What We Know About Russia’s New Top Man for the Donbas
27 January, 2020
Russia's deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration during a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on October 22, 2018.

After the news of departure of Vladislav Surkov, the infamous Kremlin “curator” of Russia's Donbas policy, it became clear that Dmitry Kozak will be handling these questions now.

Russian president Vladimir Putin appointed the former vice-premier Kozak as the deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, on January 24. For this purpose, Putin increased the number of deputies from two to three.

The presidential advisor, Surkov, resigned from government service on January 25, according to the director of the Russian Center for Current Policy, Aleksey Chesnakov. Chesnakov also noted that this decision was taken “with regards to the change of course on the Ukrainian direction.”  Although, Putin’s press-secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists on January 28 that Surkov is "de jure still the aide to the President of Russia" and there was no order for Surkov’s resignation. 

Hromadske explains what we know about this new “curator”, and what exactly he’ll be doing with relation to Ukraine.

“The Kozak Memorandum” for Moldova

Dmitry Kozak began to work with Putin in the early 1990s. He’s a native of Ukraine's Kirovograd region, and graduated from the law faculty of the Leningrad University, as well as being a former GRU (Russian military intelligence – ed.) special forces operative. In the early 1990s, Putin was the deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg, while Kozak as the head of the mayor’s legal committee. Kozak’s career took a sharp upwards turn in 1999 – he became the head of the government under the then newly-appointed Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

In 2000, Kozak was appointed to be the deputy chief-of-staff of the presidential administration. His position was responsible for, among other things, regulating the conflict in Transnistria, Moldova. His plan, nicknamed the “Kozak Memorandum”, suggested a federalized Moldova, where breakaway regions Transnistria and Gagauzia would have received a "special status" allowing them to block legislative initiatives of Chisinau. Additionally, Russia would have received the right to plant military bases in Transnistria, though this plan never came to fruition. 

In 2007-2008, Kozak was the Minister for Regional Development. Then, later, he was assigned different posts: he was responsible for organizing the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and after the illegal seizure of Crimea by Russian troops, became the “curator” of Crimean issues. This led to his sanctioning by the United States Department of the Treasury, as well as by the European Union.

The media learned in 2015 that Putin’s advisor Surkov, the architect of the so-called “Novorossiya” project (the Kremlin began to actively discuss “Novorossiya” after Putin’s announcement in 2014. At the time, Putin called southeastern Ukraine “Novorossiya” and stated that he wanted to ‘protect’ the rights of the Russian-speaking residents in the region) had left that project. Surkov’s successor was Kozak. This shift in responsibilities was connected to the notion that the Kremlin was attempting to legalize its occupation in eastern Ukraine, according to political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin.

 “Surkov fulfilled his task: to eliminate the ‘dogs of war’. But it seemed that that was not enough. The dividing line in eastern Ukraine had been drawn, and neither of the sides had plans to dispute it. That’s foul, but still a compromise. Maybe that’s why someone like Kozak had appeared, with experience in the negotiating process for Transnistria,” stated Oreshkin.

Decentralization Activist

On September 7, during the big prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia, resulting in the freeing of Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, and others, Kozak was set as the head of the Russian working group organizing the exchange, though his role was not especially publicized. The Ukrainian ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova, only spoke about Kozak’s role after the exchange had been completed, and only after her announcement was Kozak’s role officially confirmed.

During Medvedev’s last government, Kozak’s responsibilities were increased – he started working with the fuel and energy industries, as well as manufacturing.

In an article for Novaya Gazeta, Oreshkin stated that Kozak’s exit from the government corresponded with Putin’s proposed changes to the Russian constitution, specifically in how municipal self-government was being connected to governmental authority. The 1993 constitution very neatly separates the two spheres – into governmental (federal and regional) authority, and self-government (cities). Kozak in his time worked heavily on the question of self-government. In 2011, he headed a commission on decentralization, along with a deputy prime minister, Alexander Khloponin.

“The commission presented Medvedev with a report about the transfer of over 100 authorities from the federal level to the regional and lower levels. And in March [2012], Putin arrived, and this commission was pushed aside. Kozak was thrown into a different direction. In many ways, he was always a decentralization activist. This ideology, apparently, does not correspond to the changes Putin is making [to the Constitution],” wrote Oreshkin.

The Ukrainian Portfolio

Kozak also worked on negotiations between Russia and Ukraine regarding gas transit. And at the same time, he was the curator of a commission for providing "humanitarian" aid to the Russian puppet "states" of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The Ukrainian ex-minister for the temporarily occupied territories, Vadim Chernysh, commented to Novaya Gazeta that Kozak was the main negotiator on the Donbas issue from the Russian side. But it’s not yet clear if he will continue in that role.

Russian political scientist Grigori Satarov, in a comment to hromadske, noted that the president and his administration decides on Ukraine policy, not the government. That’s why naming Kozak as a deputy chief-of-staff of the presidential administration could be connected to his role as a Donbas negotiator. “Finally, these questions will be handled by the presidential administration,” said Satarov.

And according to Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert, Moscow is currently too preoccupied with Putin’s proposed changes to the Constitution to think of Ukraine.

“The personnel shuffle in Moscow is an extremely opaque process. That’s why Kozak’s appointment could mean that he’s going to receive the Ukraine portfolio, along with the fact that he will be working on this constitutional processes,” stated Eggert.

Regardless, Chesnakov spoke back in August of the fact that Kozak and Surkov had differing views on the Donbas situation and the end-goal of the Minsk Agreements. The former, in Chesnakov’s opinion, sees things from an economic point of view and thinks that the cost is too high to take on additional spending that the Kremlin is obligated to do in the region. And for Surkov, this situation, Chesnakov is convinced, should be solved by giving the Donbas a “special full status.” Now, after the departure of the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” Surkov, the Ukrainian portfolio is no longer his concern. However, Peskov has already announced that “there are no course corrections on the Ukrainian direction” and that “any speculation on this matter is only a personal opinion.”

READ MORE: Power Transition or Constitutional Coup: What Russian Government’s Resignation Means