Appointment of Boris Gryzlov to represent Russia on the Contact Group brings a key Russian decision maker into the heart of the crisis.
That the Russian leadership continues to accord the Ukrainian conflict the highest importance is confirmed by a very interesting appointment the Kremlin has just announced.
This is the appointment of Boris Gryzlov as Russia’s representative on the so-called Contact Group.
The Contact Group was set up in June 2014 as a result of the talks in Normandy between Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and Hollande.
Its original purpose was to help put into effect the peace plan Poroshenko was expected to announce later that month.
In the event Poroshenko’s peace plan proved a major disappointment, amounting to nothing more than a demand the east Ukrainians disarm unilaterally and their leaders flee to Russia, in return for the vaguest possible promise of eventual “decentralisation”, with no explanation either of what that meant or of the process whereby it would be achieved.
Unsurprisingly, Poroshenko’s peace was rejected by the east Ukrainians and by the Russians (who called it - correctly - an ultimatum rather than a peace plan). However it limped on as a sort of convenient fiction until the Battle of Debaltsevo. The Minsk Protocol of September 2014 was supposedly an amendment of it.
Poroshenko’s peace plan was replaced by the Minsk Agreement of February 2015. Unlike Poroshenko’s peace plan and the September 2014 Minsk Protocol, this is an international agreement to which Russia is a party, which is incorporated in international law by a Security Council Resolution.
The Contact Group has however continued to function as the main venue for discussions between the militia and the Ukrainian government.
This is so even though the Ukrainians insist that they will not negotiate with the militia, whom they call terrorists.
The result is a bizarre situation where the person who speaks for Ukraine’s government in the Contact Group - former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma - does not formally represent Ukraine, but is supposedly there in a private capacity.
Gryzlov’s appointment represents a significant upgrade of Russia’s representation in the Contact Group.
What do we know of Gryzlov? The short answer is surprisingly little, though it is possible to guess more.
Gryzlov trained as a radio engineer in Leningrad, supposedly working in the same radio electronics factory in Leningrad/St. Petersburg from 1977 to 1996. Thereafter, and somewhat inexplicably, he emerged as a major political figure in the late 1990s, being elected to parliament in 1999.
In March 2001 Putin appointed him Russia’s Interior Minister, putting him in overall charge of Russia’s police.
As a radio engineer and plant manager Gryzlov’s qualifications for the post of Interior Minister are not obvious. However he headed the Interior Ministry during a key period.
This was the hottest period of the war against jihadi terrorists in the Caucasus and in Russia, with Caucasian jihadi groups involved in a succession of terrorist outrages across Russia.
The Interior Ministry under Gryzlov’s leadership was at the forefront of the struggle against them.
More important still, Gryzlov was also Interior Minister in overall charge of Russia’s police at the time of the arrest in October 2003 of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky - like some of the other oligarchs - had contacts within the Russian security forces.
When the Russian authorities began to put together their case against Khodorkovsky it was by no means a foregone conclusion it would succeed.
That Khodorkovsky was arrested shows that Gryzlov had the police in hand, and that he is reliable.
In fact it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Gryzlov was appointed Interior Minister because Putin needed someone in charge of the police who was reliable and who could be counted on to keep the police loyal in the coming show-down with Khodorkovsky. Gryzlov fitted the bill.
That suggests there is more to Gryzlov than there seems, and that his back story is more complex than that of a mere radio engineer.
With Khodorkovsky safely arrested, Putin a few weeks later transferred Gryzlov from the Interior Ministry to the parliament, where in December 2003 he became Chairman of the State Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament) and parliamentary leader of United Russia.
Gryzlov kept these posts until September 2011.
Though less fraught task than running the Interior Ministry during a counter insurgency war and in the lead-up to Khodorkovsky’s arrest, they were nonetheless key posts, keeping the parliament in hand during the potentially difficult transition period of Medvedev’s Presidency.
They are again the sort of posts that are given to a reliable man.
Following Putin’s decision in September 2011 to return to the Presidency, Gryzlov quit his positions in parliament and as parliamentary leader of United Russia.
Since then, though he holds no formal post, Gryzlov continues to be a key figure in the Russian power structure.
This is shown by the fact that he remains a permanent member of Russia’s Security Council.
