The rise and fall of Putin’s man in Ukraine
How Viktor Medvedchuk, once a key intermediary between the Kremlin and Ukraine, ended up on trial for treason
Viktor Medvedchuk, dressed in a grey tracksuit, is hard to make out on the TV screen in the sunlit courtroom in Lviv.
The former leader of Ukraine’s main pro-Russian political party was once a key figure in the high-level political and business circles of the two countries – and had the wardrobe to match. Until late June, that is, when the court seized his 17 tailored suits, as well as works of art, jewellery, his wife’s collection of fur coats, and his private train carriage.
Today, Medvedchuk, 67, is on trial for treason and aiding the Russian war effort – charges that could carry a sentence of up to life imprisonment.
He managed to escape from house arrest on the eve of Russia’s invasion, but was detained by Ukraine’s security services in April while allegedly trying to flee the country. A photo of him, bedraggled, handcuffed and wearing a Ukrainian military uniform, was widely circulated in the media at the time.
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It was a dramatic end to the career of a man who once embodied the close ties between the Kremlin and Ukraine’s shadowy world of politics, business and intelligence.
But how did this former Ukrainian presidential chief of staff and Vladimir Putin’s number one man in Ukraine wind up in the dock? Here is what we know from following the case.
Three charges of treason
Despite the seriousness of Medvedchuk’s alleged offences, the Lviv court, on the first day of proceedings on 23 June, closed the entire trial to public scrutiny. The case against Medvedchuk contains information about Ukrainian state secrets, both the defence and prosecution argued. This means the disclosure of case materials could harm Ukraine’s national security.
Moreover, they said, Medvedchuk is a suspect and witness in other criminal cases: as an individual with knowledge of the actions of Russia’s top leadership, he requires protection. This is why he is appearing via video link from Kyiv.
openDemocracy contacted a member of Medvedchuk’s legal team for comment, who said they were unable to inform us about the progress of a closed trial, and that they did not have the authority to discuss the legal position of their client.
But in contrast to the secrecy surrounding Medvedchuk’s trial, over the past year Ukrainian law enforcement officials have publicly shared the evidence behind their case against him.
Judging by this evidence, it looks as if the Ukrainian security services (SBU) hacked his email account in autumn 2020.
This evidence – including documents, emails, and records of phone conversations intercepted by Ukrainian counterintelligence – as well as speeches made by prosecutors during court hearings about Medvedchuk’s house arrest, suggest a state secret exists in only the first of the three counts of state treason against the leader of Ukraine’s second largest party.
Ukrainian prosecutors allege that Medvedchuk, using his status as an MP, collected secret information about a small base attached to Ukraine’s military intelligence operation. They claim that, on 1 August 2020, Medvedchuk forwarded this information via email to Taras Kozak, another MP in his political party, Opposition Platform – For Life. According to prosecutors, Kozak was at the time involved in a “systematic exchange of information with the Russian authorities”.
Kozak left Ukraine in May 2021. He has denied all allegations against him from abroad and has since been placed on Ukraine’s wanted list.
Among other items in Medvedchuk’s email account, the SBU found notes on a new political project (‘Lightbeam’ – Promin in Ukrainian), which was meant to work in tandem with the FSB (Russia’s modern equivalent of the KGB) and Russia’s presidential administration to improve perceptions of Russia among Ukrainian expats. This is the basis of the second count of treason against him and Kozak.
From documents released by the SBU, it appears that Promin was supposed to act as an employment agency for Ukrainian citizens living and working in Russia, a service allowing such Ukrainians to transfer money back home, and a platform that would support the integration of Ukrainians into Russian civic and political life more generally, for instance by helping get them into university positions.
The project outline described migrant workers from Ukraine as “a valuable resource” for “restoring friendly relations” between Ukraine and Russia and “solving internal political problems” in Ukraine. By the time of the next parliamentary elections in Ukraine, in 2024, Promin was supposed to be ready to promote pro-Russian sentiments in new ways.
Prosecutors were unable to explain who the author of this new political project was, or why it was not implemented. Despite this, they argue that Medvedchuk’s handwritten comments on the draft project – which stipulates close cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB (Russia’s modern equivalent of the KGB) – constitute evidence that Medvedchuk and Kozak committed treason.
In particular, the SBU and prosecutors claim, on the basis of a forensic handwriting examination, that Medvedchuk wrote the words “the main point” next to the phrase “solving internal political problems”.
The investigation into the third count of treason reveals another side of Viktor Medvedchuk, say the Ukrainian prosecutors. This time, he is depicted as a cunning businessman using his high-level connections in Russia for commercial gain.
This relates to a Ukrainian oil and gas company called New Projects that appears to have been under Medvedchuk’s control, though he is not listed on the company documents. In 2012, during Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, New Projects was granted permission to explore the Black Sea oil and gas field of Glubokoe, some 30km off the Crimean coast. Its reserves were then estimated at more than eight million tonnes of oil and 1.4 million cubic metres of gas, worth about $1.5bn in total.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 did not stop New Projects. The company decided to reincorporate itself in Crimea. According to wiretaps released by the SBU, Medvedchuk allegedly discussed the details of the reincorporation by phone with the Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak.
In the wiretaps, Medvedchuk speaks of New Projects as if it were his own business. Soon after, the company and its licence for the Glubokoe field were reregistered in Crimea – this time under Russian law.
Five years later, the company had not yet started oil and gas production – because the wells required were inside a combat training zone for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Medvedchuk then, allegedly, personally asked Vladimir Putin to move the borders of the maritime training zone – as evidenced by letters dated August 2020, found in the hacked inbox of the MP.
Prosecutors consider the reincorporation of New Projects in Crimea and the handover of documents about Glubokoe’s energy reserves to the Russian authorities an attempt to loot national resources in occupied territories.
Prior to the beginning of the trial, Viktor Medvedchuk fought back against these accusations – both in the media and in court.
A lawyer with more than 40 years’ experience, Medvedchuk spoke almost longer than his official legal representatives at preliminary hearings in 2021. He spent hours trying to convince judges of the lack of substance to this and other criminal cases, and did not accept that the phone calls or the documents from his allegedly hacked email account were genuine.
Entering politics and the ‘godfather’ connection
More than 40 years ago, in autumn 1980, another trial behind closed doors also dramatically affected Medvedchuk’s life and reputation. In the dark days of the Soviet 1980s, Medvedchuk, then 26, was appointed as a public defender in a case in Kyiv that was to reverberate for decades in Ukraine. His client was a dissident poet, Vasyl Stus, who had been accused of “anti-Soviet agitation”. His subsequent death in the Soviet labour camps was to become a symbol of the injustice of the Soviet system.
Medvedchuk became head of the Union of Lawyers of Ukraine in 1990; the following year, as Ukraine became an independent state, he co-founded one of the first private law firms in the country. With his business partners, he privatised the Ukrainian capital’s main football club, Dynamo Kyiv, and set up banks and industrial consortiums.
Medvedchuk also became active in politics. In 1997, he was elected to parliament for the first time. He was also an adviser to Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, and in 1999 ran a successful campaign for Kuchma’s re-election.
In 2002, Kuchma asked Medvedchuk to lead his administration. As Kuchma’s second term as head of state was coming to an end, he was cementing his ‘power vertical’ and the oligarchic model of governing the country. As head of the presidential administration, Medvedchuk secured his first unofficial status as the ‘grey cardinal’ of Ukrainian politics. He was credited with controlling large-scale industry, organising surveillance of the opposition and sending instructions to the national TV channels on how to cover events in the country “correctly”.
But working in Ukraine’s presidential administration gave Medvedchuk much more than just power over Ukraine.
He met Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and then his boss, President Vladimir Putin. In 2003, Putin was the guest of honour when Medvedchuk married his third wife, TV star Oksana Marchenko, in Crimea. A year later, the Russian president baptised the couple’s daughter, Daria, in St Petersburg – hence the ‘godfather’ connection between Putin and Medvedchuk that is well known in Russia and Ukraine.
These inter-family connections, so important for east European politicians of the post-communist era, drastically influenced Medvedchuk’s future path. He gave up on his own presidential ambitions in Ukraine, relinquishing the possibility of becoming Kuchma’s successor to Viktor Yanukovych, then regional governor of Donetsk.
His help did not stop there: he persuaded Ukraine’s election commission to declare Yanukovych the winner of the 2004 presidential election, despite opposition protests against vote fraud. The ensuing protest campaign – later nicknamed the ‘Orange Revolution’ – disrupted the Kremlin-approved plan for a ‘soft’ transfer of power in Ukraine between Kuchma and Yanukovych.
Yet when Medvedchuk lost his position in Ukraine’s presidential administration, he retired from public politics in Ukraine for a while, but did not lose Putin’s support.
“Viktor Medvedchuk is an exceptionally competent person, consistent in his actions and, of course, reliable,” Putin wrote in a newspaper article in 2009. “Like a true patriot, he defends, first of all, the interests of his native Ukraine.”
