In the parlance of our times, Vladislav Surkov is Russia’s very real answer to Frank Underwood – a behind the scenes player, wielding enormous influence over the top echelons of a political system. But to many Russians, he is the “Gray Cardinal;” the 21st century’s equivalent to France’s Cardinal Richelieu. This legendary figure in Russian political circles has held various roles in the Kremlin over the last two decades and has certainly left his mark, being credited with formulating “Sovereign Democracy” to manage Russias political system, as well as coordinating his country’s relationship with Ukraine since 2013.
Despite this reputation (or perhaps because of it) Surkov has managed to maintain a low public profile. When trying to find news articles concerning the man who has variously been described as a “puppet master” and the “hidden author of Putinism,” they are remarkably scarce. When such stories do surface, they usually only mention this shadowy figure in passing, perhaps because of the tendency both within and without Russia to fixate on Vladimir Putin when thinking of Kremlin policies. Despite this, Russia’s political system is more than a one man band.
Some could pass this enigmatic figure off as simply an eccentric. Surkov certainly courts such an image on Twitter (@SurkovRussia), with his account photo displaying him casually smoking a cigarette as if playing up to the Hollywood stereotype of a Russian “bad guy” and his account’s biography referring to his shadowy reputation. To look at the mere 66 accounts he follows, they include the usual Kremlin accounts, but also those of Presidents Obama and Poroshenko, as well as formerly incarcerated oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Also followed are parody accounts of President Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, and fan accounts for Tupac, Banksy and Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister.
Those who have ventured into his office have reported that he keeps a photo of Tupac on his desk – next to one of President Putin – as well as portraits of Obama and Che Guevara in his study.
Despite his quirks, Surkov clearly has an astute political mind, inspired by the avant garde and American counterculture, supposedly claiming this rebellious anger and applying it to today’s Russia. When he learned that he would be sanctioned by the U.S., he stated that “the only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work.” Those who have ventured into his office have reported that he keeps a photo of Tupac on his desk – next to one of President Putin – as well as portraits of Obama and Che Guevara in his study. He is even reputed to have written songs for a Russian gothic rock band. This is not to mention his alleged writings, including the satirical bestseller, Almost Zero, which he wrote under a pseudonym and reputedly reviewed less than favorably under another.
Surkov the Survivor
Having made his way through the turbulent private sector of 1990s Russia, Surkov entered the Kremlin in 1999 during the twilight days of the Yeltsin presidency. Initially starting out as a Deputy Chief of Staff to the President, this role expanded to also being an aide to the President during Putin’s first administration. Surkov even stayed on in his position when Dmitri Medvedev became President in 2008 and Putin returned to the role of Prime Minister.
Throughout this period, the Gray Cardinal made many enemies, but ones who knew better than to speak out and certainly were not powerful enough to do so. By 2011, however, Russia’s third richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, met with Putin and Medvedev to demand Surkov be sacked. While he survived this latest turf war, it put Surkov on the back foot when unprecedented protests later in the year took place, leading Medvedev to reassign him to the position of Deputy Prime Minister – a demotion in many peoples’ eyes. By 2013, Surkov was on the back foot again; with various theories circling regarding the real reason for his departure, the official line was that he resigned in May due to investigations into his affairs by the Kremlin’s Investigative Committee.
Despite this apparent fall from grace, only a few months later Putin brought Surkov in from the cold as his personal advisor on the breakaway regions of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, as well as Ukraine, which is the position he holds to this day. It has been suggested that this move by Putin was to balance out his increasingly hawkish and conservative entourage, which thought they had bested Surkov only months earlier.
The Creation of a Managed Democracy
When Surkov gave a talk at the London School of Economics in late 2014, he began by (uncharacteristically) boldly stating that “I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system.” Bold, but not a baseless claim. One of his earliest notable acts was helping to create the youth movement of Putin’s United Russia party, Nashi, which has since developed quite substantial influence in Russia, and which has been less than generously described as Putin’s answer to the Hitler Youth.
But the Gray Cardinal is most revered domestically for his creation of the theory of “Sovereign Democracy.” First explicated in 2006, the underlying belief is a reiteration of the principles of the Treaty of Westphalia, with Surkov stating to the Western press that Russia is democratic and that this must be accepted. It was not so much a theory as it was a message – Russia’s political elite will manage its democracy as it sees fit and shall not be interfered with. In his view, all democracies are managed according to their political mores and Russia is no different in this respect – democracy is a relative concept. Russian culture is consequently at the core of policy, everything else is just packaged to suit the political system of the day. To many of Russia’s elite who have lived through so much political transition over the last 25 years, “everything is PR.”
Surkov would lend economic or political support to one party or interest group, before undermining them through aiding another party or group which opposes them.
