Putin Fires His Puppet Master

Vladislav Surkov, who stage-managed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, is replaced.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Reid Standish
Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin
Russia's then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin confers with his deputy, Vladislav Surkov, in the Urals city of Kurgan, Russia, on Feb. 13, 2012. Alexei Nikolsky /AFP via Getty Images

The gray cardinal. Putin’s Rasputin. The Kremlin puppet master. Vladislav Surkov, a close advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has achieved near-mythical status over the years as the self-proclaimed author of the Putin system, which flirts with democratic principles to cloak its increasing authoritarianism. But on Tuesday he was summarily sacked in the latest of a series of political shake-ups as the Kremlin prepares for what to do when Putin’s term limit expires in 2024. 

Rumors of Surkov’s departure had swirled in recent weeks after another longtime Putin aide, Dmitry Kozak, was tapped to take up his job overseeing Ukraine policy. This speculation was finally confirmed by way of a curt two-line presidential decree issued by the Russian president on Tuesday. Surkov was known to be increasingly at odds with Russia’s power brokers and in January was reported to have resigned over unspecified policy differences, according to Bloomberg, although this was denied at the time by the Kremlin. “He had very little room to achieve anything. It’s surprising he didn’t leave earlier,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

He leaves behind a complicated legacy for both Russia and Ukraine, where he carefully stage-managed separatist groups in the country’s east. He was seen as a hard-liner in Kyiv, where his departure will likely be welcomed amid efforts to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but regional analysts and former U.S. officials cautioned that any progress will be incremental at best. 

“I think Putin feels quite comfortable with the way things are in Ukraine at the moment,” said Kurt Volker, who formerly served as U.S. special envoy for the Ukrainian peace process. 

With a flair for theatrics, Surkov was uniquely suited to the role of micromanaging Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine, where front groups, proxy fighters, and disinformation were used as a smoke screen to obscure the presence of Russian troops. In 2016, thousands of Surkov’s emails were released by Ukrainian hackers, revealing the degree to which he was involved in micromanaging separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. 

The emails show how in the earliest days of the conflict, Surkov received a shortlist of candidates to be “elected” to the government of the breakaway region Donetsk People’s Republic, and he was asked to edit a plea supposedly written by residents of the region calling on Kyiv to halt military operations. The letter was later published by the magazine Russian Reporter and by RT’s Russian-language site.

While Surkov was a master of so-called black PR, his replacement, Kozak, has long been Putin’s project manager of choice. He is considered a hard-working technocrat who has overseen some of the most ambitious projects of Putin’s tenure, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the integration of Crimea after it was annexed in 2014. 

The substitution of Kozak for Surkov is indicative of the Kremlin’s growing appetite for steady hands as Putin approaches his term limit, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. “It does seem that there’s a strong preference for technocrats and managers to handle this uncertain period,” she said. Kendall-Taylor pointed to Putin’s recent appointment of Mikhail Mishustin, once the obscure but highly effective head of the country’s tax service, as prime minister as another key example. 

Kozak also has a preexisting relationship with Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s recently appointed chief of staff, as they supervised a prisoner swap between the two countries last year. Yermak told Ukrainian TV earlier this month that he saw Kozak as an improvement on Surkov. “The fact that the two of them can talk, can meet, that’s a positive thing,” Volker said. 

Surkov’s flair for disinformation extended to his negotiating style. “He would go on these long monologues. He would say these things that are absolutely crazy and false. And he knows you know they’re crazy and false, but he’d say them anyway,” said Volker, who met with Surkov four times in his role as special envoy. 

The presidents of Russia and Ukraine met for the first time in December as part of a bid to restart peace talks, aiming to bring an end to the war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed over 13,000 people. 

Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Kyiv-based think tank New Europe Center, was cautious about whether Kozak’s appointment represents a change in substance for the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy. “It’s still Putin directing strategy toward Ukraine, that’s why we shouldn’t exaggerate Kozak’s role,” she said. “Maybe it will lead to a less toxic atmosphere for negotiations, but I wouldn’t expect much of a change in strategy, just a more sophisticated approach.”

Surkov’s firing signals the exit of one of the most impactful and colorful figures of the Putin era. Serving as deputy chief of the presidential administration for Putin’s first two terms, Surkov was seen as an omnipresent figure in Russian domestic politics who served as the chief architect of Russia’s Potemkin “managed democracy” that took shape under Putin.

Having spent much of the 1990s working in PR and advertising, Surkov understood the power of brand and carefully cultivated his own, earning a reputation as a well-read and at times esoteric figure. He became known for his love of beat poetry, his encyclopedic knowledge of American rock music, and for keeping a photo of the American rapper Tupac Shakur on his desk, next to one of Putin. 

“What was interesting about him was more the brand he created around himself and a mystique and the kind of the style,” said Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on Russian propaganda with the London School of Economics. “People talk about Surkovian style in political technology in Russia in the way that people talk about Michelangelo’s style. He was the Zeitgeist, he captured it, he cultivated it,” said Pomerantsev, the author of This is Not Propaganda.

“Theatrics is what he does,” said Kendall-Taylor, now a senior fellow and the director of the trans-Atlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. “That’s played a very important role in enabling Putin to create the system that he has, to help Putin personalize power in the way that he has. To help Putin to marginalize any opposition. In enabling Putin to create the perception that he is the only viable alternative,” she said.

At the peak of his influence in the 2000s, Surkov controlled political parties in Russia’s parliament, engineered pro-Kremlin youth groups, directed electoral campaigns that delivered victories for Putin and his allies, and was believed to also play a guiding role with the country’s political opposition. 

But Surkov’s star was dimmed by street protests over the winter of 2012 against Putin’s return to the presidency. With Surkov’s role as the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, the demonstrations were interpreted by some as a sign of the erosion of the system he had set up and perhaps even a sign of his own support for the Russians who had taken to the streets. Such theories were bolstered after a late 2011 interview in which Surkov, at the time working for then-President Dmitry Medvedev, said that those protesting against the government deserve respect and that the authorities should “respond benevolently” to them. 

Surkov was then made a deputy prime minister, a move seen as a demotion to keep him out of domestic politics. In May 2013 he resigned from the Kremlin amid speculation that he had been pushed aside. But four months later he was back, appointed by Putin to oversee the Russian-backed breakaway regions in Georgia, which Moscow recognized as independent following a short war with Georgia in 2008. 

Although Surkov is gone for now, he may not be gone for good.

“He’s been pushed aside before—he very likely could come back, and if Putin ever needed him he’d be at the ready,” Kendall-Taylor said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan