Kiev, October 4, 2021
Relations between Russia and Ukraine have never been easy. Since independence, Ukraine and its territory have been the focus of the Kremlin’s various special operations departments in areas ranging from military to banking, industry and energy. Not to mention elections of every description.
Vladimir Putin, Russian ruler for over 20 years, has his own ideas about what the future of Ukraine will look like. He has been strongly influenced by Vladislav Surkov, former Kremlin policy strategist, and Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the Russian duma (parliament). Both see Ukraine as central to the Russian geopolitical project.
While Surkov was a foreign policy hawk focussed on hybrid operations in Donbas, Crimea, Moldova, and the Caucasian region, Volodin is now more influential in betting on long-term geopolitical implications, and not proceeding in haste. Putin, as of now, completely trusts Volodin on what Russia should do – and when.
This cautious strategy has support among political types here, whether among sincere believers in the Kremlin’s ideology, or more commonly because of their own financial involvement in Russian operations. Most are directly or indirectly connected to the pro-Russia opposition party Platform For Life popular in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. According to the Rating sociology group, it is supported by 12.4% of Ukrainians who think the party can deliver long-awaited peace for Donbas as well as some economic advantages.
The party was launched in 2019 as an ad hoc project to unite all the leading pro-Russian politicians under a single political brand. Viktor Medvedchuk, one of its founders and one of the most powerful men in the country, has for over 10 years been a tireless promoter of all the perks associated with closer ties to Russia. He has a direct connection to Putin, who is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter, something highly significant in Eastern Christian religious tradition.
Right now, Medvedchuk, 67, is under house arrest, as Ukraine’s State Security Services believe he has been doing business with Russian-occupied territories in the Donbas. But it is too early to say he is completely out of Ukrainian politics. Having a fortune of $776 million, according to estimates by Ukraine’s leading investment company Dragon Capital and NV magazine, Medvedchuk is still in a position to influence decision-making here.
His phone conversations with the Russian leadership concern a number of key matters, including Crimea and Donbas. His pro-Russian stance reflects a post-Soviet political and cultural mentality: he is deeply suspicious of the West’s intentions in Ukraine.
Another ally of Putin and one of Medvedchuk’s allies is Natalya Vlashchenko, 61, a popular television host who previously worked for ZIK, a TV station then owned by Medvedchuk. It has been off the air since Ukraine’s Security Council imposed executive sanctions on it.
Vlashchenko is one of the country’s most popular pro-Russian public speakers and deeply distrustful of Western democracy and capitalism. She criticizes George Soros for funding NGOs that stand up for freedom of speech and the rule of law. And she is critical of the International Monetary Fund and IMF development programmes that include multi-billion loans at light interest rates with a political agenda attached.
She promotes Russian culture and Russian language as superior to Ukraine’s, whose culture has been heavily underfunded due to the financial crises of 2014 and 2020.
Having plenty of experience in the media sector, Vlashchenko can adapt her narratives according to the shifting political requirements. Sometimes her tv shows include pro-Russian accounts of what is happening in Donbas, sometimes she interviews leaders of Ukraine’s cultural scene.
However, media is just media. By the end of the week, all the news is over and an average Ukrainian Joe just sees figures on his pay cheque and draws his own conclusions about whether the country is moving in the right direction.
And money is key in Ukraine, and also the way Putin’s people most obviously wield power here. Dmytro Firtash, a tycoon in the chemical industry with a fortune of $1.2 billion, has long been close to Putin. As a middleman for Gazprom, he was able to buy gas at a huge discount. He is now based in Vienna and resisting attempts to extradite him to the US on racketeering and other charges. His political connections include members of the Opposition Platform for Life – the political party co-founded by Medvedchuk.
Previously, Firtash cooperated with the notorious Seva Mogilevich, though he denies this. Described by the FBI as “the most dangerous mobster in the world”, Mogilevich is on the FBI’s most wanted list for organizing multi-million dollar financial fraud in the US. In the 1970s and 1980s, he dominated Ukraine’s shadow property market and even the wider Soviet Union’s unofficial business scene. He helped those Ukrainians who wanted to emigrate to sell their apartments and get hard cash in dollars.
Mostly these emigrants included Ukrainian Jews trying to move to Israel or the US and ready to sell very cheaply because it was impossible to buy dollars under the Communist regime. But Mogilevich had all the dollars he needed to buy vast amounts of property. Catherine Belton, special investigator at Reuters and author of Putin’s People, mentions Mogilevich as someone who was probably backed by the KGB and therefore inside the system that included the then young and ambitious officer Vladimir Putin.
Last but not least of Putin’s people in Ukraine are all the agents involved in FSB special operations on the territory from Kiev to Kherson and from Uzhgorod to Severodonetsk. Ukraine’s Security Service regularly reports on arresting these agents; mostly they are engaged in collecting information on the Ukrainian military for their supervisors in Russia.
Russians lessons in how to be a serious nuisance
Russia’s other form of interference in Ukraine is electronic mischief. Russian internet bots are active in the media ecosystem. Their focus since last year was undermining the country’s vaccination program, posting comments on social media that criticize all the vaccines for their inefficiencies, and even arguing that “once you get a jab of Pfizer or Moderna, you’ll never be able to have a kid.”
Another influential source of anti-vaccination propaganda is the Moscow Patriarchate, which has several dioceses in Ukraine. Its Kiev-based leader, metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky, is a monk who spent many years in Russia. His statements contradicting the government’s vaccination strategy are especially annoying…
Putin is quite a creative man. Recently he wrote an article posted on the Kremlin official website promoting a version of Ukraine’s history that puts it into a wider context of Russian history. Ukrainians mostly don’t trust Russia’s historical narratives, but they know very well that Putin is not someone who writes such stuff because he has a special interest in history, but to provide ideological support for Ukraine’s pro-Russian minority.
The thinking is evidently that once the Kremlin has an up-to-date ideology in place it can plan its new hybrid operations to keep the country under its political, informational, and financial influence.
But Ukraine is not what it was 10 years ago. It has an association agreement with the European Union and special status as a US major ally in Eastern Europe. To undermine both, Putin is ready to invest enormous resources to keep Ukraine dependent on Kremlin’s policies, whether it’s the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or its operations in Donbas and Crimea.
You can’t say Putin is (yet) winning the game in Ukraine. But, for sure, he’s working hard to make life in a Ukraine wanting to join the EU harder than it should be.