MOSCOW – When American envoy Kurt Volker meets his Russian counterpart Monday to try to restore peace in eastern Ukraine, the man sitting across the table will be no ordinary diplomat.
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Vladislav Surkov, Moscow's point person, is a powerful Kremlin adviser who has played a central role in encouraging, organizing and managing the pro-Russia separatists fighting against Ukraine's central government, according to former rebel leaders and Ukrainian and Western officials.
A top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Surkov has been involved with the rebels, who hold sway over territory in eastern Ukraine, since early 2014, shortly after Russian forces seized the country's Crimean peninsula, these people say. He is under U.S. and European sanctions for his role in the annexation of Crimea.
"Putin is the father" of the separatist movement, said Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who headed Ukraine's security agency during the first 15 months of the insurgency. "Surkov is the babysitter."
Mr. Surkov didn't respond to questions sent via the Kremlin press office.
Russia says it has influence with the separatists, but denies controlling them and presents the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war. It has said repeatedly that it supports the peace accords signed in Minsk, Belarus, an agreement aimed at reintegrating the breakaway region into Ukraine, but giving it more local autonomy.
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But many on both sides of the yearslong conflict, as well as Western observers, say they believe Russia's aims are broader. They say Moscow really wants to trade peace in Ukraine for assurances Kiev won't get too close to the West and for an easing of the international sanctions imposed on Russia for grabbing Crimea and intervening with its military in the east.
The separatist movement "is a bargaining chip" in a bigger geopolitical game, said Aleksei Aleksandrov, a former top separatist official who now lives in Crimea and says he was pushed out of his leadership role by the Kremlin.
If Moscow doesn't get what it wants, said Mr. Nalyvaichenko, the former Ukrainian security chief, "they keep it burning," by supporting a low-intensity conflict that keep's Kiev's pro-Western government off balance.
U.S. and European officials say they won't bargain away Ukraine's political options. Russia's military interventions have united Ukrainian public opinion against Russia, polls show, making any political concessions to Moscow all but impossible for Kiev.
When the two envoys meet in Minsk, Mr. Volker is aiming to test the water as to whether the Kremlin is ready to move beyond the status quo and seek a resolution of the conflict, a U.S. official said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon and the State Department are seeking approval from the White House for plans to supply Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry, plans that Russia has condemned as potentially inflammatory.
Mr. Surkov, 52, is a former public-relations executive who served in military intelligence in the 1980s, according to people familiar with his biography. In the 2000s, he served as Mr. Putin's deputy chief of staff and helped design the Russian leader's tightly controlled political system.
As protests against pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned violent in early 2014, Mr. Surkov shuttled to Ukraine to meet with Mr. Yanukovych, politicians and businessmen close to him, as well as political leaders in Crimea, according to Mr. Nalyvaichenko and another Ukrainian official. Mr. Yanukovych later fled to Russia and a new government took power.
In March, small protests began in some parts of eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. The target of their ire: what the demonstrators saw as the growing embrace of the West by the new government and fears, fanned by Russian propaganda, that new authorities were controlled by nationalists bent on destroying Russian culture in Ukraine.
Mr. Surkov began to reach out to the local activists, according to one of them, gathering information.
In May 2014, a group of security-service veterans and a public-relations executive arrived from Moscow to advise the insurgents, said Mr. Aleksandrov, the former separatist leader. Some locals perceived their appearance as a takeover by the Kremlin, coordinated by Mr. Surkov, he said.
"We gave them the keys to the town," Mr. Aleksandrov said. "They squeezed out the first wave of leaders."
That's when Mr. Surkov started to play a decisive role in how rebel areas were run, said Mr. Aleksandrov and other former separatist leaders, molding the leadership and structure to bring it under Moscow's control.
Mr. Surkov had experience in helping manage the politics of Russia's periphery. In 2013, he became point man for disputed territories that Russia carved from the former Soviet republic of Georgia after a war in 2008.
In August 2014, Mr. Surkov orchestrated the switch in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, the largest of the two separatist areas, from a Moscow public-relations executive to a local military commander seen as loyal to Moscow, Mr. Alexandrov said, with the aim of disguising the fact that Moscow was running the show.
Later that month, Russian forces covertly entered the region to push back a Ukrainian army advance that threatened the rebellion, according to Ukrainian and Western officials, citing satellite imagery, intelligence reports, and captured Russian soldiers. Russia says its armed forces never entered Ukrainian territory.
The intervention forced Ukraine to the negotiating table for peace talks.
Mr. Surkov then headed to Donetsk, the separatist stronghold, to explain the deal to local leaders and check on their work, according to separatist leaders from the time.
At a meeting with several separatist commanders who wanted to carry on fighting, Mr. Surkov challenged them, according to a person present. "What's the alternative" to peace negotiations?," Mr. Surkov said, according to Andrei Pinchuk, then the separatists' security chief. "Go and fight, if you want it so much. We'll see how long you last."
He also scolded a local official for problems paying pensions and opening schools for the new academic year, Mr. Pinchuk said.
Mr. Surkov visited again in February 2015 after a fresh peace deal was reached in Minsk. In a sign of his influence, he was called on to adjudicate a dispute between two local military commanders and visited the front lines of the conflict, according to Mr. Pinchuk.
The peace agreementslargely froze the front lines, but didn't stop shooting at some hotspots. Little progress has been made on political reintegration despite drawn-out discussions brokered by European officials.
Mr. Surkov held meetings with a top U.S. State Department official, Victoria Nuland, in 2016 that were aimed at finding a breakthrough.
Still, he maintained ties with the rebels. In November last year in Moscow, Mr. Surkov was as a guest at a meeting of a group of former Russian volunteer fighters, according to a photo and two separatist leaders who lead the group.
The discussions with Ms. Nuland appeared to make some progress on a potential handover of control of Ukraine's border to Kiev's control, according to people familiar with the talks, but halted when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election and Ms. Nuland left her position.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 20, 2017 16:01 ET (20:01 GMT)