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Ukraine takes long-overdue action against major domestic pro-Russian actors

Opposition Platform – For Life’s delegation in Moscow at the heat of their parliamentary election campaign. Left to right: MP Taras Kozak, head of the OPFL Political Council Viktor Medvedchuk, OPFL co-heads Vadym Rabinovych and Yuriy Boyko. 10 July 2019, Moscow. Source.
Ukraine takes long-overdue action against major domestic pro-Russian actors
In terms of fighting Russia’s influence inside Ukraine, this February has been the most eventful month since the beginning of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential term so far. Why had Ukraine hesitated to sanction top-tier pro-Russian actors before and can current measures blunt Russia’s influence on Ukrainian politics?

On 2 February, the Ukrainian president enacted a decision of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) to sanction MP Taras Kozak and his national TV channels ZIK, 112, and NewsOne for five years.

Kozak is a legislator from the major openly pro-Russian party Opposition Bloc – For Life (OPFL), one of the bigwigs of which, MP Viktor Medvedchuk is widely believed to be the real owner of the sanctioned TV channels. Medvedchuk has been a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On 16 February, the Security Service of Ukraine issued a notice of suspicion of high treason and inciting enmity to Anatoliy Shariy, the leader of a minor pro-Russian party, which failed to win seats in the parliament, yet made it into several local councils in the east and south of Ukraine.

MP Viktor Medvedchuk (R) and his wife, TV host Oksana Marchenko. Photo: Ukrinform

And on 19 February, NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov made public the decision of the Council to impose three-year sanctions not only on Medvedchuk himself but also on his wife Oksana Marchenko, and also on Taras Kozak’s common-law wife, five Russian citizens, and 19 entities linked to the Medvedchuk family. On the next day, President Zelenskyy approved the NSDC decision.

The wives of the politicians were sanctioned as far as they nominally own businesses of their husbands. For example, in 2019 Medvedchuk divulged that he re-registered his businesses in the name of Oksana Marchenko due to the sanctions imposed by the US on him in 2014,

“My wife doesn’t do business, she owns businesses, but I manage them. Why can’t I own a business? Because my ‘darling’ Americans sanctioned me in March 2014. This explains the peculiarities of the businesses owned by my family now.”

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. Photo: Ukrainska Pravda

Under Ukrainian law, Ukraine normally sanctions foreign nationals while Ukrainian citizens can only fall under domestic sanctions in case they are engaged in financing terrorism, and this is exactly the case here, according to Danilov,

“The Security Service of Ukraine is currently conducting criminal proceedings under Article 258 Part 5, this is financing terrorism. Accordingly, under this article, sanctions were applied to Ms. Marchenko, to all relevant persons listed, as well as to Mr. Medvedchuk. This is financing terrorism,” the NSDC secretary stressed at the press briefing where he announced the sanctions against Medvedchuk.
The Sociological Group Rating’s survey of 22-23 February found that more than half of Ukrainians (58%) support NSDC sanctions against Medvedchuk and his wife Marchenko, while 28% are against it. Among those who are well aware of this decision, the support rating is even higher (73%) with 23% opposing the sanctions.

Why Ukraine didn’t sanction Medvedchuk and pro-Russian TV before

Post-Maidan Ukrainian authorities had to deal with hybrid Russian aggression which included not only hostilities on the battlefield, but also Russia’s economic attacks, political pressure, cyber-attacks, massive propaganda campaign aimed at undermining the popular confidence in government and state institutions.

Following the victory of the Revolution of Dignity in early 2014, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych left Ukraine, and so did the most odious of his ministers such as PM Mykola Azarov, Minister of Interior Vitaly Zakharchenko, Vice-PM Serhiy Arbuzov, and many others. Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions broke up into several smaller parties, however, retaining its core membership and electorate under the brand of the Opposition Platform.

Ukrainian law enforcers were investigating fugitive officials and later a court tried ex-President Yanukovych in absentia and found him guilty of high treason. However, most of his party leaders remained in Ukraine and continued their activities without any serious consequences for them.

Ex-President Petro Poroshenko in September 2019. Photo: Ukrainska Pravda

Despite being sanctioned by the US for his involvement in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin’s crony Viktor Medvedchuk not only avoided persecution in Ukraine, but later even became one of the Ukrainian mediators who negotiated prisoner exchanges with Russia and its forces in the Donbas.

Then-President Petro Poroshenko argued at the end of his term that Medvedchuk’s participation in the talks was due to the fact that he was the only channel of communication with Putin at the time, although he later proved ineffective.

Ukraine was on the edge of economic collapse and in order to retain Western support, had to act with a careful eye to political and public opinions in the West. This made it next to impossible to eliminate to influence of the local pro-Russian actors as any of the restrictions could have been perceived as political persecution and attacks on free speech by the West.

For example, when Ukraine expelled Russian journalists or denied them entry for anti-Ukrainian propaganda, human rights organizations often criticized these measures seeing them as a threat to media freedom.

And in 2017, when Ukraine effectively banned Russian social networks and other web services by a decision to sanction Russian internet companies, as a threat to national security and a tool of Russian hybrid warfare against Ukraine, the decision was harshly criticized in Ukraine and abroad.

Reporters Without Borders considered the ban a “disproportionate measure that seriously undermines the Ukrainian people’s right to information and freedom of expression” and US-based Human Rights Watch said the step “dealt a terrible blow to freedom of expression in Ukraine,” urging then-President Poroshenko to “immediately reverse the ban… and take steps to protect freedom of expression and information in Ukraine.”

This particular measure didn’t weaken the political and economic support of Ukraine in the West back then. However, the Ukrainian leadership could have been afraid that more serious steps involving bans on local TV stations could cause issues for Ukraine internationally.

