It has been well-documented how failure to achieve military objectives during the war in Ukraine has damaged and, in some cases, destroyed the careers of a number of senior Russian commanders. But what about those who staked their political future on the success of Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory?
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published two recent papers that examined how the fact that Putin’s “special military operation” has all but failed has impacted on those ambitious politicians who took positions in the occupied territories. These are summarized below.
This August paper looked at those former Ukrainian politicians who took posts in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine hoping they would lead to them becoming part of Russia’s privileged political class but have been disappointed.
Not only has the unpredictability of the ongoing war threatened their future but it has become obvious that the cream of the Russian oligarch-led system was not about to let their country cousins join in unless they were viewed as particularly exceptional. Many are viewed in Moscow as being either political extremists or as traitorous opportunists.
The paper examines the installed administrations in Crimea, the so-called Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) People’s Republics, as well as those in the annexed Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, which are most at risk from the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The author of the paper, Konstantin Skorkin, says that these groups are only united by the fact that their fate rests entirely on the success or otherwise of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. If Moscow is defeated “they will all meet an inglorious end.” This is the reason why they are “foreign policy hawks and cheerleaders for a military victory at all costs.”
Their ambitions have been further diluted by the fact that in most cases, Russians have been appointed to the most senior positions.
The exception to this has been in Crimea where Ukrainians lead the way. The regional head, Sergei Aksyonov, has been pro-Moscow since the 1990s as has Crimea’s regional parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov. They are largely supported by a number of former Ukrainian politicians who fled to Crimea after the Maidan revolution and fiercely support Russia’s war.
In the Donbas, Russians fill most of the key posts, particularly those involving social and economic policy while the security apparatus is run by locals, for obvious reasons, but who are suspected of having been long-term assets of Russia’s security services.
Yevgeny Solntsev, a former senior manager at the state-owned Russian Railways was appointed as the Head of the DNR. While in Luhansk the government is ostensibly led by a long-time Ukrainian separatist, Sergei Kozlov, more than half of senior posts are filled by Russians.
The leaders in the other two (partially) annexed regions: Yevgeny Balitsky in Zaporizhzhia and Vladimir Saldo in Kherson, know they are only holding on to their positions because of Putin’s patronage backed up by military force. As Ukraine advances and sabotage attacks and assassination attempts against Russian-appointed officials increase they are waking up to the fact they are living on borrowed time.
Skorkin concludes that those Ukrainians who threw their lot in with Moscow are now faced with no alternative but to show unquestioning support for Putin because there is no way back as, in Ukraine, they are traitors.
The second paper, published at the beginning of October catalogues a string of ambitious Russian officials who having pinned their hopes for advancement on serving in the occupied territories, were also suffering from the lack of the military’s success.
The author, Andrey Pertsev, says that military failures has combined with Putin’s loss of real interest in the territories after initially being fully invested, means their hopes have taken a nose-dive. He says the Kremlin has presented working in the occupied territories as being career enhancing but, for most, “it is in fact a career graveyard.”
Pertsev says that for many of these once high-flying individuals “the chances of building a successful career there are non-existent,” and uses a number of case studies to prove his hypothesis.
He first looks at the fate of Dmitry Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister and ex-head of the state space corporation Roscosmos, who volunteered as a military advisor in Ukraine in the summer of 2022, on the basis of publicly promised promotion by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Instead, as a result of Russian military failures, Rogozin is now a “back bencher” in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament.
Sergei Sokol, a member of the United Russia ruling party, featured next. After almost a decade of seeking a governorship in one of Russia’s regions he banked on fighting in Ukraine as a cast iron guarantee of achieving his ambition. Instead, Sokol became speaker of the legislative assembly in Khakassia one of Russia’s most impoverished regions.
Pertsev tells how Andrei Alekseyenko, the former mayor of Krasnodar, was made head of the occupied Kharkiv regional government but when it was liberated was moved to the Kherson region, which may soon suffer the same fate.
Similarly, Dmitry Berdinkov, former mayor of Irkutsk was made deputy head of occupied Mariupol’s city government, then deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR); neither role being seen as prestigious as his previous roles.
Next the author turned his attention to Sergei Yeliseyev who had been the deputy head of the Kaliningrad region who, after serving as Alekseyenko’s predecessor in Kherson, returned to his former post.
Then there is Alexander Sapozhnikov, former head of the Far Eastern city of Chita who, after being wounded in Ukraine, was made a deputy in a regional assembly probably two ranks lower than his original post.
The Carnegie paper gives only two examples of how serving in the occupied territories has been beneficial: former DNR prime minister, Vitaly Khotsenko, became governor of Siberia’s Omsk region, and ex-deputy prime minister of the LNR, Vasily Kuznetsov, became head of Chukotka in Russia’s Far North.
Pertsev attributes the lack of career advancement down to four things:
Firstly, the failure of Russia’s military to capture the whole of the annexed regions and, in the case of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia the fact that Russia doesn’t control any major cities;
Secondly, there have been only a limited number of prestigious jobs available in the occupied regions anyway;
Thirdly the failure to stabilize the occupied regions with expectations of federal funding for reconstruction have been dashed along with hopes of proving their ability and staying on the president’s radar.
Finally, Pertsev says many forgot that Putin often quickly tires of his pet projects and has moved on to other things. He said: “Time has passed, and now even the deadly fighting has become a routine matter for Putin.
“Those arriving to do jobs in the occupied regions are now seen as regular pen-pushers, not superheroes,” so that now nobody can expect to leap from even a government job in Ukraine to a prestigious federal-level job.
He concludes that these once ambitious officials are trapped as trying to leave their posts in the occupied regions would be seen as weakness, at best, or even desertion. Some will be lucky to keep their current jobs.
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