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Putin’s new Ukraine man lifts hopes of peace progress in Kyiv

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Via Financial Times

Vladimir Putin’s promotion of a crucial figure driving peace talks with Ukraine has been welcomed by Kyiv as a signal of renewed willingness in Moscow to resolve the six-year conflict between the two countries.

Dmitry Kozak, a former deputy prime minister, was appointed to a newly created position in the presidential administration last week as part of sweeping changes in the Kremlin that analysts said were designed to lengthen Mr Putin’s rule. 

The announcement was followed by the reported resignation of Vladislav Surkov, Mr Putin’s chief negotiator on Ukraine.

People close to the peace talks said the changes were intended to formalise Mr Kozak’s emergence as Mr Putin’s lead negotiator on Ukraine. Mr Kozak oversaw two landmark prisoner exchanges last year that were widely hailed as progress in efforts to bring an end to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, which started with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has claimed 14,000 lives.

Mr Kozak has also helped resurrect four-party peace talks led by France and Germany. The so-called “Normandy four” negotiations resumed last month after years of stalling under Mr Surkov.

At the most recent round of talks in Paris, Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov claimed that “Mr Surkov lost his nerve, threw papers on the table and yelled: ‘we did not agree to this’.” Mr Surkov said the story was a “fantasy” and claimed Mr Avakov had spent the evening drinking wine instead of taking part in the talks. 

“Surkov was playing interference. If he is really gone this is good,” said a person close to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

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Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that Mr Surkov remained a “de jure” adviser to Mr Putin and said that the Ukraine brief had yet to be formally assigned. “Nuances are still being worked out.”

Mr Surkov plans to spend the next month “meditating”, according to former Kremlin spin-doctor Alexei Chesnakov, a close associate of the former Ukraine negotiator.

Mr Kozak is part of a coterie of senior Russian officials whose ties to Mr Putin go back to their days in the St Petersburg mayor’s office in the early 1990s.

Since Mr Putin came to power 20 years ago, Mr Kozak’s missions have included overseeing the integration of Crimea, running Mr Putin’s first re-election campaign in 2004, supervising construction for the Winter Olympics in Sochi and, most recently, looking after the energy industry. 

Mr Kozak is “a non-systemic revolutionary — he’s good at making short breakthroughs”, a former colleague in Mr Putin’s administration said.

Mr Kozak has also been in charge of mediating in Moldova, a former Soviet republic landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, which is split between pro-EU and pro-Moscow factions. He brokered a peace deal between the breakaway statelet of Transnistria and Moldova in 2003 that fell apart at the last minute under US pressure.

Last year, he helped broker a coalition uniting the factions that ousted the Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc from power.

“He’s not a liberal but he’s of that tradition that Russian influence is better served by reintegrating [separatist-held territories] on Russian terms,” said a person close to those talks. “He can wipe the table clean and brutally enforce what he sees as the Russian state interest.”

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Mr Kozak will now have to reconcile Ukraine’s efforts to reclaim the two Moscow-backed breakaway states on its border with Russia. Mr Zelensky has refused to grant the regions lasting autonomy — a move seen in Ukraine as giving Russia a veto over Kyiv’s pro-western foreign policy — and instead wants to include them in a planned decentralisation reform.

“Surkov was [driving] a policy of weakening Ukraine and preventing the signature of future EU and Nato agreements by politically destabilising the territory,” a person familiar with the peace talks said. “Now we are more into managing the process on the ground. [ . . .] It’s a more pragmatic approach. Kozak is a stronger administrator and good on the economy.”

But other people close to the talks cautioned that Mr Putin, who has shown no sign of easing pressure on Ukraine, will remain the ultimate decision maker.

“Zelensky’s guys just associate all the problems with Surkov. They don’t get who they’re dealing with,” the former Kremlin colleague said. “Of course they won’t give the territories back. It’s a fantasy.”

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