The Trump campaign and Putin’s agents of influence: The case of Viktor Medvedchuk
The twists and turns of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s ties to Russia have reached a new level with the discovery that one of the Russian contacts his campaign had was with Viktor Medvedchuk. The former Defence Intelligence Agency chief, Michael Flynn, and other advisers to the Trump campaign were in contact with Russian officials in at least 18 telephone calls and emails during the last seven months of last years’ US presidential election.
Medvedchuk is a rather curious choice as an interlocutor for two reasons. First, he is not well known in Washington DC and therefore Paul Manafort, who headed the Trump campaign for six months when the calls and emails to Russia began taking place, was behind the suggested move. Manafort was a political consultant to the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who was ousted during the EuroMaidan Revolution as well as to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Secondly, public knowledge of Trump’s ties with Medvedchuk would be incendiary as he was placed on US and EU sanctions lists in 2014 early in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for “threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity” of Ukraine. In other words US officials and businessmen are barred from contacting and doing business deals with him.
In Ukraine, Medvedchuk’s reputation is as low as that of Yanukovych and he is one of Ukraine’s “most divisive and enigmatic political figures”.
Who then is Medvedchuk and why would the Trump campaign be interested in reaching out to him?
First, the who. Although he has been a Ukrainian politician, Medvedchuk is extraordinarily and unusually close to senior Russian leaders. His daughter Daryna has President Vladimir Putin as her Godfather and the wife of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev as her Godmother. Which is why “Many suspect him of being Putin’s agent”.
Medvedchuk was born in Russia where his father had been deported to serve an eight-year sentence and four years’ exile. During the Second World War, his father had collaborated with the Nazi’s when working in the office that mobilised Ukrainians as “guest workers” (i.e. forced labourers) in Germany, 80 per cent of whom were from Ukraine. Medvedchuk always denied this, claiming that his father was sentenced for being a member of the OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists). During the Second World War Putin’s father was a member of a destruction battalion in Stalin’s notorious NKVD secret police. Sent behind enemy lines into Estonia, only four of the 28-member NKVD unit returned alive. Wounded in 1942, Putin’s father was disqualified from active service and spent the war in Leningrad where 670,000 died from the Nazi blockade. Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy in their book titled Mr. Putin. Operative in the Kremlin described his father’s NKVD and Leningrad experiences as two of the defining moments in Putin’s socialisation and world view creation. These proved to him that Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile world and “Every calamity reaffirms the special status of Russia in history”.
Putin’s collaboration with Medvedchuk, irrespective of whether his father was a Nazi collaborator or a member of the OUN, is therefore bizarre. The key Russian information warfare narrative against Ukraine has been that of Russia coming to the rescue of Russian speakers who feared for their safety after “fascists” had come to power in a Western backed “illegal coup”. Medvedchuk’s biography in the 1970s could point to clues to his future alliance with Putin. After returning to live in Zhytomyr in Soviet Ukraine, he was arrested in April 1974 for involvement in a violent crime but unexpectedly was acquitted and intriguingly permitted to complete his legal studies. In 1979 and 1980, Medvedchuk was assigned to be a “defence lawyer” for well-known Ukrainian dissidents Yuriy Lytvyn and Vasyl Stus. These were not independent trials, which of course did not exist in the USSR, and Medvedchuk’s role was merely to be a fig leaf for “Soviet justice” and in his closing speeches he called for maximum sentences. Lytvyn and Stus died in the Gulag in 1984 and 1985 respectively.
Inside information on how Medvedchuk was able to rise to the top was provided in conversations by President Leonid Kuchma who was secretly recorded by Mykola Melnychenko, an officer in Ukraine’s equivalent of the US Secret Services. In one of these recordings published in 2002 as “Who is Who on President Kuchma’s Couch”, Kuchma discusses Medvedchuk’s biography with the chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) Leonid Derkach. The SBU chief claimed to possess evidence that Medvedchuk was recruited by the KGB and given the pseudonym “Sokolovsky” in return for the criminal case to be dropped against him, he was permitted to train as a lawyer. Kuchma is recorded as replying, “Well, it is clear to us, that he was 100 per cent a KGB agent.”
Kuchma’s senior adviser Anatoliy Halchynsky in his 2013 memoir Notes of a Presidential Adviser described Medvedchuk as a former KGB informer and senior Russian agent of influence.
