Ex-Kremlin aide says Ukraine will never reclaim rebel east

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RU-RTR Russian Television

In this video grab provided by the RU-RTR Russian television, a woman stands next to her home, that was distroyed during cross fire between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, in Zaitseve, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists blamed each other for an outbreak of fighting in the country's rebel-held east on Tuesday. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

A former senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Ukraine will never be able to regain control over the separatist-controlled east.

Vladislav Surkov, who lost his job as Putin's adviser on Ukraine earlier this month, said in remarks published Wednesday that he stepped down because of a shift in the Kremlin course on the Ukrainian conflict. He didn't spell out specific reasons for his departure, saying only that it was due to a “change in context” on Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine his top priority. December's summit of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany failed to achieve a breakthrough, but the four leaders made a deal on a prisoner exchange and agreed on further moves toward settling the conflict in the east.

Observers in Moscow attributed Surkov's dismissal to the Kremlin's intention to take a less hawkish line on Ukraine, taking advantage of Zelenskiy's intention to move toward a settlement. Surkov was succeeded as the Kremlin's point man on Ukraine by another longtime Putin aide, Dmitry Kozak.

Asked Wednesday if the Russian policy on Ukraine has shifted, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged off Surkov's claim, saying that the Kremlin adheres to a 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany as the basis for political settlement.

The conflict in Ukraine'smostly Russian-speaking industrial east, called Donbass, erupted in April 2014 — weeks after Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Surkov hailed leaders of separatists in eastern Ukraine as “true warriors” and “real heroes.” He charged that Ukraine will never be able to restore its control over the rebel-controlled territories.

“Donbass doesn't deserve such humiliation,” he said. “Ukraine doesn't deserve such honor.”

Surkov's harsh statement contrasted sharply with the usual rhetoric from the Kremlin, which has urged Ukrainian authorities to engage in dialogue with the rebels and work out a political settlement that would offer broad autonomy to the rebel regions in line with the 2015 peace deal. Such autonomous status was seen by the Kremlin as a key lever to hold off Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO.

During their talks in December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany scheduled their next meeting for April in Berlin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned, however, that calling the next four-way summit will be contingent on observing previous agreements.

“We will only discuss the timing of the next summit only after the implementation of what we talked about in Paris, including normalization on the ground, clearing mines and political issues linked ... to codifying a special status” of Donbass, Lavrov said Wednesday.

He pointed out that during December's summit, the Ukrainian president backed off from a preliminary deal to disengage Ukrainian and separatist forces along the entire line of contact in the east.

“So our second demand is that we will only discuss the timing for the summit after we prepare and sign a draft final document, so that there is no derailing of preliminary agreements,” Lavrov said.