Surkov Resignation Could Signal Robust Russian Counter-Offensive

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Since May 11th, reports have appeared throughout Russian media alleging that Vladimir Surkov might resign from his post of presidential aide responsible for policy towards the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and Ukraine.  This is no unimportant affair, since Surkov has represented Russia in negotiations with the US State Department’s Special Ukraine Envoy, Kurt Volker, and since September 20th, 2013, Surkov has been President Putin’s aide responsible for supervising the Ukraine front. Thus, Surkov’s potential removal might be an indication of Russia modifying its Ukraine policy. 

According to the patriotic opposition journal Zavtra, “Surkov, as many knowledgeable people say, was at first categorically against Crimea’s reunification with Russia.” This claim is indicative of the fact that Surkov enjoys a rather ambiguous reputation as an effective, talented, but not necessarily patriotic “manager” (“political spin doctor”). And this quote is not merely the speculation of some journalists or political analysts, but is said with references to the influential RBC information agency which, in turn, has cited several sources in the Administration of the President of Russia and the government. Judging by these influential circles’ leaks (if they are true, which is very likely), then people up top in the Russian state are dissatisfied with Surkov.

This is a timely occasion to express my opinion on the most obvious mistakes of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine under Surkov.

Russian diplomacy’s line of behavior towards Ukraine was originally aimed at finding compromise and sustained conciliatory tones. Kiev, Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris saw this as weakness on Moscow’s part. Moreover, Moscow’s Ukrainian policy has demonstrated glaring inconsistency. The coup d’etat in Kiev in 2014 was from the very beginning regarded by Russian officialdom in negative tones, and many quite rightly pointed to the foreign sources of the coup’s support. Nevertheless, despite this crucial realization, Russia officially recognized the results of the subsequent Ukrainian presidential and then parliamentary elections of 2014 which were held amidst the flight of the still legally acting president of the country- Yanukovych.

To recall, Viktor Yanukovych was given guarantees of inviolability and respect for his authority literally right before the coup by the foreign ministers of several European countries, including the UK, France, Germany, and Poland. In other words, the EU bears legal responsibility for the violent overthrow of the Ukrainian government and the civil war which subsequently engulfed Ukraine. The Ukrainian “presidential elections” saw gross violations of basic democratic principles and were accompanied by intimidation of opposition deputies. For example, the South-East of the former Ukraine’s deputies, Mikhail Dobkin and Oleg Tsarev, were doused with paint, beaten, and threatened with murder. I am not sympathetic to these Ukrainian politicians who played such a traitorous role in the legitimization of the coup. Nevertheless, sympathy and antipathy do not affect the main argument for not accepting the so-called Ukrainian elections which immediately yielded the violent, illegal Yatsenyuk-Turchynov diarchy.

The results of the Ukrainian “presidential elections” were illegitimate and criminal in their conduct. For this reason, Petro Poroshenko cannot be considered a legitimately elected head of the Ukrainian state. Recognizing the Ukrainian presidential elections was a moral, political, and legal mistake of Russian diplomacy. Even a portion of Ukraine’s “Maidan” political milieus were critical of the elections. Poroshenko supposedly won in the first round, and his competitor and critic Yulia Tymoshenko did not dispute the vote’s results as she is known for doing in all other cases. However, to this day among the Ukrainian political class one can periodically hear voices admitting that the May 2014 elections should not have been recognized, and that they were imposed upon Ukrainians by American diplomacy, which was interested in rapidly lending a veneer of legitimacy to the new Kiev regime.

Unfortunately, over the past several decades, world diplomacy has suffered colossal regress. It is impossible today to imagine a quick and unconditional surrender by the “Ukrainian Pinochet” Poroshenko. The responsibility for this is fully shared by Russian diplomacy. But if for world diplomacy this is a question of observing the principle of legality, then for Russian diplomacy (or Polish, German, and American), this is a matter of national interests – insofar as Poland and the United States (and to a lesser extent Germany) were more than just interested in the coup in Ukraine, and Russia needed inviolability for the legitimate government. Nevertheless, Moscow hastily recognized the elections. Is Surkov guilty of this? I think so, but he does not bear responsibility for this alone.