The KGB tactic of using criminal charges to blackmail Soviet citizens into becoming informers was common; the USSR had 11 million, or one in eighteen of the population. Investigative journalist Serhiy Leshchenko in his 2014 study Mezhyhirya Syndrome. Diagnose of Viktor Yanukovych’s Time in Office found that Yanukovych had also been recruited as a KGB informer in the 1970s during his second term of imprisonment and tasked to inform on organised criminal gangs in Donbas.
In the 1990s, during a time of the wild division of Soviet resources among a small clique of insiders, Medvedchuk became the leader of a Kyiv clan of oligarchs which launched the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine united (SDPUo) as its political cover. Never popular in Ukraine’s capital city they established a base of support in the western Ukrainian region of Trans-Carpathia. The SDPUo was never permitted to join the Socialist International which unites center-left political parties. With wide use of state administrative resources, the SDPUo won seats in the Ukrainian parliament in 1998 and 2002 when he was appointed Kuchma’s chief of staff. In this role, he was widely involved in the election fraud in the 2004 presidential elections that culminated in the Orange Revolution. Medvedchuk’s “fingerprints” on the fraud were to be found in four key areas.
The first was through his control of Serhiy Kivalov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, who was widely discredited by subsequent inquiries and forced to resign. The second was his early use of fake extreme right-wing nationalists to paint Viktor Yushchenko as a Russophobic extremist, a precursor to Russia’s information war ahead of the 2014 crisis. The third was to use Russian political technologists such as Gleb Pavlovsky who were based in the Russian Club in the Premier Palace Hotel, part of the Medvedchuk business empire. The last and most alarming was a possible link to the September 2004 poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko in the dacha of then deputy chairman of the SBU Volodymyr Satsyuk. Satsyuk, a senior leader of the SDPUo, had been lobbied by Medvedchuk.
In Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections, Medvedchuk supported Yulia Tymoshenko who had welcomed into her Batkivshchina party senior members of the SDPUo. Meanwhile, Putin officially backed Yanukovych. The Orange Revolution became a turning point for both Putin and Medvedchuk and brought them together. Medvedchuk’s Ukrainian Way party is a mirror image of Putin’s United Russia party in being anti-Western and hostile to the European Union and NATO enlargement into Ukraine and the former USSR. In 2013 on the eve of what was planned as the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, billboards from the Ukrainian Way were blatantly homophobic, tying integration into the EU with same sex marriage.
Medvedchuk echoes Putin’s line that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, a view which is strongly disputed by the US and EU, NATO, the OSCE and independent think tanks such as Bellingcat. Medvedchuk also has close views to Putin on the “friendly and brotherly” nature of Russian-Ukrainians relations, a Stalinist myth that treats the latter as semi-autonomous who have an independent existence only in very close association with Russia. Such a model resembles that of Putin’s plan for a loose federation of Ukraine and Donbas/Novorossiya with the latter being granted a “special status” that has veto powers over Kyiv’s domestic and foreign policies.
Second, the why. Members of the Trump campaign such as Flynn and Steve Bannon have an ideologically affinity with Putin’s nationalist and anti-Islamic world view. In a 2014 speech, “Bannon echoed common arguments from the European nationalist parties to explain why people he called ‘traditionalists’ were drawn to Putin. Bannon portrayed Putin as championing both nationalism and conservative cultural values.”
Russian leaders were hostile to Hillary Clinton because of her support of anti-Putin protests and at the same time believed that they could strike a pragmatic deal with Trump who has often bragged about his negotiating skills. The Trump campaign wished to negotiate a deal to drop sanctions against Russia. Putin has long sought to sign with the US a second Yalta-style agreement that would carve up territories in which Ukraine would be recognised as belonging to Russia’s Eurasian sphere of influence. Relegating Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence has broader intellectual support than US nationalist populists. Left-wing academics such as long-term critics of US foreign policy Richard Sakwa and Stephen F. Cohen and right-wing realists such as John Mearsheimer, Rajon Menon and Eugene Rumer hold similar views. Together they blame the West for the crisis, believe that Crimea was historically Russian and propose that Ukraine no longer seek EU and NATO membership and instead accept a neutral status similar to Finland during the Cold War.
Manafort’s choice of Medvedchuk as the choice for the Trump campaign to reach out to Putin is one of the most bizarre aspects of what has already become the most convoluted election campaign in US history. The choice of such a discredited politician says as much about Manafort as it does about Trump and his team.
Taras Kuzio is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins – SAIS. His book, Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime was published in March.