Agents of Control

Where do Russia’s new appointees in the occupied Eastern Ukrainian territories come from, and what do these appointments tell us about Russia’s designs with the occupied territories?

On June 9 the separatist leaders of Eastern Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia announced that they had appointed four Russian career officials to various positions. In the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), Vitaly Khotsenko will lead the territory’s self-styled government. Yevgeny Solntsev will be his deputy, while Alexander Kostomarov will be the first deputy head of the administration of the territory’s so-called president. In the Luhansk People’s Republic, Vladislav Kuznetsov was appointed “first deputy prime minister”.

These appointees and their new positions in the occupied territories showcase some of the peculiarities of multi-level public administration in Russia and suggest what to look at in the coming months as the territories, it appears, are annexed by Russia.

All four appointees embody one of the most important characteristics of the federal government’s personnel policy towards the regions: the appointment of technocratic outsiders with little or no personal links to the regions that they are supposed to manage. While Khotsenko was born in Ukraine (in Dnipro), he has little relationship to the region beyond this. It is likely that just as in Russian regions, the principal role of these Kremlin-appointed cadres is to represent the Kremlin, ensure that federal money flows to the right places, and keep their regions quiet, not to effectively govern them.

The fact that some of the members of the separatist “governments” who will likely oversee key policies are now Russian career officials appointed by the Kremlin also mirrors the Presidential Administration’s desire to establish an even firmer and more direct control over the appointment of key regional officials, which led to appropriate provisions in a public administration reform adopted last year. In the occupied Donbas, of course, these appointments still officially happen through the separatist leadership, but the officials can be directly linked to agencies or curators in Moscow.

Who are they?

Khotsenko is a relatively young career official (he was born in 1986) and fits the profile of a new generation regional official almost too perfectly. His father was head of the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Department in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (YaNAO), one of Russia’s top oil and gas regions, which likely provided considerable tailwind to the career of the young Vitaly. He is an alumnus of RANEPA, the president’s public administration academy – like many recently appointed governors – and a finalist of the Leaders of Russia contest, a public administration contest sponsored by the Presidential Administration. As early as in 2010 he joined the energy block of his region’s government, including as an energy advisor to deputy governor Vladimir Vladimirov, an oil and gas engineer with deep links to the sector who then took Khotsenko (along with other members of his team) with himself to the Stavropol Territory in 2013 when he was appointed governor there. Here the then 27-year-old Khotsenko was appointed minister of energy, industry and communication in the regional government. In 2019, Khotsenko got a position in Moscow, in the federal Ministry of Industry, coordinating regional industrial development programs – a textbook example of a career move for a cadre considered to be a future regional governor. As an associate of Vladimirov with years spent in the energy sector of the YaNAO and Stavropol, he very likely also has good relations with the Novatek gas company and its co-owner, Gennady Timchenko, a Putin ally.

His new deputy, Evgeny Solntsev, a civil engineer, has a less illustrious resume, which suggests that his role may be more technical and policy-focused, as opposed to Khotsenko who seems to be there to ensure that money and resources get to where the Kremlin wants them to be. Solntsev’s almost entire career is linked to Russian Railways, where he oversaw several important projects as the expansion of the railway network before the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the modernization of the Baykal-Amur Mainline (BAM), a key development project to ease transportation bottlenecks in the Far East. His last position was in the federal Ministry of Housing and Construction, where he worked with Irek Fayzullin, the minister, one of several prominent officials from Tatarstan who received federal appointments in recent years. Another one of them is deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin who is tipped to oversee reconstruction works in the occupied Donbas.

Kostomarov, a native of Chelyabinsk, is originally a United Russia cadre who rose through the ranks of the party’s institutions in his native region. Over the past decade, however, he has served in the governments of several Russian regions in various positions; most often, as Russian political jargon would call it, as “the curator of the domestic political block”. This essentially means a fixer. Indeed, Kostomarov’s deployments often coincided with a change of government in the regions concerned, that is, relatively uncertain times when the new boss had to establish his authority and settle potential conflicts with local elites. In 2012, he was appointed head of the administration of Igor Orlov, the then newly appointed governor of the Arkhangelsk Region (and, notably, a Donbas native). He spent less than a year in the job (Orlov, however, served two terms). After a couple of years spent in the government of the Moscow Region, in 2019 he was appointed vice-governor of the Lipetsk Region, and, in 2020, vice-governor of the Ulyanovsk Region. In both regions, Kostomarov oversaw a change in power from a long-standing governor with local roots to an outsider – in Ulyanovsk’s case, a communist – and helped them pass the test of an election.

It is unclear what led to his dismissal from Ulyanovsk in October 2021 – rumors say that he had growing disagreements with Alexey Russkikh, the governor – but it seems that the Kremlin values him as an official able to engineer transitions, and this is exactly what his role is likely to be in the DNR. His position as deputy head of the separatist “presidential administration” also mirrors the distribution of duties in the Kremlin where managing domestic politics is the task of Sergey Kirienko, the deputy head of Putin’s administration.

Lastly, Kuznetsov, who is going to occupy the position of deputy prime minister in the LNR’s “government”, has a resume that is, in some important ways, looks similar to Khotsenko’s, even though Kuznetsov is significantly older and had his professional beginnings in the messy 1990s as a company manager in Moscow and Bashkortostan. Both men are RANEPA alumni and members of the presidential cadre reserve. Like Khotsenko, Kuznetsov also has a background in industry: from the mid-2000s on, he spent a large part of his career at Sibur, a petrochemical giant part-owned by the same Leonid Mikhelson who chairs Novatek and is the business partner of Timchenko. Apart from this, he was also a member of the regional parliament of Bashkortostan – as regional business elites often are – and, in 2019-21, the deputy governor of the Kurgan Region, his first posting in the regional bureaucracy. In 2021, rumors suggested that his next posting would be in the Orenburg Region. Instead, he was appointed to LNR.

It is unclear what exactly Kuznetsov’s role will be in the occupied LNR, especially as the Kremlin, for now at least, seems to prioritize the DNR and thus we know less about who else Kuznetsov is supposed to work with; earlier press portraits have underlined his managerial experience, but it is equally likely that he is simply another representative of Mikhelson and Timchenko.

More of the same?

In the coming months, as the Kremlin seems to be preparing to annex the occupied territories, I expect to see more such appointments, as well as the newly appointed cadres bringing whole groups of people from their home regions or earlier work environments with them, as is customary for “varangian” (outsider) officials. It will also be worth paying close attention to Timchenko, Mihkelson and their companies expanding their presence in the occupied regions, provided their links to the newly appointed cadres.

Within Russia, presidential plenipotentiaries who oversee federal districts often play a more direct role in appointments and political decisions in regions considered to be problematic or unstable. In the occupied Ukrainian regions, Sergey Kirienko seems to be the closest approximation of such a “polpred”. A crucial question is who, if anyone, is supposed to pay for the reconstruction of the Donbas if Russia does annex the territories. There is some indication that the government wants Moscow, the only region with a cushioned budget, to take a more active part in this; however, as in most Russian regions, the funds will likely ultimately come out of the federal budget, in fact redirected from other regions. In general, it seems very questionable whether there is a desire to invest large sums in a region which Russia may lose in the matter of months or years and where active warfare is going to take place for the foreseeable future. It is not unlikely that the new officials are simply there to oversee looting and repression.

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