May 21, 2021 | Policy Brief

Kyiv Ramps Up Campaign Against Putin’s Man in Ukraine

May 21, 2021 | Policy Brief

Kyiv Ramps Up Campaign Against Putin’s Man in Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities last week charged Kremlin-connected oligarch and pro-Russia opposition lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk with high treason. The move represents a major escalation of Kyiv’s recent campaign against Medvedchuk and Russia’s influence in Ukraine.

On May 11, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office unveiled charges against Medvedchuk and his close ally and fellow pro-Russia lawmaker Taras Kozak. They stand accused of colluding with Russia to extract energy resources from Russian-occupied Crimea, providing Russia with classified military secrets in 2020, and conspiring to create a subversive political “influence network.” While Ukrainian authorities believe Kozak is somewhere in Russia, Medvedchuk appeared for questioning and was later remanded to 24-hour house arrest pending trial, set for July 9.

A prominent figure in Ukrainian politics for over two decades, Medvedchuk has long aided Moscow’s efforts to keep Ukraine within Russia’s orbit. He is close friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter, and frequently meets with Putin and other Russian officials. The oligarch played central roles in Moscow’s efforts to thwart Ukraine’s 2004 and 2014 revolutions, earning him U.S. sanctions. After initiating the Donbas war in 2014, the Kremlin insisted Medvedchuk represent Kyiv in negotiations, where he advanced Russian interests.

Since 2014, Medvedchuk and his pro-Russia allies have strengthened their position in Ukraine, with Russian help. Companies allegedly controlled by Medvedchuk acquired Rosneft’s gas station network in Ukraine and the Russian-owned Samara-Western Direction oil pipeline, leading to increased Ukrainian reliance on Russian fuel. Medvedchuk-linked importers gained market share thanks to exclusive rights from Rosneft. Beginning in 2018, Medvedchuk, through Kozak and likely using Russian-supplied funds, allegedly began acquiring popular Ukrainian TV channels subsequently used to propagandize on Russia’s behalf, helping his pro-Russia party finish second in 2019 parliamentary elections.

Under former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian authorities often presented Medvedchuk as politically untouchable thanks to his role as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow. That changed under President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political neophyte elected in spring 2019. Initially, Zelenskiy retreated from promises to investigate Medvedchuk’s connections to Moscow, likely believing that targeting the oligarch would scuttle campaign promises to end the Donbas war.

Yet as negotiations failed, Zelenskiy’s stance on Russia has hardened. In early February, Kyiv sanctioned Kozak and shuttered three pro-Russia TV channels allegedly controlled by Medvedchuk through Kozak. Later that month, Kyiv nationalized the Ukrainian section of the Samara-Western Direction pipeline and sanctioned Medvedchuk and various related entities and individuals, including his wife and Kozak’s wife, who allegedly hold their husbands’ money. In March, authorities interrogated Medvedchuk, shuttered his gas stations, and searched the offices of his anti-EU NGO, Ukrainian Choice, accusing three members of high treason for allegedly helping organize Crimea’s 2014 sham referendum.

Medvedchuk’s prosecution will test Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt judiciary. Ukraine has never convicted any figure of his stature before. Washington and its allies should push Kyiv to ensure a fair trial, which will be imperative to achieve justice while countering the Kremlin’s narrative of a Western-backed “witch hunt.” At the same time, the West should press Zelenskiy to keep his promise that Medvedchuk’s prosecution “is just the beginning” of reforms to counter corruption and oligarchs.

Washington and its allies should support Zelenskiy’s campaign by designating Kozak and other Medvedchuk associates. Notably, their wives own a Russian refinery that reportedly earned an estimated $150 million in exports to the United States in 2020.

Finally, Ukraine and its Western partners should prepare for potential Russian retaliation. While meeting with Russia’s Security Council last week, Putin decried Kyiv’s attempts to “cleanse” Ukraine’s political space of Russia-friendly forces, saying Russia “must respond promptly” to safeguard its national security. February’s sanctions may have helped motivate Russia’s recent military build-up in Crimea and near Ukraine’s eastern border, likely aimed at intimidating Kyiv. Most of those Russian troops still remain, enabling Moscow to quickly increase pressure against Kyiv. Washington should prepare potential security assistance packages and discuss this issue with allies at next month’s G7 and NATO summits.

John Hardie is research manager and Russia research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from John and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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