A Ukrainian MP claims that Volodymyr Zelensky met Vladislav Surkov in Oman. Stephen Komarnyckyj looks at the evidence.
A strange meeting took place on the 6 January 2019 in Muscat, the capital of Oman.
Photographs of it show Oman’s Foreign Minister staring bewildered into space. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is sitting tensely opposite him with his hands clasped. They say that a picture can speak a thousand words but this said only one: staged.
The value of trade between Oman and Ukraine annually is $80 million – a microscopic proportion of Ukraine’s international commerce. Oman has no embassy in Ukraine and Ukraine has no embassy in Oman. Ukraine is currently being attacked by Russia while its northern neighbour Belarus is being annexed by the Russian Vladimir Putin.
Oman, realistically, is only slightly more important to Zelensky than Narnia. So why was he there?
Zelensky was reportedly in West Ukraine on 4 January. The next day, the news site Strana published photos of him at the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Oman. It reported his sojourn as a luxurious vacation concealed from the Ukrainian public. It was only then that the Ukrainian President’s office claimed that Zelensky was on an official visit.
Reports in the Ukrainian media suggest that Strana is curated by Vladislav Surkov. How did it know where Zelensky was?
The official photographs of the meeting with Oman’s Foreign Minister show that Zelensky’s aide, Andrii Yermak, was also present. Yermak conducts back door diplomacy for Zelensky, and has met both Vladislav Surkov and Rudi Giuliani on behalf of his boss.
There is evidence that he and Zelensky were meeting a Russian delegation in Oman on 8 January. A private plane with the tail number 9H-VJN flew from Moscow’s Vnukovo to Seeb airport near Muscat on 7 January.
On the same day, the private jet of Viktor Medvedchuk, Russia’s key agent in Ukraine, flew to Seeb. Until 2019 he was, at Putin’s insistence, one of Ukraine’s representatives in the negotiations over the occupied Donbas. The two fake republics Russia set up in the occupied area in 2014 are curated by Surkov.
On 8 January, the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane flying from Tehran to Kyiv shortly after take-off at approximately 4.45am Eastern European Time (EET).
Zelensky’s aide, Yermak, claimed that the Ukrainian President flew back home as soon as possible but was delayed due to the restrictions on the air corridor above Iran after the plane’s destruction.
However, Zelensky did not return to Kyiv until 2.37am EET on the following day. He used the same private charter plane, 9H-JVN, which had flown from Moscow to Seeb.
However, as Ukrainian journalist Mykola Tkach has pointed out, Medvedchuk’s plane had departed from Seeb nine hours before Zelensky’s aircraft and had flown over Iran. The President could have flown back to Kyiv sooner: the plane he used was sitting at Seeb airport ready to fly. Did he delay his return to meet with whoever had flown from Moscow to Seeb? Intriguingly, Medvedchuk’s plane had returned to Kyiv via Moscow. Who was on board?
The claim that Zelensky had been on a state visit to Oman quickly unravelled. On 17 January, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko was unable to provide an official programme for the visit when questioned in Parliament. On the same day, Anna Skorokhod, a Ukrainian MP, claimed that sources in his office had told her that the Ukrainian President met with Surkov in Oman.
Skorokhod has since repeated her allegation to Byline Times and added that the aide, Yermak, was also at the meeting with Surkov and a further meeting was originally planned for 24 January. However, it is unclear who was to attend this subsequent encounter.
Putin and Zelensky both participated in the World Holocaust Forum on that day. However, no meeting appears to have taken place, perhaps because of the leaks and speculation around the mysterious visit to Oman.
So who did Zelensky meet in Seeb and why?
Oman was chosen precisely because there would be no need to involve a local ambassador. Even if Surkov was not present, the hypothetical delegation from Moscow would – in all probability – have been acting under his authority. The talks would have covered the future of the occupied Donbas. They may have been used to prepare an agreement for Putin and Zelensky to finalise in Israel.
The Ukrainian President is trying to satisfy a Ukrainian public who won’t accept any surrender of territory. His oligarchic sponsors yearn for a reset with Russia which would benefit their businesses. However, Zelensky is unlikely to be able to give Putin all he wants and Putin ultimately wants all of Ukraine.
The meeting was probably an attempt to agree on some measures to give the impression of movement in a deadlocked negotiation. The two sides may have discussed more prisoner exchanges or a further ceasefire. But the conflict will continue unless Russia decides to withdraw its forces.