Joining the EU – or not
Three years after Putin’s endorsement, Medvedchuk had to justify that high level of trust. By then, Viktor Yanukovych had become president of Ukraine, but he had changed a lot: he dismantled the model of parliamentary-presidential government developed by Medvedchuk, and officially announced plans for Ukraine’s entry into the European Union.
It fell to Medvedchuk to consolidate Ukraine’s Eurosceptics. His new public movement, Ukrainian Choice, flooded the streets and TV broadcasts with advertisements. Almost every regional branch stage-managed a public ‘round table’ with one simple message: Ukrainian society will only flourish if the country joins an economic union with the Russian Federation, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In July 2013, Vladimir Putin even personally attended one of these meetings, snubbing Viktor Yanukovych, who was left to celebrate 1,025 years of Kyivan Rus alone.
The propaganda of Ukrainian Choice failed to fundamentally change public opinion in the country. In September 2013, the movement held a series of rallies calling for a referendum on joining the Russia-led customs union, but supporters of European integration continued to lead opinion polls.
However, in November that year, Ukraine’s external trajectory was radically reversed by Yanukovych, who reneged on his decision to join the EU. The next three months of what became known as the Euromaidan protests ended with the tragic shooting of protesters in the centre of Kyiv in February 2014, and Yanukovych fleeing the country for Russia (where he remains). Soon after, Russia annexed Crimea following an illegitimate referendum, and war broke out in the eastern Donbas region.
Later, Ukrainian prosecutors claimed that during those three months of protests Yanukovych called Medvedchuk 54 times. Neither of the men has ever revealed what was discussed in those phone calls.
“If the ideas of Medvedchuk and the ideas of his party had been taken into account in the state policy of Ukraine, then there would have been no military operation [in 2022],” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s press secretary, this April.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014
On 17 March 2014, the day after the ‘referendum’ on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US imposed personal sanctions on Medvedchuk, Yanukovych and a number of Russian politicians, freezing their US assets and blocking banking operations.
Medvedchuk was sanctioned, the White House said, “for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine”, and because he “provided financial, material or technological support to Yanukovych”.
As the war in Ukraine’s east continued apace, Medvedchuk became a negotiator between the Ukrainian government and the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk regions in June 2014, two weeks after the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, who promised to end the military operation in Donbas in a matter of hours.
It was a role that would give him a unique position as intermediary between Kyiv and Moscow. And it would lead to Medvedchuk controlling the second-largest political grouping in the Ukrainian parliament, three TV news channels, a network of oil and gas production and processing enterprises, and a private security firm that began to resemble a small private army.
While Poroshenko remained silent about Medvedchuk’s role in resolving the conflict, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov almost immediately welcomed Medvedchuk’s preliminary contacts with separatist leaders.
As one of the leaders of Ukrainian Choice, Elena Markosyan, commented later, Medvedchuk decided to join the negotiations with separatist leaders “on his own” – because Ukrainian Choice has branches in eastern Ukraine, and he “had no difficulties finding people to speak to”.
“Russia approved this (or maybe pushed for this), emphasising that conflict settlement is a task for Ukrainian politicians,” Markosyan said.
Germany, one of the backers of the ceasefire process, soon supported Medvedchuk’s inclusion in the negotiations group. He was also given official status as the Ukrainian security service’s special negotiator on prisoners of war exchanges, and soon took control of the release of Ukrainian servicemen captured in the Donbas.
Prior to POW exchanges, Medvedchuk usually met personally with Putin, who would publicly emphasise his friend’s role in the process. In effect, the Russian president cemented Medvedchuk in the role of peacemaker between Ukraine and Russia.
This role brought noticeable privileges: after Ukraine banned direct flights to Russia in 2015 because of the ongoing war in the east, Medvedchuk was the only person who was still able to fly freely between Kyiv and Moscow.
Ukrainian investigative journalists have been reporting these flights for years, showing how Medvedchuk would fly with a whole retinue of business partners to meetings that allegedly related exclusively to the release of Ukrainian prisoners from Russian custody. Medvedchuk has never commented on these flights.
Years later, it turned out that Medvedchuk was, in fact, being closely monitored throughout this period by the Ukrainian security services. In 2021, investigative media outlet Bihus.Info published dozens of hours of alleged audio recordings of the politician’s phone conversations since June 2014. On the basis of these recordings, Bihus claimed that Medvedchuk and the Kremlin discussed issues that went far beyond his authority to exchange prisoners.
