Ukraine’s President Finally Flexes His Muscles
Volodymyr Zelensky is taking on his country’s pro-Russian media machine. But can he emerge victorious?
KYIV, Ukraine—Since he took office in 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has frequently been accused of being a puppet for his country’s deep-seated oligarchic interests—a comical populist unwilling or unable to confront the Russian influence tearing his country apart. So his recent crackdown on pro-Russian media came as a surprise to observers and critics alike. On Feb. 2, with just a few strokes of a pen, Zelensky signed sanctions that immediately blocked three pro-Russian television stations from operating in Ukraine. The move—proposed by the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council—was celebrated by pro-reform activists who gleefully shared GIFs of garbled color bars as the bans took effect. Zelensky followed up his media purge with a tweet affirming that “information today is as powerful [a] weapon as tanks or missiles.”
That’s an equivalence Ukrainians are experiencing firsthand as their country’s conflict with Russia enters its eighth year. In eastern Ukraine—where government troops are at war with Russian-backed rebels—armed confrontation has nearly ground to a halt since July 2020. Cease-fire violations are far and few between. But the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has hardly subsided; rather, it has shifted to a hybrid war of the sort Moscow and its proxies have long waged against Ukrainian sovereignty.
The hybrid war’s chief objective is twofold: Russia seeks both to demonize the West and destabilize Ukraine, at least enough to ensure its image both at home and abroad remains one of a hopelessly chaotic state. Nurturing pro-Russian sentiments in Ukraine helps keep the country under the Kremlin’s grasp and within its geopolitical orbit. The task has increasingly fallen on the local purveyors of partisan politics, propaganda, and toxic misinformation—far from the barren battlefields and militants of the Ukrainian steppe.
For pro-Western Ukrainians—who’ve long watched their country struggle to shun both corruption and Russian interference—Zelensky’s sanctions were overdue. “This was the most decisive possible measure Ukraine could have taken,” said Sergiy Solodkyy, a Kyiv-based researcher who studies Russian hybrid warfare. But others have raised concerns over the precedent Zelensky’s sanctions set for media freedom and, perhaps more consequentially for a developing democracy, the legality of sanctioning a Ukrainian citizen.
Still, a week after Zelensky intervened in Ukraine’s media landscape, there are more pressing—and yet unanswered—geopolitical questions: namely, how confrontational the Ukrainian president is willing to get in his new crusade against Russian influence—and how the West and Russia will respond.
The sanctions in question target Taras Kozak, a Ukrainian politician and member of the pro-Russian opposition party, Opposition Platform—For Life (OPZZh). Kozak’s legal assets, which include companies that own the newly banned television networks—112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK—have been linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, a tycoon with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian officials claim the sanctioned networks are financed by illicitly traded coal in rebel-occupied eastern Ukraine; in Kyiv, that constitutes support for terrorism.
Medvedchuk—whom the United States sanctioned in 2014 for stoking separatism in Ukraine—has emerged as Putin’s point man in the country; he currently chairs the OPZZh’s political council and has instrumentalized the position to appeal to the party’s predominantly Russian-speaking electorate. Medvedchuk’s most recent ploy has involved Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine: He publicly plugged the drug and then shamed the Ukrainian government for refusing to purchase it.
Over the past couple of years, Medvedchuk has used politically charged rhetoric and misinformation to poison the public sphere. On his television networks, supporters of Ukraine’s Western integration are cast as lackeys of Hungarian philanthropist George Soros or as slaves of the country’s key external partners, such as the International Monetary Fund, which has provided Ukraine with loans in exchange for political and economic reforms.
Volodymyr Yermolenko, the director of analytics for Internews Ukraine, a media nongovernmental organization, thinks such tropes resonate with many Ukrainians disillusioned by their country’s role as a geopolitical pawn and perennial bargaining chip between the East and West. “Ukraine is a country with fairly low levels of trust and satisfaction with one’s life, and this … is exploited to strengthen people’s sense of hopelessness,” he said.
Medvedchuk is not the only bad actor in Ukraine’s media world, which—apart from critical online outlets—is dominated by television channels run at the behest of oligarchs seeking to further their own interests. In this way, Medvedchuk’s maneuvers are less an exception to the rule than a case in point of how this structure is actively abused. But he’s distinguished himself through his virulent messaging, which Ukrainian officials consider especially dangerous given Kyiv’s ongoing conflict with Moscow. Indeed, Medvedchuk’s propaganda finds fertile ground amongst his constituents, based primarily in southern and eastern Ukraine, who are more sympathetic toward Russia than any other voting demographic in the country.
