What Will Ukraine Do With Captured Putin Pal Viktor Medvedchuk?
Zelensky has suggested a prisoner exchange, but so far Russia is rejecting it.
Ukraine has captured Ukrainian opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk, it announced on Wednesday. Medvedchuk had been under house arrest since May 2021, awaiting trial for accusations of treason and looting Crimea. He escaped in late February, in the early days of Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine. Since then he has been on the lam, and according to the Ukrainian security services he this week attempted to escape the country masquerading as a Ukrainian soldier.
Medvedchuk was a likely candidate for the head or éminence grise of a future Russian-controlled Ukrainian government, if Putin’s plans succeed. He is a personal friend of Vladimir Putin (Putin is the godfather to one of Medvedchuk’s daughters), and it has been said that Putin makes no moves in Ukraine without Medvedchuk’s input. According to Medvedchuk, they met in the early 2000s at official events, when Putin had recently become president of Russia and Medvedchuk was the deputy chairman of the Ukrainian parliament. In 2016 Putin was asked about Medvedchuk during one of his marathon interviews, and replied: “Medvedchuk has his own convictions. I think that he is a Ukrainian nationalist, but he does not like this definition. He considers himself an enlightened patriot of Ukraine. But it is no secret that his father was an active member of the [Ukrainian radical nationalist organization] OUN. He has his own system of views on the independence of Ukraine. He, of course, is an ardent supporter of the independence of Ukraine.”
According to some different sources, Medvedchuk’s father in reality worked as a Nazi collaborator during World War II, “recruiting” Ukrainian workers for slave labor in Germany. When Putin called Medvedchuk a “Ukrainian nationalist” he likely meant that (unlike Putin) Medvedchuk believes that the Ukrainian nation actually exists and should be a separate state, though in Russia’s orbit. Medvedchuk’s reported distaste for being called a “Ukrainian Nationalist” is telling: Medvedchuk does not want to be associated with actual Ukrainian nationalists, who tend to be strong on defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and encouraging the use of the Ukrainian language.
In 2013, a year before Russia’s war against Ukraine started, a possible leaked Russian white paper titled “On the complex of measures to involve Ukraine in the Eurasian integration process” proposed Medvedchuk as the key player to keep Ukraine out of Europe’s orbit and within Russia’s. Since the start of war in 2014, Medvedchuk has been trying to worm his way back into power or at least cling on to pro-Russian influence, even while Russian soldiers were murdering Ukrainians. He replaced the old pro-Russian party, the Party of the Regions, with the much more flagrantly over-the-top pro-Russian Opposition Block. Through this party and some TV stations he controlled, Medvedchuk consolidated the fifth column in Ukraine and also spread vile conspiracy theories against the United States, like the slander that America runs a secret bioweapons program in Ukraine that leaks and is responsible for outbreaks of disease there.
Now, it is not as if Medvedchuk was just organizing the end of an independent Ukraine the whole time. He is an important and well-connected Ukrainian businessman and for a time he served as a Ukrainian negotiator with Russia for the release of Ukrainian prisoners captured in Donbas. An American reader might be surprised that someone so obviously and actively pro-Russian would be able to hold that important government post and get away with so much while his country was at war with Russia, but one must understand how the Ukrainian elite has worked since the end of the USSR. Medvedchuk is not just a pro-Russian politician and Putin’s chum, he is a high-profile member of a collaborationist Ukrainian elite that joined in the Soviet oppression of Ukraine. The members of this elite do not consider themselves collaborationist; they see themselves as the best Ukraine had to offer in the 20th century. As the very best, they were in power under communism, and they should be in power now as well. Many Ukrainian politicians, even ones who are now identified as pro-democracy and even nationalist, come from this milieu; they all know each other, went to the same universities, have attended the same parties, sent their kids to the same schools, etc. Those who do not regard themselves as nationalist often cleave to an earlier version of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian elite were the prized and valued vassals of Moscow. In the early 2000s, when Ukraine was still very much a Russian satellite, Medvedchuk was head of the Ukrainian presidential administration.
Medvedchuk’s role in the Ukrainian Soviet elite was as a “defense lawyer” who eagerly participated in the sham that the Communists called justice. He was the “defense lawyer” for three high-profile Ukrainian dissidents/writers in the late USSR: Yuriy Lytvyn, Vasyl Stus, and Mikola Kuntsevich. Kuntsevich was already in a penal colony, and he was on trial for insulting Soviet power by reading part of an epic poem about a Siberian hydroelectric power plant at an amateur literary event (one gets the impression that the reading was quite humorous). According to Kuntsevich (who died in 2017 in a free Ukraine), Medvedchuk was picked by the state to be his defense lawyer. He showed up only part of the time for trial preparation and during the trial actually interfered with Kuntsevich’s defense. Medvedchuk even asked for an extra year and nine months to be added to Kuntsevich’s prison sentence after he was convicted, a request the kangaroo court granted.
We don’t have similar post-liberation memoirs of Medvedchuk’s performance for the poets Yuriy Lytvyn and Vasyl Stus, because they both died in prison. They had both complained about their Medvedchuk while they were alive. In 2019, a Ukrainian historian published a book detailing the persecution of Stus based on declassified KGB archives that revealed that Medvedchuk helped the KGB during the trial. Medvedchuk tried to prevent the book’s publication through a lawsuit. I have not read this book or delved into this issue further in the Kyiv KGB archives—it is quite difficult to access files that are so recent but Medvedchuk’s repeated appearance as the defense lawyer at trials of dissidents combined with this published evidence of his complicity with the KGB inclines one to believe that this was not a one-off event. Medvedchuk was likely at least a confidential contact of the KGB who got assigned to “defend” these dissidents because he was considered trustworthy. He would not make a scene or go to the international press or something, he would make sure these dissidents got the sentence that the KGB wanted.
What is to become of Medvedchuk now? Will he have his own trial, perhaps with a real defense lawyer to defend the fake one? President Volodymyr Zelensky had a different idea. He proposed via a Telegram video to exchange Medvedchuk for some captured Ukrainian soldiers. The Kremlin has initially rejected this idea totally. Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “Medvedchuk is not a Russian citizen, he has nothing to do with a special military operation. He is a foreign political figure.” One propagandist has even suggested that Boris Johnson’s trip to Kyiv this week was connected to an exchange proposal, Medvedchuk for British “mercenaries” who they say are trapped inside the siege of Mariupol.
I have little doubt that, if there is a trial, Medvedchuk will receive a trial far fairer than the one he helped give Lytvyn, Stus, and Kuntsevich. Despite this initial rejection from Russia, a prisoner exchange is still possible. Putin probably does not want his other friends in Ukraine to get the idea that they will be abandoned, and letting Medvedchuk meet justice would be a major blow to Russia’s ailing reputation.
When you hear that the Ukrainian government is not really democratic because Zelensky had an “opposition politician” arrested—this line pops up every now and again, especially on the right wing in the U.S.—keep in mind that the “opposition politician” they are talking about is Viktor Medvedchuk.