New Old Faces: The Meaning of Staff Reshuffle in Russia-Ukraine Conflict

The current year has seen substantial changes in the list of personalities involved in the development of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and its settlement in both Kyiv and Moscow. These include Vladislav Surkov, a former assistant to the President of the Russian Federation, whose role since January has been played by Dmitriy Kozak, an erstwhile deputy prime minister and now deputy head of the presidential administration. Similar reshuffles took place in our country. In February, Andrii Yermak took over as head of the Office of the President of Ukraine. In July, Leonid Kuchma, a former head of state (1994-2005), stepped down as official representative of Ukraine in the Tripartite Contact Group (TCG) in Minsk and was replaced by Leonid Kravchuk, the first President of Ukraine (1991-1994). To complete the picture, Vitold Fokin, the first Prime Minister of Ukraine in 1990-1992, who has joined the TCG as deputy head of the Ukrainian delegation, should also be added to this list. Naturally, this raises the question about the role of specific individuals in Ukrainian-Russian relations and the consequences that can lie in store for us as a result of such staffing changes.
Silvester Nosenko
International expert
This matter has been met with mixed reviews in the media. Some believe that such synchronization may indicate a possible shared desire of the Ukrainian and Russian vested interests to agree on the terms of ending the conflict. This assumption is oft accompanied by criticism and suspicion of secret talks between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy as well as a possible surrender of national interests by L. Kravchuk, who is linked to the odious Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch and a member of parliament with close ties to the Russian president. Others claim that staffing changes in Russia suggest a change of tone in the approach to Ukraine and a demonstration of the intention to improve relations with the West by eliminating the somewhat toxic V. Surkov.
Discussions about the latest appointments encourage us to use the notion of the level of analysis of international relations. The most famous author in this field was Kenneth Waltz, a representative of structural realism (or neorealism), with his work Man, the State and War. As the name implies, the scholar argues that there are three levels of analysis of the international system - individual, national and systemic - and uses this assumption to consider the causes of wars.
It may be quite interesting for us to determine the role of the individual factor in regard to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. During Petro Poroshenko's tenure in 2014-2019, it was believed that the head of state perceived the confrontation with Vladimir Putin as personal and, therefore, was not ready to make any concessions, just like the Kremlin leader. With the coming to power of V. Zelenskyy, the tone of relations with Moscow has somewhat shifted, and the appointment of L. Kravchuk and V. Fokin to the TCG may indicate the search for possible trade-offs.
At the same time, the latest staffing decisions are rather a continuation of the rationale behind the Presidential Decree 167/2020, which established the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG and raised its political status. This step was needed only to demonstrate the intention to negotiate with Russia and the priority of the Donbas issue for Kyiv. According to this logic, the termination of Kuchma's work at his own will required his replacement by a figure with a similar status, therefore making L. Kravchuk an agreeable candidate. It is most likely that Zelenskyy's administration hoped for a similar step on the part of Moscow, without realizing one thing: the Kremlin is not going to turn the TCG into a truly effective decision-making platform, as this would lead to the de facto renunciation of the status of a"mediator," which it is trying to secure. Instead, Russia is waiting for real negotiations between Ukraine and the so-called"DPR" and"LPR," which have not happened so far, despite the emergence of a notorious advisory council at the TCG. This is confirmed by a strongly worded statement by Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of Russia Boris Gryzlov immediately after the presidential decree in which he accused Ukraine of sabotaging the political part of the Minsk accords and overt reluctance to cooperate with the self-proclaimed"republics." In other words, the Russian representative made it clear that for the Kremlin any changes in the Ukrainian delegation do not matter until the consultations at various levels turn into political concessions.
From the point of view of theoretical conflict studies, this means that the structure of the conflict - the actors, the object, relations between the actors and third parties - remain the same and will not change automatically because of the appearance of new names. In addition, the settlement of the situation in Donbas means striking an optimal balance in the relations between Ukraine and Russia, the violation of which is not beneficial to anyone. According to Adam Curle's conflict resolution model, this will only be possible if the balance of power between the states is equalized, which is unlikely to depend on the involvement of L. Kravchuk and D. Kozak in the negotiation process.
In this regard, it can be assumed that the personnel reshuffles in Russia themselves have little to do with the Ukrainian vector of its foreign policy. This is also confirmed by the situation with V. Surkov, who in December 2011 was removed from the post of first deputy head of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. At that time in his career, Surkov was the curator of the youth socio-political movement Nashi, which emerged to combat the possible spillover of revolutionary sentiment from Ukraine to Russia. Surkov's dismissal almost coincided with the disbandment of Nashi. At the same time, the eminence grise himself has retained influence on the ideological basis of Russia's foreign and domestic policy, despite another forced resignation in 2013, this time from the post of deputy prime minister.
These analogies with the past receive a new lease of life given the recent changes in the Russian Constitution, the zeroing of Putin's presidential terms and future transformations of the entire power regime in the country. Surkov also suffered a new blow to his influence in 2019, when his longtime colleague Oleh Hovorun resigned as head of the Presidential Office for Border Cooperation, which also covers Ukraine. In view of the above, such staffing changes in the structure of the Russian elite should rather be viewed from the standpoint of domestic political processes.
Ukraine is too important an area of the Kremlin's current foreign policy, and its reframing requires something much more substantial than the emergence of several political figures, be they old or new. Accordingly, the appointment of D. Kozak as well as L. Kravchuk together with V. Fokin is unlikely to radically change the process of negotiations on the settlement of the current conflict in Donbas.
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