In addition to Medvedchuk, pro-reform activists also accuse media and banking magnate Ihor Kolomoisky of deploying his assets—particularly lawmakers within Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party—to publicly echo anti-Western propaganda. Kolomoisky was once considered Zelensky’s patron; the comic-turned-president built his career on the tycoon’s TV channel, 1+1. Now, he is being investigated by U.S. authorities for money laundering. Kolomoisky’s interests diverge somewhat from Medvedchuk’s, but together, they’re bedfellows for a common cause: resisting Ukrainian engagement with the West. (The status of Zelensky and Kolomoisky’s current relationship is unclear.)
This media trend has been accompanied by more traditional, if still dubious, means of politicking. In recent months, OPZZh lawmakers have waged a war against Ukraine’s anti-corruption infrastructure—petitioning the Constitutional Court to, among other things, rule the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the country’s electronic asset declaration system illegal. They’ve also sought to discredit the public legacy of Ukraine’s pro-democratic 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, asking authorities to investigate whether the event amounted to a coup and rallying against amnesty for protesters. These moves echo the Kremlin’s long-held view that the revolution was a radical-inspired, illegal overthrow of a legitimate government.
Thanks in no small part to the Medvedchuk media machine, OPZZh’s popularity has grown since the mid-2019 parliamentary elections: With around 21 percent of decided voters supporting it, OPZZh now polls higher than any other party, according to one recent survey. Medvedchuk is keen to take advantage of this surge: In an interview with Bloomberg late last year, he floated the idea of forcing snap elections to “better reflect people’s interest.”
The chances of snap elections are slim, but OPZZh’s rise nevertheless represents something of a political comeback for supporters of former President Viktor Yanukovych, the kleptocrat who was toppled by the Euromaidan protests. On Feb. 3, the day after Zelensky approved the sanctions against Kozak, a group of OPZZh deputies, including Medvedchuk himself, took to the podium in parliament to decry the president’s “fascism.” With its key mouthpieces now largely cut off, it remains to be seen how the OPZZh will mobilize its voters. But Kyiv-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko stresses that the party’s political threat remains potent—even without what he described in an interview as the “narcotic” power of Medvedchuk’s broadcast media.
The good news for Zelensky is his administration has a newly stable strategic partner in Washington. There’s ample reason to believe the Biden administration will work with Zelensky to fight Russian influence: The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv promptly tweeted its support for his Feb. 2 sanctions, and newly minted Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored “the priority the United States places on Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations” during a Feb. 1 call with Ukraine’s foreign minister. Ukrainian NGOs have appealed to the U.S. Treasury and State Departments for sanctions against Kozak and against Medvedchuk’s wife, Oksana Marchenko, in whose name dozens of shell companies are registered. They say such moves would level a catastrophic blow against Russian propaganda in Ukraine.
Biden’s prior engagement with Ukraine—a country he visited six times as vice president—suggests targeted sanctions could be a distinct possibility. But Matthew Murray, a former deputy assistant secretary for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in the U.S. Commerce Department, said that U.S. support must be complemented by “political will and … coordinated and reciprocal action” on the part of Ukrainian leaders to be effective. Here, Zelensky has shown a willingness to cooperate: On Feb. 1, the day before he slapped sanctions on Kozak, his party removed Oleksandr Dubinsky—under U.S. sanctions for interference in the 2020 election and accused by critics of pushing Kolomoisky’s anti-Western messaging—from its parliamentary faction. But Zelensky and his government must also stand up to Ukraine’s broader oligarchy, which includes Medvedchuk and Kolomoisky, if they are to clamp down on Russian influence and rid the country of corruption.
Yet it’s whether, and how, Russia chooses to respond to Zelensky’s media crackdown that matters most of all. During the tenure of adamantly pro-Western former President Petro Poroshenko, the Kremlin ditched all hopes of engagement with his administration. In 2019, after the election of Zelensky—a political novice—it expected a pliant partner from whom it might extract concessions. But that appears to be changing
“In Moscow, they understand perfectly well that they were probably mistaken in making this bet,” Solodkyy said. It would hardly be surprising, he added, if the Kremlin shifted to a more confrontational approach by moving away from its hybrid war to stoke separatist sentiments or spark new hostilities in the country’s east. Though such a move would be costly, Russia’s recent crackdown on opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his supporters has shown that the country is neither interested in compromise nor afraid of provoking further international ire. There are already ominous signs of what may lie ahead: In the days following Zelensky’s sanctions, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported a dramatic uptick in cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the risks of decisive anti-Russian action, Ukraine’s reformers say the consequences of failing to act would be worse. The anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution is later this month. Since Yanukovych’s flight into exile, Ukraine has experienced both encouraging success and alarming regression—a stark reminder that democratization, as progress, is hardly linear.