October 28, 2016

E-mail leak shows Russia’s plan to destabilize Ukraine


KYIV – Further evidence that the Kremlin engineered the armed uprising in eastern Ukraine surfaced on October 25 when a Ukrainian hacker group published e-mail data allegedly belonging to Vladislav Surkov, the Russian president’s top aide and point man on Ukraine and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Comprising 2,337 messages, the communication allegedly shows the Kremlin playing a direct role in establishing a puppet government in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s two easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. They also show expense requests to Russia, casualty lists on the combined Russian-separatist side, as well as assessments of the social and political situation during the Euro-Maidan Revolution.

A separate set of documents that hacker collective CyberJunta released a day earlier purport to show Moscow’s plans starting in mid-November to destabilize the political situation in Ukraine and spur pre-term parliamentary elections.

The Digital Forensic Research Lab attached to the Washington-based Atlantic Council policy center, said that “nearly every bit of information in Surkov’s inbox” could be “verified” and that the “vast majority of them” are “real.”

Ukraine’s Security Service, known as the SBU, also said that the “majority of documents” are authentic.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists on October 25 that the leaked documents weren’t real.

“I’ve known Surkov for more than 10 years and all sorts of things have always been imputed to him,” Mr. Peskov said. “In most cases, it has nothing to do with reality.”

To add credence to the veracity of the leaked documents, the hacker group published scanned copies of Mr. Surkov’s passport as well as that of his wife.

If true, the documents provide additional proof that the war in the Donbas was in no degree a grassroots spontaneous uprising, or is a civil war. Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO maintain that Russia has played a command and control role in the war, including the provision of regular and irregular troops, arms, military hardware, financing, training and other types of equipment.

One particular document sent from a company owned by Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch with ultra-nationalist views whom the U.S. and European Union accuse of financing combined Russian-separatists, speaks about candidates to the government of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic.

Sent to Mr. Surkov on May 13, 2014, it proposes that Ukrainian citizen Denis Pushilin become the occupied region’s “speaker” and that Russian citizen Igor Girkin be appointed as “defense minister.” It also nominated Oleksandr Khodakovsky – the former head of the Donetsk Oblast’s SBU anti-terrorist unit – to be in charge of “state security.” Ukrainian Oleksandr Zakharchenko, the current leader of occupied Donetsk, according to the document, was looked upon as the potential “prime minister.”

“At the bottom of the document, a note says that the individuals with asterisks next to their name were ‘checked by us’ and are ‘especially recommended’,” the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research group stated in its analysis of the documents.

Corroborating its authenticity is that three days later on May 16, 2014, the full puppet government of the invaded region was announced. Mr. Girkin has since returned to Moscow, his native city. Collaborators Mr. Pushilin and Mr. Khodakovsky divide their time between Russia and Ukraine and currently don’t hold government positions in the occupied regions.

Russia also has been implicated in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in which all 298 people on board were killed in 2014. A Dutch-led joint investigation in September concluded that the missile system that shot down the airliner was brought from and back to Russia and fired from occupied territory.

Although little is known about CyberJunta, including their motivations and roots, the group said it will publish another batch of documents that allegedly belong to Mr. Surkov in the near future.

There were two separate documents that were sent to Mr. Surkov regarding plans to undermine Ukraine’s already fragile political situation. One plan, called “Crankshaft,” calls for holding nationwide protests over heating and utility prices starting in mid-November by cooperating with opposition parties. It lists the Opposition Bloc, many members of whom came from ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, among the opposition parties with whom to work.

The other alleged “action plan” foresees stoking a separatist movement in the westernmost region of Zakarpattia by backing Rusyn, or Ruthenian, groups.

The documents, according to the SBU’s personnel department head Oleksandr Tkachuk, are similar to instructions seized by the Ukrainian spy agency from organizers of a separatist movement in Zakarpattia, according to an Interfax Ukraine report.

“I say officially that the majority of the documents are confirmed factually, their authenticity … They are the same as instructions taken from individuals working for Russian special forces,” Mr. Tkachuk told 112.ua TV channel on October 25.

“He cited the plan for giving federal status to Zakarpattia region and a number of other documents, saying that they corresponded word-for-word with materials taken from Citizen G, the head of a radical Rusyn independence movement, who is currently in Russia,” Interfax reported.

The Ukrainian Weekly could not independently verify the authenticity of the documents.

Mr. Surkov has been a senior official since Mr. Putin assumed office in 1999 and is “believed to be the architect of the modern Russian political system,” according to Foreign Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

He has also described himself as “one of the authors” of Putinism, according to a separate analysis written by the Sydney Morning Herald on October 26.

“A sort of post-modern tragic, Surkov is one of the minds behind Russia’s so-called ‘sovereign democracy,’ in which a power elite seeks to control all the forces behind what looks like a democracy to the public – even the opposition,” the analysis stated.

Indeed, Mr. Surkov has served as first deputy chief of the presidential administration and as deputy prime minister.

“Surkov is believed to have played a key role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and is on both the United States and European Union’s sanctions lists for helping to orchestrate the land grab,” Foreign Policy wrote.

In defiance of EU travel restrictions, Mr. Surkov was part of the Russian delegation headed by Mr. Putin to the so-called Normandy peace talks on Ukraine held in Berlin on October 19. He also visited Greece in May when the sanctions were still in force.

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the Donbas war since spring 2014, according to the United Nations. Following this month’s peace talks in Berlin, the four sides – Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia – agreed to draft a roadmap for implementing an existing peace plan known as Minsk II. President Petro Poroshenko said it would be ready by the end of November.