In late January, Russian President Vladimir Putin reshuffled the country’s government. While Cabinet changes in autocracies are usually unimportant, one appointment is set to influence Russia’s policy on Ukraine.

On Jan. 24, Dmitry Kozak, a veteran official, was appointed third deputy head of Putin’s administration – a post created specifically for him. It’s his second time in the administration. During his first stint in the early 2000s, Kozak’s portfolio included trying to force Moldova into a federal union with Transnistria, the country’s Russian-backed breakaway territory. The agreement failed at the last moment due to strong pushback in Moldova.

Kozak reemerges at a time when Ukraine is actively seeking peace with Russia and to re-establish Ukrainian government control over all of the eastern Donbas, parts of which are in Kremlin hands.

Kozak, a Ukrainian native, is already active in Russia’s Ukraine operations. He oversaw the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine in September and was allegedly coordinating a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russian-led militants in December.

Kozak is expected to succeed Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s advisor on Ukraine and the alleged architect of the Russian-led separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, sparking the war that has killed around 14,000 people since 2014.

Political experts close to the Kremlin reported on Jan. 24 that Surkov is leaving office, while Putin’s press service said Surkov will “de jure stay on the job.”

Kozak’s appointment is a signal that Putin wants to reach some sort of agreement and fast, Ilya Ponomarev, a Ukrainian businessman and former Russian lawmaker, told the Kyiv Post.

“Kozak has a reputation of a person who knows how to reach agreements,” says Ponomarev. “The appointment of Kozak is a signal that Kremlin isn’t interested in a frozen conflict.”

Federalizing Moldova

Kozak and Putin go back a long way. Both worked in the office of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.

When Putin moved to work in Moscow, Kozak followed. Soon after Putin became president in 2000, Kozak became the first deputy head of his administration. He was little-known until 2003, when he was placed in charge of the Kremlin’s Moldova policy.

In 2001, the Moldovan parliament, controlled by the country’s Communist Party, elected Vladimir Voronin as president. Voronin and the governing party were seen as pro-Russian, while their main promise to voters was to bring peace. Since independence, Moldova had struggled with pro-Russian separatist militants in its eastern territory of Transnistria. The Russian military was stationed in Moldova without an international mandate.

Soon after the election, Voronin began making concessions to Russian-led Transnistria and acknowledging documents issued by the separatists.

In 2003, Russia decided to speed up the process of reintegrating Transnistria into Moldova. In November that year, Kozak, who oversaw Russia’s relations with Transnistria, created a document now known as the Kozak Memorandum.

According to the memorandum, Moldova would become an asymmetric federation with a bicameral parliament and Russian as the second official language. Transnistria would elect nine out of the 26 senators in the newly-created Moldovan upper house. Gagauzia, another pro-Russian region, would receive more autonomy and have four senators.

All important issues concerning the country’s geopolitical orientation would pass through the senate, giving the pro-Russian territories control over the country’s future. This control was disproportionate. The people of Transnistria and Gagauzia combined made up only about 13 percent of Moldova’s total population, but under the Kozak Memorandum, they would have controlled half of the Senate.

The memorandum would have forced Moldova to disband its army and proclaim neutrality, without the ability to join any intergovernmental organization without Transnistria’s consent. Russian troops would be stationed in Moldova as peacekeepers.

In case of a loss of sovereignty, both Transnistria and Gagauzia would have the right to secede. The memorandum was initially kept secret from the people of Moldova and was preliminarily ratified by Voronin.

The document was published by Transnistria a week before signing, leading thousands of people to take to the streets in protest. Voronin was forced to scrap the document.

Moldova President Igor Dodon meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Sept. 7, 2019. Dmtriy Kozak, then Russia’s deputy prime minister, is seen in the background. Kozak is believed to serve as Russia’s de facto representative to Moldova, promoting the pro-Russian Socialist Party. (kremlin.ru)

In 2019, Kozak returned to Moldova. He led Russia’s efforts to promote the country’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon and his Socialist Party in the 2019 parliamentary elections. The Socialists won the elections, yet lacked a majority in parliament. Kozak oversaw the creation of a coalition government between Socialists and a pro-European bloc. It prevented the controversial anti-Russian businessman and politician Vladimir Plahotniuc from taking the government.

