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Sergey Kiriyenko (right) and Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, at the opening of a humanitarian center in Donetsk. May 5, 2022.

The Viceroy How Sergey Kiriyenko became Putin’s point man in the Donbas and plans to shape Russia’s ‘post-war image’

Source: Meduza
Sergey Kiriyenko (right) and Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, at the opening of a humanitarian center in Donetsk. May 5, 2022.
Sergey Kiriyenko (right) and Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, at the opening of a humanitarian center in Donetsk. May 5, 2022.
Denis Pushilin’s Press Service

A lot has changed for Sergey Kiriyenko since Russia began its all-out war against Ukraine. Already the Kremlin’s domestic policy czar, Kiriyenko has now managed to get closer to President Vladimir Putin and expand the scope of his powers. In addition to acting as the Kremlin’s point man in the Donbas and other Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, sources tell Meduza that Kiriyenko’s subordinates have also been tasked with developing a “post-war image” for Russia. One idea in the mix is to present Russia as a “continent of freedom” for right-wing conservatives — one that preserves the spirit of “old Europe.” As it happens, Kiriyenko wouldn’t be averse to leading this “continent” himself.

The Donbas project

In the early days of the war, confusion reigned in the domestic policy bloc of the Putin administration. At the time, a Meduza’s source inside the administration itself and two sources close to it admitted that they were uncertain about their futures. They believed that in these new circumstances, the Russian authorities would need “completely different people” to run point on politics — namely, those close to the security apparatus. 

Around the same time, Vladimir Putin’s entourage had begun to discuss canceling or at least postponing Russia’s September 2022 gubernatorial elections. According to Meduza’s sources, this decision was lobbied by the National Security Council and the FSB. Security officials worried that by fall, Russians would be feeling the pinch of economic sanctions — and that they might vent their frustrations at the polls.

For domestic policy czar Sergey Kiriyenko, this put a significant portion of his team’s work in jeopardy. Indeed, the appointment and election of governors is one of their main tasks. (According to the two sources close to the Putin administration, pre-election funding was frozen after the start of the war.) 

“If there won’t be any [gubernatorial] elections, then what good is the [Kremlin’s] political bloc in its current form? Or its leader in the form of the first deputy?” Meduza’s source inside the Kremlin wondered at the time, referring to Kiriyenko and his subordinates. (Reportedly, more than 200 people work in the Putin administration’s political bloc. How many of them could have been laid off remains unknown.)

That said, three sources told Meduza that in late April, Kiriyenko offered his team of government officials and political strategists some reassurance. The September vote, Kiriyenko said, could most likely be “saved” — along with their paychecks. 

Sources close to the Kremlin underscored that to their knowledge, Kiriyenko personally persuaded Putin not to call off the elections: “If the elections are canceled, that means something’s going wrong in the country, that the authorities are afraid of their results.” As a result, the September gubernatorial elections are set to go ahead as planned.

Having “saved” the elections, Kiriyenko received a new assignment: Putin’s first deputy chief of staff was made the Kremlin’s new point man in the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in the Donbas and other Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine. 

Meduza’s two sources close to the Putin administration said that this appointment was the result of a personal meeting between Kiriyenko and Putin, during which Kiriyenko presented his vision for the “special military operation” (the Kremlin’s pseudonym for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine) — and pitched ideas about how the Russian authorities should handle the newly-occupied territories: “Their residents will need to see that Russia hasn’t come temporarily and is going to be [there].”

According to one Meduza source, Kiriyenko said exactly what Putin wanted to hear: “That Russia and its leadership has a special mission [and] that everything being done [in Ukraine] is right.” 

“Kiriyenko duly understood how to fit himself into the presidential agenda,” another source said. “Putin is very involved in the war, in the situation in the Donbas, plus he’s interested in foreign policy. He cares little about domestic affairs, which he believes are all in order. In order to maintain constant contact with the president, you have to find a place for yourself on this agenda. Kiriyenko found one.” 

In early May, Kiriyenko paid his first visit to a Russian-occupied area of Ukraine, taking part in the unveiling of a monument to “Granny Anya” in Mariupol. On June 7, he visited a humanitarian aid center opened by the Russian ruling party, United Russia, in the occupied Kherson region.

The unveiling of the monument to “Granny Anya” in Mariupol
DNR information ministry

That same day, Kiriyenko also traveled to the occupied city of Melitopol. Immediately afterwards, Russia’s local proxy, “acting mayor” Halyna Danylchenko, announced the start of preparations for a referendum on joining Russia. 

According to Meduza’s sources, Moscow is planning to hold sham referendums as a step towards annexing the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine. Allegedly, these territories will then be merged into a new federal district. The Kremlin has yet to set a date for these referendums, as the timing will hinge on the situation at the front. But three sources close to the Putin administration said that they could take place in mid-July or on September 11 (the date set for Russia’s regional and gubernatorial elections). 

