Outreach to Putin, Crackdown on Medvedchuk: A Hard Stretch for Zelenskyy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 78

Viktor Medvedchuk in Kyiv court

Ukrainian law enforcement authorities have detained Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the pro-Russia parliamentary opposition, to prosecute him on treason charges (see EDM, May 13). President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has publicly hailed (President.gov.ua, May 14) the move against this personal protégé of Russian President Vladimir Putin; and it was Zelenskyy’s hand-picked officials—Security Service chair Ivan Bakanov and Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova—who exposed Medvedchuk publicly on May 11, also implicating Putin’s top aide Dmitry Kozak as an accomplice. Personality factors are thus further sharpening this new phase of political confrontation between Kyiv and Moscow.

At the same time, however, Zelenskyy persists with his quest to meet personally with Putin in order to “end the war and regain the occupied territories” as soon as possible. Zelenskyy and his closest entourage seem to pursue two divergent policy tracks: cracking down on Putin’s allies and on their business and media assets in Ukraine, but nevertheless petitioning Putin to meet with Zelenskyy. Moreover, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, is negotiating with Dmitry Kozak about the conditions for a Zelenskyy-Putin meeting, notwithstanding that Kyiv has just exposed Kozak as complicit with Medvedchuk’s alleged treason to Ukraine.

Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov is the statesmanlike driving figure behind the crackdown on Medvedchuk’s clan and their media conglomerate. Yermak, on the other hand, caters to Zelenskyy’s instinct to deal with Putin. Incongruously, Zelenskyy is identifying himself vocally with both policies.

The idea of exploring a deal with Putin has marked Zelenskyy from the start of his presidency and recurs periodically—the current phase since March 26 behind closed doors and since April 20 publicly. Suppressing Russia’s fifth column under Medvedchuk, however, is a novel, breakthrough initiative (see EDM, February 24, May 13), after two years of tolerating its subversive activities (see EDM, August 5, 2019, September 10, 2019, September 12, 2019, March 19, 2020).

The Kremlin’s reaction is only gathering steam. Initially, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov ostensibly acknowledged that “this is Ukraine’s internal affair, we are not going to interfere. But we are, of course, watching carefully to make sure that this is not a politically motivated persecution to remove a political opponent, which would be impermissible.” Medvedchuk is a “pro-Ukraine politician, conscious—unlike many others—of the need to normalize and qualitatively improve Ukraine-Russia relations” (TASS, May 12).

Putin then heralded Russia’s forthcoming response to Kyiv’s move. Chairing a session of the Russian Security Council, the Kremlin leader decried “Ukraine’s slow but sure transformation into some kind of antipode to Russia, an anti-Russia… A cleaning out of the political arena is blatantly under way there. Mass media with country-wide impact have been shut down… Politically motivated accusations are being proffered selectively against someone [Medvedchuk] who does business with Russia […] and against those political forces [Medvedchuk’s party] that stand for peacefully resolving the crisis in southeastern Ukraine, in Donbas, and for good-neighborly relations with Russia.” Without naming Medvedchuk or his party, Putin accused the West generically of tolerating and encouraging these “persecutions” in Ukraine (Kremlin.ru, May 14).

This is guidance from on high, suggesting that Moscow will associate Zelenskyy with a policy of turning Ukraine into a civilizational alternative to Russia. The Kremlin will portray Medvedchuk’s indictment and the suppression of his media holdings in Ukraine as anti-democratic actions; and Russia will probably appeal to Western organizations to intercede, not necessarily expecting them to do so but mainly in order to attack them for “double standards” if they do not.

Yermak and, presumably, Zelenskyy behind him nevertheless insist on a meeting with Putin. In a calculated disclosure to the media, Yermak confirmed on May 13 that discussions are ongoing (between him and Kozak) to agree on the conditions for a Zelenskyy-Putin meeting. This is needed “as fast as possible, the situation requires prompt decisions.” According to Yermak, “The meeting’s main task would be to review the execution of the [December 2019 Normandy] Paris summit… Every initiative of ours is transparent and predictable, including that concerning talks between the leaders of Ukraine and Russia” (RBK Ukraiyna, May 13).

To pursue this pet but risk-fraught project, Yermak is constructing some alibis. On May 13, hosting the Kyiv ambassadors of the G7 countries and of the European Union at his office, Yermak told them that the Normandy and Minsk negotiating processes were in a “protracted stagnation” (an accurate assessment) and asked all of their governments to collectively request Russia to support the holding of another Normandy summit (a fanciful request). (President.gov.ua, May 13). This eccentric approach being all but certain to fail, Zelenskyy and Yermak could invoke its failure to justify a redoubling of their own overtures to Putin.

Yermak also told that group of ambassadors that “Ukrainian positions at the demarcation line are every day being fired at, Ukrainian soldiers are continuously being killed and wounded, heavy artillery is being used more frequently” (President.gov.ua, May 13). That situation also could justify (as it has repeatedly in this Presidential Office) pleading for relief through direct talks with Moscow. However, Yermak’s assessment of the military situation in this case contradicted Zelenskyy’s. The president had just declared, during the “Ukraine 30” Security Forum, that there was a “significant reduction in the number of cases of firing against Ukrainian troops” (Ukrinform, May 11)—an assessment that concurs with the daily military communiques this month, thus far.

How could Zelenskyy’s crackdown on Medvedchuk’s clan be consistent with the goal of meeting Putin remains an unanswered question.

Not a word was said publicly during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Kyiv visit (May 6) about a possible Zelenskyy-Putin meeting. The Ukrainian Presidential Office is bereft of necessary US mentoring. Meanwhile, Yermak is handling both the Russia and the US track at the same time—a problematic arrangement.