A major new study of more than 4,000 leaked Kremlin emails, released on July 16, has illuminated the true extent of Russian hybrid aggression against Ukraine, and highlighted the significant levels of financial and political control that the Kremlin exerts over its proxy forces and puppet administrations in eastern Ukraine.
The study also demonstrates, however, that a new type of “full spectrum” warfare designed in Moscow is reaching far beyond the embattled eastern Donbas region, where Russian-led forces are in their sixth year of waging a war against Ukraine that has killed some 13,000 people.
The 83-page report, published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London – the world’s oldest defense and security think tank – analyzes the contents of 4,165 Kremlin-connected emails which were leaked throughout 2016 and 2017 by Ukrainian “hacktivists.”
It was undertaken and authored by Alya Shandra, chief editor and founder of EuroMaidan Press, an English-language media outlet in Ukraine, and Robert Seely, an academic who studies Russian hybrid warfare and is also a U.K. member of parliament who sits on the U.K. Parliament Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
They set out to detail how Kremlin strategists appear to have reinvented “active measures” and “reflexive control” tactics from the Soviet era, measures which allow them to deploy a “full spectrum of means and methods” in their attempt to control and eventually “federalize” parts of eastern Ukraine, while also exerting strong ideological and political influence in other regions, including the capital.
Divide and conquer
A central part of Kremlin strategy – as the authors argue is proven in the trove of leaked emails – is to encourage, fund and support separatism in order to eventually assimilate such areas into the Russian Federation. That strategy has birthed so-called breakaway republics in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are today occupied by Russian-led militants and Kremlin-appointed officials.
Evidence in the emails also demonstrates that those separatist regions are bankrolled by Russia, fall firmly under Kremlin command and control structures and are, in effect, Russian entities slowly being absorbed into the nation, the authors conclude.
In some leaked email exchanges, the salaries and payable fees for Russian proxies or agents in Ukraine appear to be discussed. In other conversations, the CVs of prospective leadership figures for the occupied Donbas are shared and assessed by high-level Kremlin figures.
But leaked correspondence also shows that Moscow’s end goal, with varying degrees of success so far, is to exert control throughout the entirety of Ukraine, by infiltrating the country’s media, influencing its politics, interfering in its elections, inciting anti-Western protests and destabilizing Ukrainian society.
“With the help of networks of Russian and Ukrainian agents and analytical centres, the Kremlin studied every aspect of the Ukrainian political and social landscape to identify and exploit its weaknesses,” reads one passage of the report.
“When starting to study the emails, I set out to find proof of Russian management of the war in Donbas, as some researchers studying the leaks noted the absence of bombshell evidence on that matter,” said co-author Alya Shandra.
“While evidence of Russia’s involvement in the Donbas was indeed present in the leaks… I found something even more valuable: the day-to-day subtle operations of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, which stretches a lot further than the kinetic warfare taking place in the ‘LNR’ and ‘DNR’,” she added.
A study of Surkov
Until today, apart from some passing references in media coverage, there has been very little in-depth analysis of the entire contents of the leaked emails.
The July 16 report should be read as “a guide to Russian subversive warfare,” state the authors, who add that particular people in leaked correspondence deserve close attention.
“Analysis of the emails reveals a number of Russian and Ukrainian political figures who appear to have been important to the Kremlin’s grip on Ukraine,” reads the report.
They include political pundits, public relations figures, activists and politicians, but all of them, however, are ultimately connected to and appear subservient to one man: Vladislav Surkov, a highly influential aid, strategist and ideologist to Russian President Vladimir Putin, widely referred to as the “gray cardinal” of his administration.
In September 2013, Surkov – who has repeatedly championed the idea of Russia as an expansionist, regional power – was placed in charge of Putin’s policy in the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. At the same time, he reportedly took control of strategy for Ukraine, according to the study.
Surkov’s leaked emails reveal that he has been deeply involved in the day-to-day management of affairs in the so-called separatist republics of the Donbas.
In June 2019, the Kremlin suggested that Surkov would represent Russia during a new round of the Normandy Four peace talks in Paris, an announcement that has prompted outcry, given Surkov’s alleged role in stoking that conflict in the first place.
“Leaked emails dispatched by President Putin’s aide, Vladislav Surkov, should leave no doubt as to the nature of the conflict in Ukraine: the Kremlin largely manages and finances the war in the Donbas region under the guise of internal separatism, which the Kremlin is equally involved in generating,” reads the report.
“Surkov has been called ‘the puppet master,’ ‘Putin’s Rasputin,’ and ‘the gray cardinal of the Kremlin’ for good reason,” commented Alya Shandra.
“Manipulation and deception are at the heart of his strategy. I would ask anybody reading the report to take special notice of how this strategic deception, otherwise known as ‘reflexive control,’ forms the basis of activities outlined in all sections of the report,” she added.
Grip of Novorussiya
Little appears to have changed, in respect to Surkov’s priorities and strategies. Even since his emails were leaked, Surkov’s agents still seem to be tightening Russia’s grip on Ukraine.
On Feb. 11, he published an extraordinary op-ed in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta where he celebrated Russia as an expansionist power and called for “Putinism” to become the state’s official ideology. He also said that Putinism should be exported to neighboring countries, and that Russian expansionism requires both economic and military aggression.
Surkov also admitted, in the exceptionally revealing article, that Russia interferes in foreign countries, but appeared to boast that it was actually “far more serious” than many people know.
The July 16 report argues that Surkov’s influence has indeed extended deep into Ukraine, where he has personally curated networks of activists and politicians that can prevent the country’s movement westward.
Some emails cited in the report allegedly show the details of payments made to politicians, journalists, bloggers and other civil society actors in Ukraine. Surkov is also provided with “daily briefs and media monitoring summaries” in emails that seem intended to keep him updated on the progress of his projects in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s goal in Ukraine, as concluded by the July 16 study, is to destabilize the entire country – as well as others like it, such as Georgia – in order to make way for federalization of parts of those countries, and weaken their westward trajectories.
But Russia’s broader strategy, according to the authors, beyond its subversive activities in Ukraine and Georgia, is to undermine democratic countries in general – including the U.S. – and to discredit and damage Western liberal institutions and values.
The authors hope that the study can be a wake up call.
“In the West, I hope the report will help clarify that Russia’s war against Ukraine is not limited to kinetic war in the east of the country, but is unfolding in many ways, often under democratic pretenses,” said Shandra.
“In Ukraine, I hope this report will spark a discussion on strategic responses to Russia’s hybrid war which are, unfortunately, absent,” she added.
The Surkov Leaks: The Inner Workings of Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine,by Alya Shandra and Robert Seely. Full report available here.