In practice, this means a leviathan leader who can rule without an organized opposition. Of course, to maintain the “Democracy” in “Sovereign Democracy,” opposition must exist, but it is tightly controlled. “The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.” As such, Surkov would lend economic or political support to one party or interest group, before undermining them through aiding another party or group which opposes them. As one journalist put it, “it’s a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused; a ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
Obviously, the liberating tool of the internet has posed a problem for “Sovereign Democracy” as ideas flow freely throughout most of the world. As Surkov helped shape the Kremlin’s media strategy, being heavily involved in Russia’s modernization during the Medvedev presidency, it is not surprising that his hand is clearly evident in the Kremlin’s response to the internet. As the New York Times recently explored, an intricately complex disinformation campaign is under way from a Kremlin-backed internet “troll farm” which is reported to be thousands-strong. “By working every day to spread Kremlin propaganda, the paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction.” As the Guardian has written, “the tactic is to create as many competing narratives as possible…so the truth can be obscured.” With just over 50% of Russians on the internet, the first impressions many Russians will receive when they enter the World Wide Web will be of a confused mass of narrative with no discernible truth; even the internet is no safe haven for opposition groups any more. Surkov’s name was not mentioned in the article, but the tell-tale signs of his work are evident.
The Ukraine Crisis and “Non-Linear War”
The 2015 report from murdered opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, into the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine was clear that there was “no doubt” that Surkov plays a key role in the Kremlin’s directing of the two breakaway People’s Republics within Ukraine. Accusations were also made against Surkov for directly ordering in snipers during the Euromaidan protests in 2013. Surkov was even at the top of the U.S. sanctions list last year in response to his role in Crimea’s annexation. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is an embodiment of Surkov’s ideas and his theory of “Sovereign Democracy.”
Just a few days before the annexation of Crimea, Nathan Dubovitsky (Surkov’s supposed pen name) published a short story following another destructive world war. In the book’s ensuing power struggle, it is clarified that war in this dystopian future is not simply one coalition against another; instead, multiple coalitions are pitted against each other, with sides constantly changing as war develops. This is what Dubovitsky/Surkov termed “Non-Linear War.” One is never certain what the enemy is up to or who the enemy is exactly. Furthermore, war is not necessarily about military success, but creating a constant state of destabilized perception to manage and control events. Sound familiar? If the enemy have no idea who or what they are fighting, they cannot effectively respond to it, just as opposition groups are neutralized within Russia.
Much like within Russia, the Kremlin is using “weaponized relativism,” where the truth is open to interpretation.
Putin insists that there are no Russian troops in Crimea and then Russian troops annex it. The Ukrainian Government and the Russian-backed rebels reach a ceasefire agreement and it quickly falls apart. Putin claims that only a madman would think Russia is a threat to NATO and Russian bombers consistently test NATO air defenses. A multitude of theories and questions arise over issues including the amount of control the Kremlin has over the Ukrainian rebels, what its plans for the Baltic States are and what role it had in the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Much like within Russia, what the Kremlin is using (to borrow a phrase from an article on domestic Russia) is “weaponized relativism,” where the truth is open to interpretation.
Challenging the Puppet Master
Clausewitz held that the first and foremost act of judgement a commander or statesman has to make when preparing for a conflict is to establish what sort of war is to be fought (and not mistaking it for something it is not). Through Surkov’s conception of “Sovereign Democracy” and its extension – “Non-Linear War” – the Kremlin has made both Ukraine and the West unable to fully grasp what sort of war is being fought in Ukraine and cannot effectively respond to it as a result. Just like Russia’s opposition movements, they are neutralized through the confusion and uncertainty of “weaponized relativism.”
The confusion Surkov and the Kremlin create is a means to an end and not an end in itself. What is therefore crucial to states opposed to Russia over its actions in Ukraine is to bridge the evident intelligence gap which exists so that a comprehensive understanding of what Russia actually wants in Ukraine is obtained. Various narratives – unsurprisingly – have arisen to understand Russia’s actions, such as Putin acting through a Cold War mentality, Russia acting rationally according to realist logic or even that Russia is attempting to reclaim the area once known as Novorossiya. While there may be some truth in one or more of these theories, competing narratives over what Russia’s game in Ukraine actually is halts a robust response from the international community. Until the Kremlin is truly understood in this respect, it will continue to run amok in Eastern Ukraine.
Questions have arisen as to whether Surkov is as powerful as he once was, with one prominent former colleague going on record to say he is no longer relevant. Perhaps Surkov put him up to it. Then again, perhaps it is true. In any case, the Kremlin still marches to the tune of the system he created, and in the artful deception of Surkov’s games, it is almost impossible to tell what his standing is in the Kremlin. If only the West had The Cardinal of the Kremlin of Tom Clancy’s creation who could provide reliable intelligence on the top echelons of the Kremlin instead of having to deal with the smoke and mirrors of the Gray Cardinal.
[Photo: Flickr Commons]