“Referendums require a sustained presence of Russian troops in every settlement. This isn’t in place yet and [to achieve] this, among other things, there’s an ongoing ‘mobilization’ of retired contract soldiers and army reserves, who they are trying to entice with money,” one Meduza source said. 

Kiriyenko also has another “Donbas project” on his plate — Russian “patronage” over various Ukrainian towns and cities (Moscow, for example, announced its patronage over Donetsk and Luhansk on May 23, while St. Petersburg has adopted razed Mariupol as a “sister city”). According to two Meduza sources, this “patronage” system will involve providing financial assistance for the restoration of occupied Ukrainian cities, as well as the appointment of regional- and municipal-level Russian officials to relevant positions in the Donbas. Finalists from the Leaders of Russia competition — Kiriyenko’s pet project — may also be sent to work in the region. 

These measures are supposed to partially resolve alleged personnel problems: after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Meduza’s sources in the Kremlin said that they didn’t know where to find qualified people to work in the Donbas. 

Meduza was unable to reach Sergey Kiriyenko for comment prior to publication. 

The ‘Continent of Freedom’

According to Meduza’s sources, the Kremlin’s directorate for state Council affairs (which is part of the domestic policy bloc) has also been tasked with developing “Russia’s post-war image.” 

In fact, according to an informed source, the Kremlin is asking academics and political scientists for input in an attempt to come up with two “images of Russia” — one “for export” (i.e., for foreign audiences and Russian elites) and another one that would resonate with a domestic audience (i.e., the masses). 

The Social Research Expert Institute (EISI), a think tank with Kremlin ties, is actively involved in this brainstorming. In fact, according to Meduza’s sources close to the Putin administration, it was the EISI that suggested the “export version” of Russia’s image. According to this concept, Russia should present itself as a “continent of freedom” for right-wing people from around the world — as in “Silvio Berlusconi or Viktor Orbán.”

Apparently, Kremlin officials do not see this as contradictory to their rhetoric about “denazifying” Ukraine (the purported goal of Moscow’s full-scale invasion): “[For Russia], a right-wing person is someone traditionalistic and conservative, not a follower of Nazism.” The Social Research Expert Institute did not respond to Meduza’s questions. 

“At first the emphasis [in developing an international image] was placed on states with a ‘special path’ — Venezuela, India. These are non-European countries, whose leaders don’t want to have anything in common with Europe and aren’t shy about [their] dictatorial ambitions. But this is incomprehensible to Putin and his entourage of security officials — they want to see Russia as ‘true, right-wing, traditional Europe’ without pride parades, or the influence of minorities and the United States,” said a source familiar with these discussions. The source also added that Kiriyenko had a clearer concept of this “special path” — one of a state that “can violate the generally accepted rules.”

So far, the Kremlin’s concept for “domestic use” is that “Russia is returning lands, whose inhabitants want to be spiritually Russian.” One source described it as “somewhat similar to a USSR 2.0.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s questions prior to publication.

* * *

Having previously shown little interest in public events, Sergey Kiriyenko has begun making increasingly frequent public appearances in recent months. In addition to giving a speech at the unveiling of the “Granny Anya” monument in Mariupol, he also spoke at forums for schoolchildren and students, and wrapped up the Leaders of Russia competition. During a visit to Kherson, he even donned a military uniform.

Meduza’s two sources close to the Putin administration see this as a sign of Kiriyenko’s desire to become Putin’s successor. “He’s constantly in the public eye and says what the president likes [to hear],” one source underscored. 

That said, this particular source considers Kiriyenko’s prospects pretty hazy: “He has a good relationship with the president, but no relationships with big business and influential government officials. They don’t see him [as Putin’s successor].”

Sergey Kiriyenko speaking at an educational conference organized by Russia’s Znanie (Knowledge) Society. May 19, 2022.
Sergey Fadeichev / TASS

However, Meduza’s others sources are confident that this problem can be solved. One source close to the government noted that Kiriyenko’s main trump card is his well-established network of personnel and ability to quickly form his own management team. (The Kremlin’s domestic policy bloc has been involved in appointing most of Russia’s governors, and Kiriyenko also has personnel reserves at Rosatom, which he led from 2005 to 2016.) 

Speaking to Meduza, one former federal official even referred to Kiriyenko as the “Viceroy of the Donbas,” who could “keep moving up through the ranks.” 


‘Almost nobody is happy with Putin’ Meduza’s sources say a new wave of pessimism in the Kremlin has Russia’s hawks demanding more brutality in Ukraine while others scout for presidential successors


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Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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