Russian President Vladimir Putin is promoting his closest Ukrainian confidant, Viktor Medvedchuk, on the international level. This effort was manifest ahead of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections and is set to continue thereafter. The Kremlin is using Medvedchuk in several, parallel roles: First, as leader of the pro-Russia opposition in Ukraine’s newly elected parliament. Second, as a long-time proponent of restructuring Ukraine along federal lines to weaken the central government. Third, most recently, as international explainer of Russia’s policy on Ukraine generally and the Minsk armistice in particular. And fourth, as fixer for the selective release of Ukrainian captives in the Russian-controlled territory and in Russia itself, leveraging Medvedchuk politically in that role against Ukraine’s president and government.
On July 18, Putin received Medvedchuk in St. Petersburg to highlight the presentation that Medvedchuk had given the day before in the European Parliament about the war in Ukraine. Titled the “Concept Plan to Resolve the Crisis in the South-East of Ukraine,” the project suggests introducing federalism in Ukraine under other names (special status, autonomy, autonomous region) to implement the political clauses of the Minsk armistice (see accompanying article).
Putin confirmed his endorsement of this project when receiving Medvedchuk, and they noted that the latter’s appearance in the European Parliament marked an unprecedented breakthrough by Ukraine’s “party of peace” in a major Western forum. Russian propaganda picked up and played back Medvedchuk’s message to Ukraine that Kyiv can end the war by negotiating directly with the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics” (implicitly recognizing them) and that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should initiate bilateral negotiations with the Kremlin (i.e., without Western participation) (Kremlin.ru, 112.UA TV, July 18).
In a follow-up analysis of his own (112.UA TV, July 30), Medvedchuk identifies three distinct positions in Europe regarding Ukraine: there are those sincerely committed to improving the situation in Ukraine, those fatigued and disengaged from Ukraine and its problems, and those interested in Russian business and therefore aiming to end the Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia. In Medvedchuk’s telling, all of those groups want Ukraine to make peace. Medvedchuk omitted, however, a fourth perspective: that of minor anti–European Union and Russia-sympathizing parties, whose members populated Medvedchuk’s audience in the European Parliament (see accompanying article).
The Kremlin had enlisted the filmmaker Oliver Stone to effect an image transfer from Putin to Medvedchuk in the run-up to Ukraine’s parliamentary elections (which Zelenskyy’s party, Servant of the People, went on to win). Stone’s latest documentary film, Revealing Ukraine, which premiered in June and received a top prize at the Taormina film festival, gives Medvedchuk top billing, with Putin appearing rather in a supportive role. The film—tailored to the electorate of Medvedchuk’s party, the Opposition Platform–For Life (OP-FL)—was distributed in Ukraine at the height of the parliamentary election campaign. In a separate conversation with Stone, its airing timed to Ukraine’s July 21 parliamentary elections, Putin revealed that he views Medvedchuk’s party as Russia’s only available ally in Ukraine’s current political environment.
To help the russophile-leftist OP-FL pick up some centrist support, Putin used the Stone interview to portray Medvedchuk as a Ukrainian patriot and independently minded politician whose views can differ from Putin’s. Crediting Medvedchuk with “holding his own position about the [identity of the] Ukrainian people,” Putin insinuated that Medvedchuk’s view on this matter owes something to Medvedchuk’s “nationalist father.”
Restating his own conviction that “Russians and Ukrainians, generally speaking, are one people; essentially one nation,” Putin conceded in this conversation that “a significant part of the people who live in Ukraine today believe that they must emphasize their national identity, even fight for it.” Moreover, “Ukraine’s present authorities [under Zelenskyy] are clearly unwilling to draw closer to Russia, although drawing closer is ultimately inevitable.” In this situation, according to Putin, “Medvedchuk and his party comrades stand for restoring Ukraine’s good relations with Russia” and “drawing closer to it” (Kremlin.ru, July 19).
The Opposition Platform–For Life, is indeed the sole pro-Russia party in Ukraine’s newly elected parliament; it is also the single largest among the opposition parties in this parliament; and is the only pro-Russia party of any significance in the country as a whole. OP-FL will hold at least 50, possibly 55 seats out of the total of 450, according to incomplete returns (the final complete returns are pending as of this writing).
Former president Petro Poroshenko attempted to use Medvedchuk as a fixer for freeing Ukrainians held captive in Russia and in Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine. It was Putin who originally proposed this role, resulting in a semi-official status and some political capital for Medvedchuk in Ukraine. That has also translated into Russian leverage over Kyiv, as the families of Ukrainians held captive are pressing the leadership to intercede to free their relatives; this, in turn, boosted Medvedchuk’s perceived usefulness as an intermediary. Poroshenko finally removed him from that post in 2018, and the new president, Zelenskyy, has ruled out reappointing him; but Medvedchuk has continued in the fixer’s role and is credited with having obtained the release of 489 detainees from 2014 to date. In the immediate run-up to Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary elections, Zelenskyy phoned Putin (against explicit Western advice) to solicit the release of some captives, but Putin turned the solicitation down (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 18, Hromadske TV, July 19).
Medvedchuk and other OP-FL leaders portray their political faction as: a sectional party, prioritizing the interests of people in Ukraine’s southeastern regions and the country’s “Russian-speaking population”; a pro-“peace” party, calling for an end to the war in Ukraine’s Donbas on the basis of Russia’s terms, and denouncing the so-called “party of war” in Kyiv for its Ukrainian “nationalism;” and a socially-oriented party, opposing both market liberalism and Ukraine’s financial-industrial-political oligarchy. Most of the traits in this self-portrayal would mark the OP-FL a left-leaning party (Zagittya.com.ua, 112.UA TV, July 29, 30).
Medvedchuk defines President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party as “centrist, liberal-democratic [and] tending to libertarianism”—thus, ideologically incompatible with OP-FL. The latter is ready for the role of an opposition party, but it is also prepared to cooperate with the presidential party from time to time on certain “strategic” issues: specifically, amending Ukraine’s constitution so as to comply with the political terms of the Minsk armistice.
Those amendments would require a two-thirds majority in the 450-seat parliament. Servant of the People will hold approximately 250 seats, according to incomplete electoral returns. Medvedchuk has already announced that his party would add its own, 50 or more votes, so as to ensure a constitutional majority, in the event that the pro-presidential party decides to support those constitutional changes (Zagittya.com.ua, July 21; 112.UA TV, July 30).