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Vladislav Surkov, ex-adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow, Russia.
Vladislav Surkov, ex-adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow, Russia.Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File 2013/Pool Sputnik Kremlin via AP

MOSCOW — A former senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Ukraine will never be able to regain control over the country’s separatist-controlled east, where Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces have fought for almost six years.

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’s course, saying only that it was due to the “change in context” on Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine his top priority. A December summit of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany didn’t produce a breakthrough, but the four leaders agreed on prisoner exchanges and additional steps toward ending the fighting.

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Observers in Moscow attributed Surkov’s dismissal to the Kremlin’s intention to take a less hawkish line on Ukraine, taking advantage of Zelensky’s desire for an agreement. Another longtime Putin aide, Dmitry Kozak, took over as the Kremlin’s point man on Ukraine.

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.

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

Surkov hailed separatists leaders as “true warriors” and “real heroes.” He said Ukraine wouldn’t regain control of rebel-controlled territories.

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

Zelensky on Wednesday issued a decree declaring Feb. 26 the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of Crimea, a symbolic action to underline Ukraine’s determination to regain the Black Sea peninsula. Ukraine and most of the world view Russia’s seizure of Crimea as illegal.

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Kremlin spokesman Peskov dismissed the Ukrainian president’s declaration.

“We categorically disagree with that formulation and believe that it doesn’t conform to the real situation,” Peskov said.

Representatives of Ukraine, the separatists, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met Wednesday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk to name new areas in the east for disengagement of forces, but failed to reach agreement.

Before the December summit in Paris, Ukraine and the rebels pulled back troops and weapons in three areas as confidence-building measures. The leaders then agreed to pull back troops in three more sectors of the front line to help observe a lasting truce.

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

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that calling the next four-way summit would be contingent on observing previous agreements, including putting a special status for Donbass into Ukrainian law.

Lavrov also noted the need to firmly seal the summit document ahead of the meeting, pointing at Zelensky walking back from a preliminary deal agreed to by aides during December’s summit.