Fighting a Hybrid War with Hybrid Means: Zelensky Sanctions Pro-Russia Media and Parties
BY LESIA BIDOCHKO
Kyiv’s war on pro-Kremlin parties and their affiliated media is more intense than ever. Over the past year, Ukraine’s second-largest parliamentary party, Opposition Platform—For Life (OPFL), has been targeted by Russian, Ukrainian, and U.S. sanctions simultaneously. If the sanctions imposed by Russia and the United States seem relatively clear, being levied against foreign individuals deemed to pose a threat to state interests (or those of friendly states), Ukraine’s sanctions stand out for being applied to the country’s own citizens. Hit by the bans are a number of prominent OPFL MPs and their property, in particular the TV channels they control, which previously had ensured high ratings and visibility for owners under sanctions. Another party, Nashi (Ours), tried to woo the audience and electorate deprived of favorite viewing content; however, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) shut down that party’s key media asset too. In imposing these sanctions, the Ukrainian government has acted directly instead of going through the court system, a method not endorsed by liberal democracies and one that has opened the door to legal challenges to the decrees. Though the method is controversial, the swift execution of sanctions by decree can be seen as an attempt to tamp down the influence of potential Trojan horses.
The major successor to ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, OPFL has become Ukraine’s most sanctioned party. In February 2021, the NSDC banned three TV channels related to OPFL leader and Putin’s personal friend, the MP Viktor Medvedchuk: the once influential NewsOne, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK news outlets, whose programming mainly consisted of political reporting and talk shows. Medvedchuk had devoted four years to building up his media empire, and by 2020 he was one of the ten richest Ukrainians. Formally, the owners of the three TV channels were stalking horses, in one instance a German seller of used cars, though Medvedchuk was believed to control all three. At the time the sanctions were imposed, most of Medvedchuk’s media empire formally belonged to Taras Kozak, OPFL MP and Medvedchuk’s close ally and frequent companion on trips to Moscow. In February 2021, both Kozak and Medvedchuk were accused of treason. The former fled to Belarus and has not returned to Ukraine. In May 2021, Medvedchuk was placed under house arrest, which continues to this day. OPFL, which used to rank high in the polls, consistently second to the leading Servant of the People party, lost almost a third of its voters after the sanctions were introduced.
OPFL’s support and name recognition have largely been based on its affiliated media empire, consisting of Medvedchuk’s three TV channels with an audience in the millions. In trying to save his sanctioned property, Medvedchuk converted his TV channels into a new one, Pershiy Nezalezhniy (First Independent). However, its satellite broadcasting was banned within the hour by Ukraine’s security services, so it moved to YouTube. Yet another attempt to collaborate with Nezalezhni (Independents) media connected to ex-MP Andriy Derkach, under U.S. sanctions since August 2020 for allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has failed. Trying to circumvent the sanctions, Nestor Shufrych, OPFL MP and a former minister under Yanukovych, reregistered Medvedchuk’s media property to himself—and both the NSDC and YouTube banned it again.
In August 2021, the NSDC went further and sanctioned a new target, the Strana.ua news website, affiliated with OPFL MP Serhiy Liovochkin. Strana.ua parroted the Kremlin’s narratives even more strenuously than Medvedchuk’s TV channels had. In addition, the NSDC banned the Sharij.net website, managed by Medvedchuk’s political ally Anatoliy Shariy, leader of the OPFL B-team Party of Shariy. Shariy, who has lived abroad since 2012, has described himself as an independent investigative blogger, but many feel he repeats Russian propaganda and amplifies the Kremlin’s messaging.
For many years, Medvedchuk was Ukraine’s unofficial key negotiator with Putin. His frequent direct flights to Moscow, his shaking hands with Putin and cutting deals with Gazprom, jarred Ukrainian nerves, however. Kyiv was forced to turn a blind eye to Medvedchuk’s dalliance with the Kremlin because Medvedchuk provided a crucial channel of communication between the hostile parties.
By the end of 2020, after several months of an imperfect ceasefire, the situation on the front lines in the Donbas had worsened, and Russia-Ukraine peace negotiations were at an impasse. Under these circumstances, continuing the hitherto favorable treatment for Medvedchuk and his activities in Moscow would have looked excessively permissive and shambolic from all perspectives. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky effectively found his hand forced in shutting down Medvedchuk’s media empire and constraining the businessman himself. By depriving OPFL of its key media assets, Zelensky dealt a blow to its political clout.
Nearly every third viewer of Medvedchuk’s media channels switched to another, similarly party-related media—Nash (Ours) TV channel, owned by ex-MP and former Medvedchuk team member Yevheniy Murayev. The latter hoped to woo not only Medvedchuk’s media audience but also his electorate. With the beginning of the new political season in September 2021, Murayev’s Nashi party started appearing in opinion polls, but has failed to gain any appreciable support.
The Nashi party has so far proved to be small potatoes, as only two of its members are publicly known—Murayev himself and Oleksandr Dolzhenkov, chair of the party’s Political Council. In autumn 2021, Murayev trialed an election campaign, visiting numerous towns in the south and east of the country. He met key industrial representatives and local political actors. The Nash TV channel launched a special new “This Is Our Land” series to highlight Murayev’s movement constituency in those regions, which traditionally vote for OPFL.
In January 2022, Murayev was identified by the UK’s Foreign Office as among Putin’s top candidates to run a Russian puppet regime in Ukraine. However, Murayev has been under Russian sanctions since 2018, most recently for “posing a threat to Russian security.” (Murayev himself believes the sanctions were the result of a falling out with another pro-Kremlin figure in Kyiv and denies he is being groomed to head a puppet government.) In February 2022, the Ukrainian government issued sanctions against the Nash TV channel, just as it had against Medvedchuk’s media empire a year earlier.
Kyiv’s Hybrid Response to Pro-Kremlin Parties and Persons
Of course, shutting down TV channels controlled by pro-Kremlin persons or freezing assets by NSDC decree rather than through a court process raises questions. Western democracies typically have recourse to the courts and the legal system when facing domestic political threats. Autocratic regimes may use both illegal means (e.g., the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny) and legal means (Navalny’s imprisonment) to achieve repression. The government of Ukraine does not resort to murderous practices such as poisoning or assassination. At the same time, it is unable to rely only on its legal system. Instead, Ukraine chooses a “third way”: a hybrid answer to the hybrid challenge posed by Russia and those who are allegedly acting on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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