Occupation managers

In 2014, Russia launched its war against Ukraine, occupying Crimea and then igniting a bloody conflict in the eastern Donbas that has now killed 14,000 people.

Kozak, who was Russia’s deputy prime minister at the time, oversaw construction of the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia – a key infrastructure project to solidify the occupation of the peninsula.

Meanwhile, Surkov oversaw Donbas, where Russia was leading armed militants.

In late 2013, Surkov had returned to the presidential administration after a short stint as Russia’s deputy prime minister. Then, the EuroMaidan Revolution began in Ukraine when Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an economic and political association agreement with the European Union.

Russia backed Yanukovych, and according to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, Surkov frequently traveled to Ukraine during the revolution.

Surkov was spotted in Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2014, on the same day when 48 protesters were killed by government-led forces. In 2015, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, then leading the Security Service of Ukraine, said that Surkov may have organized the shooting of protesters.

Russian officials denied their involvement. They have also denied that Russia backed the militants in Donbas and that Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine — despite substantial evidence to the contrary.

In 2016, Surkov’s emails were hacked, revealing that all appointments and financing in Russian-controlled Donbas was overseen by him.

Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website specializing in open-source intelligence, later confirmed the authenticity of those emails. The emails included Surkov’s proposals to split Ukraine into three separate states.

In 2017, the Russian news website RBC interviewed high-ranking militants who acknowledged that Surkov handpicked the leaders of the Russian-led militant organizations in the Donbas.

Surkov took part in the 2016 Normandy Four meeting between the leaders of Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia in Berlin. He also attended a similar meeting in Paris in 2019, despite being one of the first people to be included in both the U.S. and the European Union sanctions list.

Between 2017 and 2019, Kurt Volker, then United States special representative for Ukraine negotiations, frequently met with Surkov in Moscow to discuss Ukraine.

A new approach

In 2016, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia stalled. At the same time, Surkov’s grip on Donbas weakened.

In 2018, the Kyiv Post reported that Serhiy Kurchenko, a former associate of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, had monopolized the economic output of Russian-controlled Donbas. Kurchenko reportedly took charge of coal mines working in the occupied territories, transported their production to Russia and resold it abroad as Russian. Kurchenko, who reportedly resides in Russia, is wanted in Ukraine for corruption and fraud.

Read More: As Ukraine imports most of its coal from Russia, ‘Russia sells coal stolen from Ukraine to EU’

In May 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine. His main campaign promise was to bring peace. On Sept. 5, Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners for the first time in nearly two years.

Days after the prisoner swap, Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s top aide responsible for foreign affairs, told the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet that Kozak was working on the exchange from the Russian side.

Oleksiy Matsuka, editor-in-chief of Novosti Donbasa, a news outlet covering eastern Ukraine, including the Russia-occupied territories, told the Kyiv Post that the Kremlin, apparently, sees Zelensky as a legitimate president, in contrast to his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, who was elected months after the EuroMaidan Revolution, which Russia views as a coup.

Meanwhile, the governments of both Russia and Ukraine say that relations between the two countries are improving.

In October, Zelensky agreed to the Steinmeier Formula, a plan proposed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was German foreign minister when it was named after him. The formula proposes that Russian-occupied Donbas will hold free and fair local elections under Ukrainian law in exchange for self-governance and special status.

The formula is a simplified version of the Minsk Agreements, signed in 2015 yet never fulfilled.

The agreements were later reaffirmed when the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany met during the Normandy Four summit in Paris in December, the first such meeting in three years.

Ponomarev says Kremlin is looking to bargain a favorable deal. Russia may ask for further decentralization and some sort of additional special rights for the occupied regions, he adds.

“Obviously, Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine doesn’t change,” says Ponomarev, “he never needed Donbas, he needs the whole Ukraine.”

Matsuka, who is a native of Donetsk and has been covering eastern Ukraine his whole life, doesn’t believe that Kozak taking over the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy can lead to a quick resolution of the conflict.

“Donbas will remain a stumbling block (in Ukraine-Russia relations) for years to come, no matter who’ll be responsible for dealing with Ukraine in Putin’s administration,” he says.

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