This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
The so-called “Surkov Leaks” have reinvigorated the discussion of Moscow’s involvement in the war in Ukraine and the emergence of “people’s republics” in the east of the country.
Russia watchers have been intrigued by the recent email leak of Vladislav Surkov – Russia’s adviser responsible for policies towards Ukraine and Russia’s satellite states in northern Georgia. The so-called “Surkov Leaks” have reinvigorated the discussion of Moscow’s involvement in the war in Ukraine and the emergence of “people’s republics” in the east of the country. The leaks confirm the Kremlin’s involvement in the armed conflict in the Donbas, and make clear that fueling the conflict in east Ukraine is just one part of Moscow’s broader policy for undermining the Ukrainian state.
But these leaks do not alter our understanding of the conflict. Rather, they confirm — with more empirical proof — what was already known and proven. However, two months earlier there was another leak. And this one did provide new evidence that challenges earlier interpretations concerning the roots of the so-called “Ukraine conflict” in 2014.
In August 2016, Ukraine’s General Procurator published a video tape of audio recordings of a number of telephone conversations between Sergey Glazyev — a Russian presidential advisor — and several Russian as well as Ukrainian pro-Kremlin activists in southern and eastern Ukraine in late February and early March 2014. The recordings vividly illustrate Moscow’s covert support for the still unarmed anti-government protests in Ukraine several weeks before the actual war started. Specifically, the tapes reveal the Russian state’s involvement in the coordination and financing of separatist meetings, demonstrations, pickets and similar actions in Crimea as well as in various regional capitals in Ukraine’s eastern and southern parts immediately after the victory of the Maidan revolution in early 2014.
Despite the importance of the tapes and their revelations, they have largely been ignored by Western media outlets and think-tanks. This may be due to suspicions that the published records were tampered with, or that they do not reveal the full story. It is, however, unlikely that these recordings are mere fakes. The published conversations are held between interlocutors whose voices can easily be identified through audio verification and cross-referencing.
If the Glazyev Tapes are indeed authentic, they should change our understanding of the origins and nature of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Until the publication of the Glazyev Tapes, many observers believed that Moscow intervened with paramilitary and later regular military forces into an ongoing civil conflict between pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow Ukrainian citizens. Few serious analysts ever doubted the Kremlin’s crucial role in turning the winter confrontations on the streets of the east and south Ukrainian cities into a putatively civil war in spring. But the extent of Russian meddling in the unarmed protests before the military escalation was disputed.
The timing of the recordings... indicates that Moscow had been behind a number of protests across eastern and southern Ukraine immediately following the victory of the Euromaidan and separatist activities several weeks before the actual war started.
Even interpreters of the confrontation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas who emphasized Russia’s role conceded that differences between those feeling culturally Ukrainian and culturally Russian were the predominant cause of the tensions in cities such as Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk or Odessa. To be sure, the evidence contained in the Glazyev Tapes does not render this factor void, but it indicates that Russia actively fanned the flames of pre-existing ethnic, cultural and political tensions in the region.
It is true that the tapes do not actually mention operations in the Donbas itself, but in other predmominantly Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine. Therefore, one can only infer that the extent of Russian meddling in the Donbas was similar to that documented on the Tapes for other regions. The timing of the recordings (February and March 2014) and the depth of Glazyev’s personal involvement in the upheaval in Ukraine indicates that Moscow had been behind a number of protests across eastern and southern Ukraine immediately following the victory of the Euromaidan and separatist activities several weeks before the actual war started.
Following the Glazyev Tapes it looks as if Moscow did not only want to annex Crimea in March 2014, but also large chunks of mainland southern and eastern Ukraine in order to reunite itself with swathes of Ukrainian territory in the east in order to create a Novorossiya (New Russia).However, Moscow’s clandestine pre-war activities remained remarkably unsuccessful in mainland Ukraine. Surprisingly, the distinctly weak Ukrainian state – shaken by a full-scale revolution – was still strong enough to resist Russia’s non-military assault on its sovereignty and integrity, at that point. The only partial exception was Crimea, where Russian special-forces played a crucial role in triggering the secession process.
The Glazyev Tapes are important because they provide the first direct evidence for what earlier empirical research had already indicated: that circles within the Kremlin had been actively fanning social conflict in Ukraine several weeks before it turned into an armed confrontation between paramilitary groups and armed forces. Nikolay Mitrokhin and Anton Shekhovtsov emphasised the ultra-nationalist ideological motivations of the Russia-supported activists in eastern Ukraine, whereas the Glazyev Tapes outline the financial remuneration that the Kremlin and its directed groups provided to pro-Russian “anti-fascists.”
The findings from the Glazyev Tapes should not only transform the public narrative about the “Ukraine Crisis” but also the Western approach to the Minsk Agreements too. In particular, the West should reconsider its insistence on Ukraine quickly fulfilling the political aspects of the Minsk Agreements. Instead, emphasis should be placed on Russia returning the occupied territories to Ukraine. The EU should neither pressure Ukraine to seek a dubious compromise with Russia, nor should it link the prolongation of sanctions to the entire body of the Minsk Agreements, i.e. also to its political parts.
This sort of action is justified by the fact that the Glazyev Tapes illustrate that the social rationale for far-reaching new political rules in the Donbas, as envisaged in the Minsk Agreements, is slim. A popular Western interpretation of the concessions to the separatists in these Agreements had been that the fact of a grass-roots insurgency in the Donbas should be reflected in its future status. Yet, the Glazyev Tapes now illustrate that the east Ukrainian “Russian Spring” was, from the beginning, not as popular a phenomenon as it had seemed. If one acknowledges Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine, and the imperial rather than local dimension of the uprising, then it becomes clear that the Minsk Agreements need to be revisited.
Following the Glazyev Tapes, any future special status for the currently occupied territories would only indulge Russia for the partial successes it has had in fueling initially weak separatist tendencies in eastern Ukraine following the victory of the Maidan revolution.
It is less the Donbas’s specific regional interests than the partial successes of Russia’s secret subversion efforts that have been represented in the texts of the two deals made in Minsk between the Ukrainian government and the so-called “people’s republics”. The West should treat the questions of whether, when, and how Kyiv needs to implement the respective domestic political articles of the Minsk Agreements according to this understanding.
The EU should revert back to its pre-Minsk approach to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The main raft of sanctions were introduced before both of the Minsk Agreements were negotiated. Back then, the lifting of sanctions had been linked to a full restoration of, at least, mainland Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Only later was the prolongation of the sanctions tied to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements – including those parts that concern Ukrainian domestic affairs.
Ukraine signed both agreements at gun-point, in the context of large military offensives of regular Russian troops near Ilovaisk in 2014 and Debaltseve in 2015. The Glazyev Tapes underscore, once more, that the West needs to use its sanctions to end the war and to return the occupied territories under Ukrainian control. As the Tapes indicate, there is no reason why the West should support a sellout deal designed to undermine the sovereignty of the Ukraine’s state in the Donbas, and in doing so reward Russia for its covert intervention.
Andreas Umland is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and general editor of the Germany-based bilingual book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed outside Europe by Columbia University Press.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.