MOSCOW—A top aide to Vladimir Putin decides how the pro-Moscow administration of eastern Ukraine is run and who gets what jobs there, three former rebel leaders said, challenging Kremlin denials that it calls the shots in the region.
Their comments to Reuters shed light on the role played by the secretive Vladislav Surkov, who has long been at the Russian president’s side. The Kremlin says his official role is to advise Putin on Ukraine, where the rebels are fighting government forces.
The extent of his influence and powers has not been spelled out or acknowledged by the Kremlin which casts its role in the conflict as one where it has influence but is not a protagonist.
The three men who have held senior roles in the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine have explained in detail how Surkov controls the situation on the ground via handpicked proxies who give him regular situation reports, used aides to arrange elections there, and has worked to build power structures that are responsive to Moscow’s wishes.
“Any call from Moscow was viewed as a call from the office of Lord God himself and… was implemented immediately,” recalled Alexei Alexandrov, one of the leaders of the separatist rebellion in Donetsk who has since left the area in eastern Ukraine. Two other separatists corroborated his account, but declined to be identified.
Surkov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to questions about the extent of Surkov’s role in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office also declined to comment.
Reuters has previously gathered evidence that Moscow sent Russian troops and irregular fighters, and weapons, to help the separatists, who tried to break away from Ukraine in 2014. A senior former separatist described last year how Russian financial support propped up the breakaway area.
The Kremlin has always rejected those accusations as part of its effort to get Western sanctions imposed on it over Ukraine eased.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the separatists’ descriptions of Surkov’s role, but their individual versions of events tallied with one another, with key details and dates consistent with existing open source information about Surkov.
Alexandrov and the two other officials said their willingness to speak out underscores a sense that their uprising has been hijacked by the Kremlin, which has put in place loyalists who they say do not have the region’s best interests at heart. All three said Moscow had gradually forced out most of the separatists behind the original uprising by using threats of death and detention.
“At first we were a bit naive and thought that maybe our Moscow uncles simply didn’t understand what was happening here, when our Moscow comrades treated us like dirt,” said one of the three former separatist leaders who said he last spoke to Surkov in November.
“But then I understood that they understood everything, and simply wanted us to keep our mouths shut.”