Putin’s Inner Circle

Is This the Mastermind Behind Russia’s Crimea Grab?

Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's 'gray cardinal,' is at the top of the U.S. sanctions list. Is he pulling Putin's strings?

Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty

When, as a response to the Kremlin’s takeover of the Crimea, the White House issued its first list of Russian officials subject to visa restrictions and asset freezes, many in the Moscow elite wondered why Vladislav Surkov made it to the very top of the roster. Or, rather, why now?

For years Surkov was a shadow towering behind the presidents of Russia, including and especially Vladimir Putin. He was the ideologue, the strategist, the éminence grise. Russians, who are well-versed in the romance of “The Three Musketeers,” liked to call him “the gray cardinal,” after one of the masters of intrigue in the treacherous court of Louis XIII.

But even the mightiest courtiers fall out of favor, and since Putin’s reelection in 2012, Surkov’s influence had seemed to be waning – until the crisis in Ukraine. Over the last several months, according to U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, the White House has come to believe that Surkov is Putin’s key advisor on the Russian propaganda campaign against Kiev and the referendum in Crimea that lead to annexation on Tuesday.

Surkov, famous for his cynical sense of humor, joked about his position as number one on the White House hit parade: “I am the first, always and everywhere,” he wrote on his Twitter account. Surkov denied he had any property in the United States besides the socks that he forgot in a Chicago hotel. "My interests in US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock,” he tweeted, neatly blending rap, poetry and modern painting. “For them I don't need visa." He told the Russian news site MK, “I regard the decision of the Washington administration as a recognition of my services to Russia.”

The mirth is misleading, as are the soft features of the baby-faced Surkov. Among those who know him and work with him, the 49-year-old inspires fear. Putin and his protégé Dimitry Medvedev traded the presidency and premiership back and forth between them, but Surkov remained a constant presence. In 2010, a colleague of Surkov’s in the Russian elite finally went on the record about him. At the time, under President Medvedev, Surkov was head of administration in the Kremlin, a position roughly equivalent to the White House chief of staff. Ella Panfilova was the human rights adviser to the president. When Surkov’s name came up she raised her hands over her head as if putting on a crown. “Everybody in the Kremlin is afraid to open their mouths and say anything negative about Surkov,” she said. “Nobody should dare say that he is the real Czar of Russia.”

It was under Surkov’s reign that Russians defending human rights became a new generation of “dissidents,” isolated and persecuted like those of the 1970s and1980s during the Soviet era. Many of those trying to build a modern civil society blamed Surkov, as Putin’s ideological mentor, for rendering the human rights situation in Russia just about hopeless. His current supporters credit him with creating the entire system, economic and ideological, that dominates the Kremlin today. He also allegedly brought Russian oil and gas under control of the group known as “Ozero,” a tight circle of Putin cronies organized in the mid-1990s.

Surkov is probably best known by political analysts as the author of the ideology dubbed “sovereign democracy” or, sometimes, “managed democracy,” which offers some openings for public expressions of opinion, but remains subordinated to the strong guiding hand of the Russian president (especially if he’s Putin). Surkov inspired the creation of the ruling United Russia Party in its current form.

On the streets, Surkov’s influence and ideology was felt through the actions of the Nashi, a pro-Putin youth movement. In 2007 and 2008 its activists distributed fliers printed with pictures of Putin’s critics and the question, “Who else but an enemy?” At their annual retreat in 2010, a sort of scout camp, they created an installation mocking both Russian and foreign public figures. Among those targeted in effigy: Lyudmilla Alekseyevna, an 83-year-old former dissident and rights activist depicted in Nazi regalia. Yet, bad as that was, nobody in the Kremlin dared to criticize the Nashi. Indeed, by the beginning of Medvedev’s presidential term in 2008, several Nashi commissars had joined the government.

Across the board, Surkov’s hardline ideology prevailed. One of the new laws, for example, gave the FSB (the successor to the KGB security apparatus) the right to jail people for obstructing the agency's work, even if they have not committed a crime.

So, leading critics of the Kremlin’s politics welcomed news of the U.S. sanctions targeting Surkov and ten others as the only possible lever against the Putin government in the critical situation with Ukraine. Former Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovsky tells The Daily Beast that Russian officials, Surkov included, have property on the West and children studying in Western schools.

“I once met Surkov and his son on the plane from London, where I believe [the son] was a student,” says Belkovsky. ‘It would be a terrible drama for Surkov and most Kremlin officials to suddenly say goodbye to their life on the West.” Belkovsky says that the Russian system “went crazy,” and that President Putin “could change his decisions by the hour.” Once again, leading Kremlinologists are having a hard time reading Putin’s mind.

Sergei Markov, who was Surkov’s lieutenant during his dealings with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution a decade ago, says Surkov really isn’t so important anymore. “It must be poor Ukrainian intelligence that made the list for Washington,” Markov told The Daily Beast. “Surkov stopped playing a leading role in both the Kremlin’s life and here in Ukraine,” said Markov, who worked on the Crimea referendum himself. Surkov was removed from his official position as head of Kremlin administration in 2011. “Surkov dared to argue with Putin; and he wanted Medvedev for a second term – that was when he stopped being the key figure,” Markov explained.

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But things might not be so simple as that. Markov admitted that for a few months last year, Surkov was once again involved in consulting the now-deposed pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine. Markov – who is not on the first sanctions list – said that Surkov “made the same mistakes of working with stupid leaders and not with the Ukrainian population; as soon as we started working with people in Crimea, we realized that over 90 per cent wanted to be with Russia, and the same will happen in the Eastern part of Ukraine.”

What would the Kremlin’s answer be to sanctions against Putin’s main aides and ideologues? “It would be a mirror reaction,” said Markov. “We’ll declare sanctions against Obama’s aide, most probably it would Michael McFaul,” the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Markov told The Daily Beast.

Members of the Russian government who are loyal to Surkov say they are rather more proud than offended by U.S. sanctions against Putin’s people. For the last two years, they say, it has been a matter of pride for United Russia leaders close their bank accounts and divest themselves of property abroad. Now, they say, they’ll forsake the French Riviera for their own Black Sea resorts.

“Americans live in their own world treating Russia and its leaders as their colony, but this is not 1990s, this is a new powerful Russia they are trying to punish – we’ll be all proud to be on the American list for sanctions,” Duma member Robert Schlegel, also currently working in Crimea, said in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Schlegel was a former commissar in the Nashi movement, and Surkov personally introduced the young activist to Putin, opening wide the path to his Schlegel’s current position.. “U.S. sanctions are a joke for the architect of Russia’s power system as we’ve know it for the last 14 years,” says Schegel. “Put your pistol to his head, Surkov loves Russia so much he would die for it.”

But, perhaps to cover Surkov’s tracks, perhaps for other reasons, both Markov and Schlegel say that for the last month and a half the orders for their operations in Ukraine have come from somebody completely different from Surkov.

Is there really another gray cardinal working behind the scenes? Who would that be? "You would be very surprised, if I told you who he was,” says Markov. “But I won't, as that would mean sanctions against him."

You can almost hear Surkov’s cynical laugh in the background.