Argument

Ukraine Cracks Down on Its Own Pro-Russian QAnon

With media bans and treason charges, well-financed conspiracy peddlers are being shut down.

By Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.
Viktor Medvedchuk gives a speech in Ukraine.
Ukrainian politician and media owner Viktor Medvedchuk gives a post-election speech in Kiev on July 21, 2019. VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images

Philanthropist George Soros leads a cabal that controls the country’s economy on behalf of globalist interests. A liberal conspiracy seeks to feminize men, defeminize women, destroy traditional families, and empower homosexuals and transgender people. Government officials are complicit in a scheme to harvest the organs of dying soldiers on behalf of wealthy clients. Foreign powers help elect pliant politicians who will open the door to corporations that pillage the economy. Local plutocrats enrich themselves by pushing for endless wars.

These are not just QAnon tropes in the United States. They are the conspiracy theories that, for several years now, have been flooding the airwaves and social media in Ukraine. Their intensity and fever pitch have grown in recent months in a tactical shift by a part of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition that many believe acts as Moscow’s fifth column.

The main instruments for the spread of these conspiracies have been a handful of television news channels—112 Ukraine, ZiK, and NewsOne—and their affiliated websites. Their messages are augmented by social media, especially a host of highly popular Telegram channels that attract hundreds of thousands of people by claiming access to informants providing scandalous information from deep inside the government.

On Feb. 2, Ukraine’s government took a dramatic first step to shut down many of these outlets after it collected evidence that most are financed with Russian cash and through business schemes that involve trade with entities in the Russian-controlled territories of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which the Ukrainian government and its intelligence services assert are complicit in terrorist attacks. In the following weeks, Ukraine strengthened its crackdown by freezing the assets of the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician who controls many of the conspiracy-peddling channels and websites, Viktor Medvedchuk. He is a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather to one of Medvedchuk’s daughters. On March 26, Ukrainian prosecutors closed in even further, opening treason charges against three of Medvedchuk’s associates.

Despite Russian occupation of and war in eastern Ukraine, many Ukrainians in the country’s south and east believe they are closely related by culture, economic links, language, and family ties to Russia. These views—the legacy of the Russian and Soviet empires’ dominance over and colonization of Ukraine—have persevered despite Russia’s military aggression that has claimed some 13,000 Ukrainian lives.

Until now, politicians who played to this Russia-friendly section of the electorate had confined their rhetoric to generic calls for peace and amity with Russia as well as arguments that Ukraine’s economy will benefit from close cooperation with its larger neighbor. Although they opposed Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO and were skeptical of European integration, pro-Russian politicians weren’t particularly known for spreading toxic conspiracy theories.

Ukraine’s efforts to curtail Medvedchuk’s disinformation efforts have been remarkably effective.

Medvedchuk’s television networks, websites, and social media outlets changed all that. Until the government shut them down, they engaged in conspiracy-mongering and created an anti-government discourse that sought to radicalize Ukrainians and shape an alternative worldview that went far beyond simply spreading fake news. The intent was clear: Build pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine something they had previously lacked—a devoted, highly motivated cadre of true believers who would be ready to battle the Ukrainian state much like the fanatical insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The propaganda themes used by these media outlets echoed familiar messages from Russian disinformation campaigns. This was hardly surprising, given that Medvedchuk also has a close relationship with Putin’s former ideological advisor and media guru, Vladislav Surkov.

But Medvedchuk’s Ukrainian version of QAnon also bears many of the characteristics of the U.S. original, including the use of elaborate conspiracy theories and the sowing of mistrust in the military and national security establishments. It differs, however, in two fundamental ways: First, unlike QAnon, Ukraine’s equivalent didn’t emerge spontaneously but was constructed by expert political disinformation specialists in Moscow and Kyiv. Second, its creators did not come from the political fringes of the political dark web but have walked the corridors of power as pillars of the Ukrainian establishment.

In 2017, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had minimized Russia’s ability to influence Ukrainian public opinion and domestic discourse by banning Russian television, blocking direct access to Russian social media platforms, and shutting off many Russian disinformation websites.

In response, Russia turned to Medvedchuk and his Ukrainian partners to fill the vacuum with Ukraine-based media. His family and political allies were well resourced to fund this major effort. In 2015, Medvedchuk’s wife, Oksana Marchenko, best known as the television host of Ukraine’s version of X-Factor and Ukraine’s Got Talent, had become the majority owner of a large oil and gas field in the West Siberian Khanty-Mansi region. The stipulations suggest it was rigged to ensure it would be won by Marchenko and her business partners. The total proven resources of the field’s assets have a current market value in the tens of billions of dollars and represent a huge resource for the financing of political parties and media networks. Medvedchuk and his associates also purchased a large stake in a Russian refinery 10 miles from Ukraine’s border in another sweetheart deal that suggests Russian state collusion in a scheme to finance Medvedchuk’s pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine.

In addition to oil, gas, propane, and pipeline businesses, most of which generate income from Russia-based assets, Ukraine’s government asserts that Medvedchuk and his associates also benefited from the illegal sale of coal and other commodities inside the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” entities that are accused by Ukraine of terrorist activities. Ukrainian authorities claim Medvedchuk’s refinery supplies fuel the nearby Russian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as are used by Russian tanks in the war against Ukraine. It is this last set of allegations that gave Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council the authority to freeze and seize Medvedchuk’s assets, shutting down most of his media empire.

These significant financial resources and media assets have been key to the political resurrection of Medvedchuk, a legislator and lawyer who served as chief of staff to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma from 2002 to 2005 and was seen by Moscow as its most important internal Ukrainian ally. Sidelined from politics in the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea, and the War in Donbas, Medvedchuk’s reemergence on the Ukrainian political stage came in November 2018, when his new and marginal political party, For Life, merged with Opposition Bloc, a party created by former allies of Ukraine’s disgraced and exiled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The joint party—renamed the Opposition Bloc-For Life—now polls in the high teens or low 20s in Ukraine’s fragmented political landscape.

A political merger with Medvedchuk added significant new resources to Ukraine’s Russia-friendly opposition as his media empire filled the void left by banning Russian television in Ukraine. That said, collaboration with Medvedchuk alienated some members of Ukraine’s generally Russia-friendly eastern establishment, including the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, many of whose extensive assets in the Donbas were seized by new Russia-backed entities. Akhmetov and his closest allies apparently decided it was not in their interest to ally with a politician who many regard as the Kremlin’s man in Ukraine.

Banned from cable and the airwaves, his media presence now commands an audience of only thousands of people on YouTube.

Ukraine’s efforts to curtail Medvedchuk’s disinformation efforts have been remarkably effective. Banned from cable and the airwaves, his media presence now commands an audience of only thousands of people on YouTube. That is a shadow of the millions of people who formerly tuned in to NewsOne, 112 Ukraine, and ZiK.

Not only is the public reach of Medvedchuk’s message seriously constrained, but the actions of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky against Medvedchuk and his associates have promoted a rift inside Opposition Bloc-For Life, with many of his allies taking pains to distance themselves from the extreme rhetoric he and his media promoted.

Medvedchuk and his partners have begun court challenges against the Ukrainian government’s actions. But given the pace at which Ukraine’s courts work, such a process could take years to play out.

For the moment, there is good news: Ukraine seems to have found a means of taming its version of QAnon and driving this toxic discourse out of the mainstream and into the fringes. Alas, the conspiratorial messages are now enjoying a second life in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-controlled separatist leadership continues to indoctrinate several million Ukrainians with tales of a hellish Ukraine ruled by neo-Nazis beholden to the militaristic forces of globalist capitalism embodied by NATO and the United States.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.