In October 2018, in response to a petition that demanded to shut down pro-Russian Ukrainian TV channels 112 and NewsOne, the Parliament adopted a resolution recommending the NSDC sanction these stations.

Yet the sanctions on the channels and their owners were never imposed back then. On the one hand, due to the lack of legal mechanisms — as Ukraine can sanction its citizens only if those finance terrorism (which is reportedly the case now). On the other hand, the presidential campaign was set to kick off two months later and, as then-President Poroshenko later stated, shutting down the channels at the time could have been considered as a political move to silence criticism,

“The closure of the channels during the elections would create a fundamental problem with admitting those as fair and transparent. We postponed this to the post-election period. But Mr. Zelenskyy won the election. And, by the way, all three channels supported him,” Poroshenko wrote on his Facebook page commenting on the recent sanctions against the mentioned 112, NewsOne, and the third channel Zik, purchased by Medvedchuk companies after the 2019 elections.

What changed now

Andriy Derkach (R) meeting Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Kyiv, 5 December 2019. Photo: Derkach’s Facebook (colors corrected)

In September 2020, the US Treasury sanctioned Ukrainian independent MP Andriy Derkach for his alleged attempt to influence the 2020 US presidential election as a Russian agent. Later in early January 2021, the agency put on the sanctions list members of “Derkach’s inner circle,” including several former Ukrainian officials and current MP Oleksandr Dubinskyi (Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party).

The Derkach case showed the Western public that pro-Russian forces in Ukraine can affect not only local politics but also act as a Russian tool against Western democracies. This made it possible for the Ukrainian leadership to take measures against the Russian influence within Ukraine with less concern over the reaction of the West.

As for Medvedchuk, if the Security Service of Ukraine has really found solid evidence, as the NSDC states it, that his companies trade with the occupied territories, then this very fact has given the legal possibility to impose sanctions against him as a Ukrainian citizen.


Anatoliy Shariy, Screenshot: Youtube via Ukrainska Pravda

Last week, when the dust settled after the sanctioning of three pro-Russian TV stations and their owner Kozak, President Zelenskyy sanctioned Medvedchuk.

These two major developments eclipsed the last week’s other instance of another long-overdue decision — the Security Service (SBU) served a notice of suspicion of high treason and inciting enmity to Anatoliy Shariy, a pro-Russian Youtuber and the founder of a pro-Russian party in Ukraine living in Spain.

Given Ukraine’s unsuccessful experiences of extraditing suspects from the EU (see Firtash), it’s hard to predict whether Shariy will get away with the SBU charges or to face deportation and/or a trial.

Nevertheless, Shariy’s case is telling about Ukraine’s weak response to pro-Russian activities within the country even after Russia had annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014 and unleashed the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

Suspected of a shooting incident in a cafe, Shariy managed to gain asylum in the EU, claiming to be persecuted for his journalist activities. He later became a popular video blogger and even founded his very own pocket pro-Russian party in Ukraine.

On 16 February, the Security Service of Ukraine reported on their website that the agency served a notice of suspicion to Ukrainian national Anatoliy Shariy, called in the English-version of the report a Russian propagandist.

“The investigators allege that he conducted subversive activities against Ukraine in the information sphere. There is a reason to believe that Anatolii Sharii acted on behalf of foreign security services,” the report reads.

SBU says it has issued the notice under the supervision of the Kyiv City Prosecutor’s Office based on the probe into high treason and violation of equality of citizens. In particular, the agency, says, Shariy “incited national, racial, or religious hatred, the humiliation of national honor and dignity, etc.”

As soon as his name was removed from Ukraine’s wanted list in spring 2019, Anatoliy Shariy, while still hiding in the EU, managed to remotely launch his namesake party. It came in 10th in the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary elections with 2.23% of votes failing to pass the 5% threshold. Later, it managed to win a total of only 52 councilor seats out of 42,501 in local councils of village, city, raion, and oblast levels across Ukraine at the 2020 elections.

In one of his comments to Russian TV channel Rossiya-24 amid his local elections campaign, Viktor Medvedchuk openly admitted the Party of Shariy as an ally of his pro-Russian Opposition Bloc – For Life party,

“We definitely don’t see Mr. Shariy and his party as a rival, … [as judged by] the ideology espoused by the Shariy Party… we understand that they are our allies.”

Ukraine media watchdog Detector Media surveyed legal experts on the issue of the domestic sanctions against Medvedchuk, his entourage and TV channels. According to the lawyers, it is hard to evaluate their overall prospects in Ukrainian courts.

But based on the scarce information available, the experts assert that the sanctions are likely to have a leg to stand on in Ukrainian courts, but hardly in international ones.

Lawyers also unanimously insist that law enforcement officers should investigate criminal cases and bring these cases to courts, which is the case with Shariy now. The more so that SBU informed earlier that since 2019 it was probing Medvedchuk and Kozak for alleged “preparing high treason,” “acquisition of corporate rights to create media resources,” and “legalization of criminal proceeds.” Now, the suspected financing of terrorism should have been added to the list of allegations.

It is unlikely that the European courts would deliver quick judgments, which gives Ukraine time to make the sanctions irreversible in order to prevent Medvedchuk from “sticking new labels on old companies.” That’s why lawyers advise working on these issues comprehensively at the legislative level so that Ukraine work out mechanisms necessary to further deter Russian agents.

NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov has promised more domestic sanctions in the near future, particularly against unnamed people’s deputies.

Whatever the effects of the ongoing sanctions campaign, Ukraine doesn’t ban pro-Russian parties which are going to remain a formidable political force in the upcoming years.

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