Zelensky risks Putin’s anger against Ukrainian oligarch

Volodymyr Zelensky has done everything possible since becoming President of Ukraine to avoid provoking Moscow. But one action infuriated the Kremlin: the raid on Kiev against Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch and politician who made Russian President Vladimir Putin his daughter’s godfather.

In February, the Ukrainian government placed Medvedchuk on its list of sanctions, froze his assets and shut down three television stations under his control for allegedly spreading disinformation.

Zelensky’s gesture against the businessman, an expression of his frustration at a deadlocked peace process who failed to end the war in eastern Ukraine, may have been a factor saber slam and the massive mobilization of troops along Ukraine’s borders last month, analysts said.

Undeterred, Ukrainian prosecutors last week searched for Medvedchuk Stop on charges of treason. On Friday, Putin retaliated by saying that Moscow would react “quickly and correctly, bearing in mind all the threats posed to us”. Ukraine, he added, “is slowly but surely turning into an antipode of Russia, into an anti-Russia”.

Zelensky has come under pressure from the Biden administration to crack down on Ukrainian oligarchs and step up the fight against corruption.

Medvedchuk, 66, a former presidential chief of staff in the early 2000s, made his fortune as a lawyer before entering banking and energy. It was used by Zelensky’s predecessors as a return channel to Moscow and played a role in the Minsk talks which aimed to end the war between Ukrainian-backed forces and Russia in the Donbass region.

But more recently, he has been seen by Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership as the voice of the Kremlin, relaying his views through associate-owned TV channels and through his opposition platform leadership. – For life, the largest pro-Russian opposition party in Ukraine. , which opposes the country’s future integration into NATO and the EU.

“Medvedchuk is not only an oligarch, but is also the Kremlin’s main agent of influence in Ukraine for decades,” said an adviser to Zelensky, explaining the crackdown as an urgent part of a larger effort to break up capture by the oligarchs of the country’s politics and economy.

“This makes him very dangerous for the national security of Ukraine,” added the adviser.

The businessman was not immediately available for comment.

Medvedchuk echoed Moscow’s demands to end the Donbass conflict, urging Ukraine to hold direct talks with Russia-backed leaders of breakaway regions and grant them autonomy that would potentially give them veto power over the future integration of the EU and NATO.

“He is Putin’s trump card in Ukraine,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukrainian forum at Chatham House in London. He is “like a magnet for all pro-Russian groups, for pro-Russian feelings”.

Before being taken off the air, the television stations under his control had for years broadcast stories “almost identical to Russian state television stations,” according to Natalia Ligachova, editor-in-chief of Detector Media, an organization monitoring media based in Kiev.

“Putin is portrayed as a hero, Russia is a friendly nation with which we must have friendly ties, our enemy is the West, Ukrainians are fascists and. . . it is not a real nation after all. ”

Through his talking heads or through long monologues by Medvedchouk himself, the channels had spread the opinion “that Russia is not attacking Ukraine, that Ukraine has attacked itself and that” she herself is responsible, that it is a civil war, ”Ligachova said.

Medvedchuk has repeatedly denied owning channels 112, NewsOne and Zik. They belonged to Taras Kozak, an associate of Medvedchuk and a fellow pro-Russian MP who was also accused last week of treason. Ukrainian authorities said he was in Russia. Medvedchuk said Kozak is in Belarus.

Addressing a court that ordered his house arrest on Thursday, Medvedchuk – who has been sanctioned by the United States since 2014 for undermining Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity – denied the wrongdoing and called the charges a “politically motivated charge”.

Zelensky’s administration and independent experts have highlighted evidence that the Kremlin in fact funded the broadcasting and political activities of Medvedchuk and his associates by granting them lucrative business interests in the industry. energy in Russia.

The case is still under investigation, but Ukraine’s attorney general and state security chief said Medvedchuk and Kozak were so far charged with treason related to two separate episodes. These include passing on information to Russia about a secret military unit and engaging with Russian officials in offshore oil deals off the coast of occupied Crimea.

“Zelensky’s fight against Medvedchuk is a fight against Putin,” said Hanna Hopko, president of Ants, a Kiev-based national interest group.

The oligarch, meanwhile, used his political stance to undermine Zelenksy’s reform campaign. The president struggled to revise a notoriously corrupt judicial system many of whom were appointed under Viktor Yanukovych, the former pro-Russian president who fled to Russia after being ousted by the 2014 pro-democracy revolution.

In a bid to drive a wedge between Kiev and its Western backers and derail a $ 5 billion IMF bailout, MPs allied with Medvedchuk last year successfully asked Ukraine’s unreformed constitutional court to neutralize recently established anti-corruption institutions. Fearing that the court could overturn farmland sales and other reforms that are conditions for continued Western support, Zelensky dismissed his chief justice as authorities launched inquiries against him.

Mykhailo Pogrebinsky, a political analyst who describes himself as Medvedchuk’s “friend”, said Zelensky was behaving like a “crook” by silencing critical media and trying to crush the leader of a 3-backed party. , 5 million voters in the 2019 elections.

But the increase in the president’s votes in recent months has suggested that “the elimination of these Russian proxies in Ukraine is widely supported in Ukrainian society,” Lutsevych said.

“It is amazing that after the invasion of Crimea and the invasion of the east, Medvedchuk still managed to operate for so long and strengthen his influence,” she added.

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