Raising awareness of Putin, crackdown on Medvedchuk: a difficult stretch for Zelenskyy
Ukrainian law enforcement authorities arrested Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the pro-Russian parliamentary opposition, on charges of treason (see EDM, May 13). President Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly welcomed (President.gov.ua, May 14) the ruling against this protected Russian President Vladimir Putin; and it was Zelenskyy’s hand-picked officials – Security Service chairman Ivan Bakanov and Attorney General Iryna Venediktova – who publicly denounced Medvedchuk on May 11, also implicating Putin’s main aide, Dmitry Kozak, as an accomplice. Personality factors thus further accentuate this new phase of political confrontation between Kiev and Moscow.
At the same time, however, Zelenskyy persists in his quest to meet with Putin personally in order to “end the war and regain the occupied territories” as quickly as possible. Zelenskyy and his closest entourage appear to be pursuing two divergent political tracks: cracking down on Putin’s allies and their business and media assets in Ukraine, but still asking Putin to meet with Zelenskyy. In addition, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, is negotiating with Dmitry Kozak on the terms of a Zelenskyy-Putin meeting, even though Kiev has just denounced Kozak as an accomplice in Medvedchuk’s alleged betrayal to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov is the leading figure in the crackdown on the Medvedchuk clan and its media conglomerate. Yermak, on the other hand, responds to Zelenskyy’s instinct to deal with Putin. Incongruously, Zelenskyy identifies vocally with the two policies.
The idea of exploring a deal with Putin has marked Zelenskyy since the start of his presidency and returns periodically – the current phase since March 26 behind closed doors and since April 20 publicly. However, the removal of Russia’s Fifth Column under Medvedchuk is an innovative and revolutionary initiative (see EDM, February 24, May 13), after two years of tolerance to its subversive activities (see EDM, August 5, 2019, September 10, 2019 , September 12, 2019, March 19, 2020).
The Kremlin’s reaction is only gaining momentum. At the outset, spokesman Dmitry Peskov pointedly admitted that “this is an internal matter of Ukraine, we are not going to intervene. But, of course, we are monitoring carefully to make sure that this is not politically motivated persecution aimed at eliminating a political opponent, which would be unacceptable. Medvedchuk is a “pro-Ukraine politician, aware – unlike many others – of the need to normalize and qualitatively improve Ukraine-Russia relations” (TASS, May 12).
Putin then announced Russia’s next response to Kiev’s decision. Presiding over a session of the Russian Security Council, the leader of the Kremlin denounced “the slow but sure transformation of Ukraine into a kind of antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia … A cleansing of the political arena is openly underway. Classes. Mass media with impact across the country have been shut down… Politically motivated accusations are selectively leveled against someone [Medvedchuk] who does business with Russia […] and against these political forces [Medvedchuk’s party] which represent a peaceful resolution of the crisis in the south-east of Ukraine, in the Donbass, and for good neighborly relations with Russia. Without naming Medvedchuk or his party, Putin has generically accused the West of tolerating and encouraging these “persecutions” in Ukraine (Kremlin.ru, May 14).
These are indications from above, suggesting that Moscow will associate Zelenskyy with a policy of transforming Ukraine into a civilizational alternative to Russia. The Kremlin will portray Medvedchuk’s indictment and the removal of his media assets in Ukraine as anti-democratic actions; and Russia will likely appeal to Western organizations to intercede, not necessarily expecting them to, but primarily to attack them for “double standards” if they don’t.
Yermak and, presumably, Zelenskyy behind him nevertheless insist on a meeting with Putin. In a calculated disclosure to the media, Yermak confirmed on May 13 that talks are underway (between him and Kozak) to agree on the terms of a Zelenskyy-Putin meeting. This is necessary “as quickly as possible, the situation demands quick decisions”. According to Yermak, “the main task of the meeting would be to review the execution of the [December 2019 Normandy] Paris Summit… Each of our initiatives is transparent and predictable, including the one regarding talks between Ukrainian and Russian leaders ”(RBK Ukraiyna, May 13).
To continue this familiar but risky project, Yermak builds alibis. On May 13, welcoming the Kiev ambassadors of the G7 countries and the European Union into his office, Yermak told them that the negotiation processes in Normandy and Minsk were in “prolonged stagnation” (an accurate assessment) and called on all their governments to collectively ask Russia to support the holding of another Normandy summit (a fanciful request). (President.gov.ua, May 13). With this eccentric approach almost certain to fail, Zelenskyy and Yermak could invoke its failure to justify redoubling their own overtures to Putin.
Yermak also told this group of ambassadors that “Ukrainian positions at the demarcation line are drawn daily, Ukrainian soldiers are continuously being killed and wounded, heavy artillery is used more frequently” (President.gov.ua, 13 may). This situation could also justify (as it has done several times in this presidential office) to plead for relief through direct talks with Moscow. However, Yermak’s assessment of the military situation in this case contradicts Zelenskyy’s. The president had just declared at the “Ukraine 30” Security Forum that there had been “a significant reduction in the number of cases of shooting against Ukrainian troops” (Ukrinform, May 11) – an assessment which agrees with daily military announcements. months, so far.
How Zelenskyy’s crackdown on the Medvedchuk clan might be consistent with the goal of meeting Putin remains an unanswered question.
Not a word was said publicly during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kiev (May 6) about a possible Zelenskyy-Putin meeting. The Ukrainian presidential office is deprived of the necessary American mentorship. Meanwhile, Yermak manages both the Russian and American track – a problematic arrangement.