Putin Reshuffles the Deck: Personnel swaps anticipate revamped Russian policy towards Ukraine and the West

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July 29, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

On July 18th, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the resignation of Russia’s extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zubarov. Coincidentally or not, this decree was signed on the same day that a number of personnel changes were decreed at the highest echelons of power in Russia. 

For 7 years, Zubarov was Russia’s appointed ambassador to Ukraine. Many viewed his appointment as a sinecure for Zubarov and another one of Russia’s larger mistakes in policy towards Ukraine. Ukraine has always occupied a central place in Moscow’s foreign policy in the post-Soviet space. It is thus essential that Russia’s diplomatic mission is headed by a respected politician or highly professional diplomat. But Zubarov did not meet any of these criteria. Not only was he one of the most unpopular ministers in Russia (during his time as Minister of Health), but he has also been accused of using his official position in the interests of his own business. 

Critics turned out to be right: Zubarov had never shown himself worthy of the post of ambassador. The Russian Embassy passively watched as power in Ukraine came into the hands of Russophobes prepared by the West and supported by US and EU state structures and NGO’s. I’ve had the opportunity to closely interact with the representatives of Russian organizations in these years, and all of them have noted Ambassador Zurabov’s idleness in contrast to the high activity of Western diplomatic missions and public organizations. 

But for the sake of fairness, it should be acknowledged that the problem is not only Zubarov the individual. The practice of appointing officials as ambassadors who fail to do their job dates back to Soviet times. For example, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus is the ex-governor of the Altai region, Surikov. Ukraine should have been made an exception since the country is so important to Russia’s interests.

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The events on the Euromaidan and the coming to power of a Russophobic bloc of oligarchs and neo-Nazis are largely Russia itself’s fault. The country’s foreign policy is experiencing an acute deficit of strategic thinking and a second distinguishing feature is its inability and unwillingness to work with other elites and the wider population. The style of both the USSR and modern Russia’s foreign policy is entirely dependent on the ruling establishment. It was for these reasons that ex-minister and oligarch Zurabov seemed to be a suitable candidate, since he easily found a common language with the former president and oligarch Yanukovych and then the new acting president and oligarch Poroshenko. 

Perhaps leading Ukrainian political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky was right when he evaluated Zurabov’s resignation as the end of “informal” relations between Moscow and Kiev. In this case, “informality” meant a tendency to compromise. Despite the Russian elite’s negative perception of Porsohenko, Zurabov was still “prone to negotiate.” According to one Russian publication, at the beginning of this year Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko were often in contact with up to weekly telephone conversations. However, this all came to naught. This means that “Poroshenko’s friend” Zurabov is no longer needed by Russia as its ambassador in Kiev.

If we believe Pogrebinsky, then the “almost trustworthy” relations between Moscow and Kiev have come to an end. This will be “uncomfortable” for Poroshenko. Pogrebinsky posited such an opinion in an interview when it still wasn’t known who would replace Zurabov. Information about Zurabov’s successor appeared only a little later.

As it turns out, Mikhail Babich, a young (born in 1969) ex-KGB-FSB figure, will become the new ambassador. His past includes years of military service and participation in combat. In short, he is the complete antithesis of Zurabov and perhaps the single most uncomfortable partner for Poroshenko as far as one can imagine. 

But let’s return to an earlier point. The decree on Zurabov’s resignation came on the same day as personnel changes in Russia, the distinguishing future of which is the promotion of ex-KGB-FSB figures personally linked to President Putin to high positions in the governing system (as regional governors, customs service head, etc.). Mikhail Babich meets all of these requirements. Add to this that he is young and energetic, which is an important and pleasant “bonus” to his service character.

The personnel reshuffles in Russia and the change of ambassador to Ukraine can hardly be called a coincidence. If this is true, then we will soon see other personnel-related decisions. Their meaning lies in the updating of the political class and cleansing the managerial layer in Russia. All of this is being done, I posit, in anticipation of more harshened policies from the West. Hence the need to propose new principles and style for Russian policy towards Ukraine in the direction of greater activity and stiffness. All of this will indeed be uncomfortable for President Poroshenko. 

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