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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. Surkov didn’t specify the reasons for his departure, saying only that it was due to the “change in context” on Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy 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.

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 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 said 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, broke out 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 the leaders of the separatists as “true warriors” and “real heroes.” He said Ukraine would never regain control of rebel-controlled territories.

Zelenskiy on Wednesday issued a decree declaring Feb. 26 the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of Crimea, a symbolic action meant to underline Ukraine’s determination to get the Black Sea peninsula back. Ukraine and almost all of the world view Russia’s seizure of Crimea as illegal.

Print Headline: Russian: Ukraine won’t regain turf

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