By Paul Goble
One of the darkest parts of the murky history of Moscow’s “hybrid” war in Ukraine is the role of Russian “curators”—the Russian advisors who direct the activities of the military and civilian structures in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR, LPR) on the basis of orders they receive directly from the Kremlin. Most of the time, these people operate in the background and even use false names in order to hide who they are and what they are doing. But a recent incident of panic in pro-Moscow militia units forced some of them to blow their cover as it were, inviting closer attention to the types of roles played by Moscow operatives that the Western media rarely discuss.
A week ago (July 7), Ukrainian monitors noted the spread of “mass panic” among soldiers of the first army corps (Donetsk) of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (Apostrophe.com.ua, July 7). In order that this panic not lead to disorder in frontline units and possibly even the collapse of the pro-Moscow structures there, “Russian curators” were dispatched to sort things out, sending some of those who were spreading panic to military jails and reassigning others to units in the rear (Facebook.com/dmitry.tymchuk, July 7; Charter97, July 8).
In reporting on this incident, Dmitry Tymchuk, the coordinator of the Information Resistance Group, commented that “the Russian curator of ‘the Republican Guard’ of the DPR, a colonel of the armed forces of the Russian Federation who operates under the code name ‘Berkut,’ promised to personally get involved in the case and supervise the course of ‘the investigation.’ ” But even Tymchuk, who is one of the closest observers of what Russia is doing in Donbas rarely references these “curators” (Facebook.com/dmitry.tymchuk, July 7). Consequently, it is worth asking who and what they are.
The “curator” system has its roots in the early Soviet period, when Moscow routinely dispatched special plenipotentiary representatives to various places to sort out problems, promote Moscow’s policies, and impose control over local and regional officials. Vladimir Putin’s establishment of the presidential plenipotentiaries over the federal districts a decade ago is one heir of that tradition. The curators in Donbas are another, where they are apparently being used the same way they have been in other frozen conflicts across the former Soviet space.
The curators for the DPR and LPR are organized in a pyramid. At the top is Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s prime troubleshooter, who oversees two curator offices in Moscow—one for the DPR and a second for the LPR—consisting of public relations specialists, military experts, economists and others. The next level, which appears to include far more people, are the “republic” curators who operate with staffs in the capitals of the two breakaway republics, communicating to officials there what the Kremlin wants and imposing Moscow’s will as much as possible. And the final level, by far the largest, includes individuals from the Russian Federation who are attached to military units, political organizations, newspapers and radio stations, as well as other distinct institutions. These people carry out the orders they have received from above (Ukrpolitic.com, November 15, 2015).