Medvedchuk has said he does not recognise the Bihus.Info recordings as genuine.
March 2019: activists throw fireworks into Medvedchuk's residence outside Kyiv.
The link with Petro Poroshenko
Ukrainian prosecutors refer to the Medvedchuk wiretaps in another, equally important criminal investigation: the prosecution of Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian president between 2014 and 2019, on state treason and financing of terrorism charges.
The SBU believes that, in the autumn of 2014, Poroshenko deliberately created barriers to coal imports, in collusion with Medvedchuk, Russia’s leadership and separatist leaders.
As the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region entered a second, even more difficult phase that year, the government tried to respond to the fact that local elections were held in areas outside of government control. With the help of this unrecognised vote, the militants in the east in effect formalised the power they had seized by force six months earlier.
Poroshenko thus convened a meeting of Ukraine’s national security and defence council. And while its members discussed their response to the crisis in the east, Poroshenko also brought another issue: coal supplies.
Stocks of anthracite, used by Ukrainian power plants, had been at critical levels for several months – after all, most of the coal mines that produced it were now in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The situation threatened to develop into an energy crisis even before the onset of winter. An emergency option - contracting coal from South Africa - was soon drawn up, but it ended swiftly. The coal burned poorly and was too expensive, Poroshenko said, and an investigation was set up into the contract.
Investigators claim that, following a plan drawn up by Medvedchuk, Russia stopped deliveries of coal to Ukraine at the end of November – a move that led Ukraine’s energy system to the verge of collapse. This left Ukrainian power plants with no other choice but to buy coal from mines in the self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in the east. Today, Ukrainian prosecutors consider these coal purchases a criminal act, and claim the money was taken by front companies, transported in cash across the demarcation line and used to finance the “terrorist organisations” of the self-proclaimed republics.
Throughout the autumn and winter of 2021-22, Ukrainian investigators tried to put Medvedchuk and Poroshenko under arrest in connection with these charges. Medvedchuk’s phone calls were the main evidence: in recordings of alleged conversations with Russia’s political elite, including adviser Vladislav Surkov, deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak and Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, Medvedchuk repeatedly discussed the coal embargo, new supply schemes and payment terms. In addition, he repeatedly mentioned that he had agreed this or that issue “with our most important person”, meaning, it appears, Poroshenko.
In court hearings in 2021, Poroshenko and Medvedchuk rejected accusations of conspiracy and financing of terrorism. They have described the contract with state-owned enterprises that had fallen under separatist control a reasonable way out of Ukraine’s energy crisis, and one that made it possible to pay salaries to thousands of miners who otherwise could have joined the ranks of separatist militias.
Medvedchuk refused to admit that the wiretaps were genuine until this May when, after just over a month in SBU custody, he unexpectedly gave evidence in the coal investigation. He confirmed that he had negotiated with the Kremlin, allegedly at the request of Petro Poroshenko, who, Medvedchuk claimed, was pursuing personal gain.
Poroshenko has denied the charges against him, and claims it is a politically motivated prosecution by his successor.
Now a prisoner of war
In attempting to bring Poroshenko to justice, Ukraine’s current leader Volodymyr Zelenskyi appears to be following a familiar pattern: Poroshenko, Yanukovych and Yushchenko all tried to prove that their predecessors had not been working in the interests of the country.
But the prosecution of Medvedchuk and Poroshenko during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is meant to act as confirmation of the fact that the previous ‘agreements’ and ‘understandings’ between Kyiv and the Kremlin were criminal in nature: those relationships served primarily the business interests of Ukraine’s oligarchs, whom Zelenskyi announced a campaign against in 2020.
Poroshenko has his reasoning for the relationships he forged with Russia. “Our task was, first, to avert the threat or at least postpone the war [with Russia],” the former president said in June. “To give ourselves eight years to restore economic growth and build the strength of [Ukraine’s] armed forces.”
Meanwhile, Viktor Medvedchuk finds himself in the same position as the prisoners of war whose release, or so he claimed for many years, was the main aim of his negotiations with the Kremlin.
Since his arrest in April, he has repeatedly offered himself in exchange, either for Ukrainian troops captured in Mariupol or for British volunteers held in Donetsk. But his ‘godfather’ Vladimir Putin seems to have abandoned his old friend to the Ukrainian justice system: the Kremlin has repeatedly called a POW exchange involving Medvedchuk “unlikely”.
Headline image used with permission from Graty.
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