Putin friend and Ukrainian opposition leader Victor Medvedchuk captured after escaping from house arrest

Putin friend and Ukrainian opposition leader Victor Medvedchuk captured after escaping from house arrest
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has arrested Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukrainian opposition leader and personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was disguised as a Ukrainian soldier and was attempting to flee the country. / twitter
By bne IntelliNews April 13, 2022

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has arrested Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukraine’s top pro-Russia politician and personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, on April 12. He was under house arrest on treason charges, but escaped after the war broke out and was trying to flee to Russia disguised as a Ukrainian soldier.  

Head of the political council of the Opposition Platform For Life party, Ukraine’s biggest opposition party, Medvedchuk has been Russia’s go-to man in Kyiv, and is also the godfather to Putin’s youngest daughter.  

Medvedchuk had been in hiding for 48 days after he escaped from the house arrest where he had been held since May 2021 as part of the treason trial against him.  

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government has been ratcheting up the pressure on Medvedchuk for more than a year, and he was accused of leading a fifth column from the top of Ukrainian politics and acting as a proxy for Russia’s interests.  

In February last year the government imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk for “financing terrorism” and closed down three leading TV stations associated with him and his business partner, Taras Kozak.

Zelenskiy signed the decree that imposes special economic sanctions, closing down the Novyny news media holding that nominally belongs to Kozak but is widely seen as being controlled by Medvedchuk on February 2. The sanctions named Kozak and his companies, including those linked with the three TV channels, which he bought in 2018-19. Kozak is a close associate of Medvedchuk and is also a member of the Opposition Platform – For Life Party. 

Medvedchuk also owned part of the PrykarpatZakhidtrans oil pipeline that brought Russian oil to Ukraine that was nationalised last year.  

The decision to shutter the popular TV stations was criticised at the time as being partly politically motivated and a blow against speech freedoms in Ukraine. The legality of the sanctions was also questioned, as the Ukrainian Constitution prohibits sanctions being brought against Ukrainian citizens unless they engage in acts of terrorism.

On October 8 more charges were brought against Medvedchuk, including another count of treason and aiding terrorism due to his alleged participation in 2014-2015 in an illegal scheme that involved purchasing coal in the occupied Donbas, controlled by Russia-backed separatists. According to the investigation, after Kyiv lost control of most of the Donbas region, there was an increased need to purchase coal on the world market, particularly from South Africa. Russian authorities had plans to disrupt the implementation of these contracts and prevent Ukraine from strengthening its own energy independence.

In December last year Medvedchuk was also accused of failing to declare assets worth over UAH73mn ($2.7mn), the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) said. According to the agency, Medvedchuk did not declare his Kyiv land plot and house, worth UAH29mn ($1.1mn) and UAH16mn ($592,000) respectively, in his 2020 asset declaration. The lawmaker was further accused of not specifying the value of four of his cars, together valued at approximately UAH27mn ($1mn). The NAPC also said that Medvedchuk didn’t disclose six cars and a land plot in occupied Crimea owned by his wife, former TV presenter Oksana Marchenko.

In 2014, the US said Medvedchuk used his “resources or influence to support or act on behalf of senior Russian government officials,” sanctioning him following Russia’s invasion of Crimea that year.  

This January, US again sanctioned Medvedchuk, along with other Kremlin-linked politicians, accusing them of plotting to set up a collaborator government in Ukraine after impending Russian invasion.  

The treason charges are controversial, as Medvedchuk is democratically elected and leader of the opposition in the Rada as he heads the head of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform, For Life Party, the largest fraction after the ruling Servant of the People (SOTP). Some pundits have speculated that part of Zelenskiy's motivation has been to take out his political rival.  

Similar charges were brought against former President Petro Poroshenko, another Zelenskiy rival, who was also accused of treason in January. Poroshenko, who led the post-Maidan revolution government for four years and ran for re-election against Zelenskiy in 2018, was also accused of co-conspiring in a criminal scheme to buy UAH1.5bn ($55mn) worth of coal from the uncontrolled territories in the Donbas using state funds in 2014-2015.

At the start of the war with Russia on February 24 the government immediately banned all opposition parties with Russian ties, including Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform, For Life Party. Other parties banned were "Sharia Party", "Ours", "Opposition Bloc", "Left Opposition", "Union of Left Forces", "State", "Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine", "Socialist Party Of Ukraine ", " Socialists " and " Bloc of Vladimir Saldo ".

After Medvedchuk was charged with treason his glamorous wife, Oksana Marchenko, went into politics for "the protection of the Ukrainian people”, Interfax Ukraine reported on February 22. The couple are multi-millionaires and Medvedchuk is the owner of a luxury super yacht, “Royal Romance” that is reportedly worth $200mn. The yacht was seized by Croatian authorities on March 16 as part of the international sanctions regime imposed on oligarchs.  

The Zelenskiy administration has been making political hay from Medvedchuk’s arrest in its information way with the Kremlin. The official Telegram account of the SBU security agency posted photos of Medvedchuk in handcuffs looking haggard.  

In the attached note, SBU chief Ivan Bakanov thanked officers for the "special operation to detain Medvedchuk, who is for now people’s deputy.” A similar statement was released by the president’s office earlier in the day.  

In later comments Zelenskiy said that Medvedchuk would be offered to Russia in a prisoner swap to “bring our girls and boys home, who have been captured [by the Russian forces].]

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the news of Medvedchuk’s arrest should be verified due to a large number of fake reports coming from the Kyiv government.

On February 27, Medvedchuk’s attorney Larisa Cherednichenko said the opposition leader had left his home in Kyiv, where he was staying under house arrest, fearing for his life amid threats from nationalist groups. However, in her words, he remained in the Ukrainian capital. On March 18, a Ukrainian court arrested Medvedchuk in absentia and put him on the wanted list.