The argument is often made that Russia was forced to recognize these elections since it needed more or less stable relations with its neighbor across whose territory runs the main transit of Russian gas. First of all, this argumentation is too cynical. Secondly, for four years now, post-Maidan Ukraine has directly discredited this argument. Ukraine is dependent on Russia more than Russia on Ukraine, yet Kiev does not even bother to observe decency. The more rude it is to Russia, the more patiently its “big sister” behaves.

In the very least, Russia should have delayed recognizing the elections by pointing to violations and numerous instances of falsification. Such a “recognition with reservations” would have allowed Russia today to claim that Poroshenko is an illegitimate head of state. Poroshenko himself, let us point out, did not recognize the Russian presidential elections held on March 18th, 2018. Instead, he called the elections in Crimea and Sevastopol illegitimate. If need be, this gives the Ukrainian authorities and their Western allies a legal argument to challenge the Russian presidential elections. The “Skripal precedent” testifies to the fact that Anglo-American diplomacy is capable of using negligible pretexts to achieve global goals. But Russian diplomacy, meanwhile, has not even taken advantage of such direct, open opportunities in its Ukrainian policy.

Russian society has developed a certain disrespect and even disdain for Ukrainian diplomacy and its face, Pavel Klimkin. However, this opinion is largely mistaken. Of course, in professional and intellectual terms, Klimkin and the majority of Ukrainian diplomats are absolutely inferior to Sergei Lavrov and many Russian diplomats. But Ukrainian diplomats wield a quality which is lacking among their Russian counterparts: activism and rigid consistency. Any event which has even the most remote relation to Russian-Ukrainian relations is picked up by them as an occasion to attack Moscow. For example, on May 15th, President Poroshenko said that Russia’s opening of the Crimean bridge was illegal. He was trying to play down the obvious defeat of Ukrainian propaganda’s claims that such a construction project would be impossible. A number of Ukrainian ministers have used this occasion to proclaim the inevitable flight of Russian “occupiers” from Crimea and the “de-occupation” of allegedly Ukrainian Kuban. In other words, through the mouths of its own ministers, Ukraine is openly proclaiming plans to seize Russian territory (which, by the way, Russian soldiers won from the Ottoman Empire). Russian diplomacy has ignored the expansionist statements of Ukrainian ministers. But thanks to Ukrainian diplomacy, the whole world has heard over and over of Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbass.

Another negative example of Russia’s actions can be seen in the pathetic response to the recent attack on the head of Rossotrudnichestvo in Ukraine, Vorobyev, by neo-Nazi activists from the C-14 group supervised by the SBU, to which the Russian foreign ministry responded with a mere de jure statement. This egregious case was not pursued. If such had happened to a Ukrainian in Russia, Ukraine would have turned such a violation of diplomatic integrity into a global campaign to discredit Russia in the international arena.

In situations such as this, a harsh reaction is demanded in the likes of initiating proceedings in international venues. This also applies to the persecution of Russian diplomats and journalists, such as the recent arrest of RIA Novosti journalists.

Western diplomacy has no interest in acting as an unbiased judge in Russian-Ukrainian relations. But Russia is fully capable of independently responding to acts of aggression against its diplomats and journalists. Under Surkov’s supervision, Russia has not done so thus far. 

A lack of clear and dignified responses from such a great country as Russia on the level of high-ranking diplomacy will continue to be perceived as a manifestation of Russia’s weakness. Apparently, the Russian foreign ministry is avoiding harsh statements ahead of the World Cup, which makes it understandably necessary to postpone harsh reactions for now. But failing to react will be treated by Kiev as weakness and only lead to heightened aggression.

I would like to believe that the talk of Surkov resigning is not groundless, because such concerns not merely dissatisfaction with a particular official, but is intimately connected with recognizing the profound errors on the Ukrainian front of Russia’s foreign policy.

Translated by Jafe Arnold

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