Russia’s Security Council, though almost completely ignored in the West, is in reality Russia’s key decision making body, where all major decisions are discussed and agreed. The Security Council’s 13 permanent members are the most powerful people in Russia. Gryzlov is one of them.
The fact Gryzlov holds no other publicly disclosed position other than that of permanent member of the Security Council is not a sign he is less powerful or less important than the other 12. Rather it suggests the work he does is secret.
The appointment of such an important man to represent Russia on the Contact Group is a dramatic development.
What makes this appointment even more striking is that Gryzlov has been given plenipotentiary powers.
This means that he can on his own initiative and without consulting Moscow make decisions that are binding on the Russian government.
All of this obviously begs the question of what are the reasons for this appointment?
Whilst obviously we don’t know the full details, it is possible to say a number of things and to make the odd informed guess.
Firstly, Gryzlov is someone at the very top of the Russian power structure.
As a permanent member of the Security Council he has played his part in shaping Russian policy during the Ukrainian conflict. He will be fully familiar with all its aspects.
Over the last two years Putin has had to devote an immense amount of his time to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine.
Gryzlov’s appointment appears at least in part intended to relieve Putin of some of this burden, freeing him to give more time to deal with other matters.
Secondly, Gryzlov far outranks every other Russian official engaged on the ground in Ukraine.
This is important because Russia has suffered from the poor quality of its representatives on the ground in Ukraine.
Direct contacts with the Ukrainian government apparently happen at various levels. However Russia’s actual representative in Kiev has been Mikhail Zurabov, who is Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine.
Zurabov is not a professional diplomat. He is a liberal politician and former minister closely associated with former Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin and Economics Minister German Gref.
Like his predecessor as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine - Yeltsin’s former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomydin - Zurabov seems to have been sent to Kiev as a form of gentle exile after he fell out of favour. This happened in 2010, at a time when Yanukovych seemed securely in control, and there seemed no need for someone able to act decisively in a crisis.
There have been many complaints about Zurabov.
He is regularly accused of excessive passivity during the Maidan protests. He is also criticised for his failure to put Russia’s case forcefully during the fighting in the Donbass.
Some of these criticisms may be unfair. They take little account of how difficult the job of Russia’s ambassador in Kiev must be.
However it is true that throughout the crisis Zurabov has been almost invisible, and he does seem to be genuinely out of his depth.
The other major figure representing Russia in Ukraine - who however in typical fashion likes to act behind the scenes - is Putin’s former spin-doctor and close friend and adviser, Vladislav Surkov.
Surkov is far too complex a figure to be discussed in detail here. Suffice to say that as Putin’s spin-doctor he has managed the rare feat of antagonising both sides of Russia’s political divide. He is hated equally by Russia’s pro-Western liberals, and by the Communists and Russia’s conservative nationalists, whilst being mistrusted it seems by everyone except Putin himself.
Amazingly Surkov has managed the same feat in Ukraine.
The Maidan movement accuses him - falsely - of being the man behind the massacre of the protesters during the Maidan protests.
Supporters of militia commander Strelkov accuse him of engineering the downfall of their hero.
Supporters of the militia also accuse him of planning the betrayal of the militia and of Novorossia.
The reality is that Surkov does seem to have played an important role behind the scenes, becoming an important channel of communication between the Kremlin and the militia commanders.
The exact nature of his role however remains obscure, and it is doubtful whether he is really as important as his critics believe he is. Even if he does entertain the plans his critics accuse him of, the fact he acts so secretly must limit his effectiveness.
Regardless, the point about Zurabov and Surkov is that Gryzlov far outranks them both.
With Gryzlov now representing Russia in the Contact Group, neither Zurabov nor Surkov any longer have an obvious role, and it is likely both will be relegated or - in Surkov's case - removed from the scene entirely before long.
As for the reasons for Gryzlov’s appointment, it is surely connected to Russian frustration with the deadlock in the Minsk process.
Not only has the Ukrainian government entirely failed to carry out the political commitments it made in February in Minsk, but the military situation in the Donbass is deteriorating once more.
Gryzlov’s appointment puts a strong man - and one Putin trusts - in place to deal with the situation as it deteriorates.
With Putin feeling increasingly confident that Western interest in Ukraine in slackening, he has now brought a tough and reliable man onto the scene who can be relied upon to shape the situation in Russia's interests.
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