotiating the Minsk Agreement. Provisions for separatist governments’ independent courts and militia would have weakened Ukraine’s administrative system – resembling Kozak’s Moldova plans of a decade earlier. In each case, Ukraine and Moldova declined the ‘offer’.

Kozak’s recent involvement in forming – and later foiling – the coalition government between the pro-Russian Socialist Party and the pro-Western ACUM in Moldova might also hint at his future Ukraine activity. In Moldova, Kozak tried to promote an “international recognition of neutrality” in the form of a multilateral treaty, as a framework for managing European-Russian relations in the shared neighbourhood. The plans would have seen Moldova, the West, and Russia sign a treaty prescribing Moldova’s neutrality and blocking it from joining NATO, and probably also from becoming a full member of the EU. In the Russian view this would not only pave the way to a ‘solution’ to the Transnistria conflict at a later stage, but would also set a precedent for relations between Russia and Europe.

Similar attempts to create such a bulwark of “neutralised” states have been discussed before, especially in the run-up to the Meseberg memorandum of 2010. Emmanuel Macron currently seems to be recycling the idea of renegotiating the European security order, and so Moscow is looking to gain advantage from this renewed French interest. However, the phase of “cooperative” relations between European and Russian forces in Chisinau only lasted five months: once Moscow saw the chance to consolidate absolute control for the Socialist Party, it took it.

But for Ukraine, swapping neutrality for peace would be no lucrative deal either. For one thing, it would be unable to rely on Russia keeping its side of the bargain. The historical memory of the 1994 Budapest memorandum remains strong: Ukraine exchanged denuclearisation for territorial integrity, but in 2014 Vladimir Putin declared that the supposed illegality of the new government in Kyiv freed Moscow from the Budapest obligations. If Russia only adheres to treaties when it approves of particular governments at particular times, such arrangements becomes worthless for Ukraine.

In addition, there is no sign at all that Moscow intends to dismantle the DNR and LNR, undo the policies of passportisation and Russification, and withdraw its troops and intelligence assets, nor to permit the creation of new structures in line with Ukrainian constitutional and administrative law. In fact, some of these policies were conducted under Kozak’s supervision in his former post. Ukraine would end up opening the gates to Trojan horses that could be used to exert pressure at any moment Moscow pleases, including military pressure. This would be an especially meaningless form of peace, given that, currently, circumstances provide Kyiv with some ability to check and contain its adversary.

Some of Russia’s Ukraine policies were conducted under Kozak’s supervision in his former post

Finally, while Russia’s rhetoric concentrates on preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, its actions are all geared towards trying to isolate Ukraine in matters far beyond military affairs. Russia opposed Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, and it objects to Western support for security sector or judicial reform. But such reforms are crucial to transforming Ukraine from a weak, kleptocratic state into a functioning democracy based on the rule of law – which was the essential demand of the Maidan revolution. Joining NATO and the EU are increasingly popular in Ukraine, and the aspiration is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution. Volodymyr Zelensky would not have the domestic mandate to change this even if he wanted to.

At the next Normandy meeting in April, European leaders – and Macron in particular – should not mistake charm and tone for substance. Whether Russia is really open to making peace in Ukraine will depend on its willingness to withdraw from the country, not to wrap old demands for federalising Ukraine into newly polished initiatives. Moscow feels the pressure from sanctions and hence would like to achieve a reset with Europe. But for the time being it does not want to pay a price for this reset through granting concessions to Kyiv. Only if Europe remains committed to keeping these costs high will Russia introduce lasting and substantial changes to its Ukraine policy. Exchanging Surkov for Kozak is window-dressing. The Kremlin’s interests and policies vis-à-vis Ukraine have not changed.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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