Kremlin mobilizes its arsenal to influence Ukrainian elections
In the run-up to Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, the Kremlin is mobilizing its resources to influence the outcome of the votes.
The tools at Russia's disposal are diverse: friendly political parties, economic influence, escalation on the war front, media resources, and even the pro-Russian Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
“Russia will use everything it can use,” political analyst Vitaly Bala told the Kyiv Post.
But Bala and other analysts say pro-Russian parties are unlikely to win in either the presidential or parliamentary elections due to the huge swing in public opinion in favor of the West, and as a result of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and Ukraine's loss of pro-Russian voters in Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea.
The main pro-Russian presidential candidates have a joint rating of 15.6 percent — 8.1 percent for Opposition Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko and 7.5 percent for Za Zhyttia (For Life) party leader Vadym Rabynovych, according to a poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in September.
Pro-Russian parties have a joint rating of 19.4 percent — 10.1 percent for the Opposition Bloc and 9.3 percent for Za Zhyttia.
In comparison, pro-Russian parties got a total of 43 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections — 30 percent for the Party of Regions and 13 percent for the Communist Party.
Moreover, even if a pro-Russian candidate gets to the second round of presidential elections, they are very unlikely to win and will be an ideal competitor for any proUkrainian candidate, analysts argue.
“By annexing Crimea and launching aggression in the east of Ukraine, the Kremlin shot itself in the foot,” political analyst Oleksiy Kovzhun told the Kyiv Post. “The word ‘pro-Russian’ became an insult, and it’s used to smear political opponents.”
Politician Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, “is the main operator of Russian influence in Ukraine,” political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told the Kyiv Post.
Medvedchuk has recently raised his profile and returned to the political scene.
In July, Medvedchuk joined Rabynovych’s Za Zhyttia party. By joining Za Zhyttia, Medvedchuk has been effectively “legalized,” Fesenko argued.
“Medvedchuk is the party’s real owner, and Rabynovych is the frontman,” Fesenko added.
Meanwhile, Za Zhyttia and two major factions within the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc — those of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s former Chief of Staff Serhiy Lyovochkin — are currently holding negotiations on merging into a single party. The Opposition Bloc is the main offshoot of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s now defunct Party of Regions.
The parties are hoping to form a majority faction after the 2019 parliamentary election.
Meanwhile, Opposition Bloc lawmaker Vadym Novynsky on Oct. 1 became head of the newly-registered Peace Party.
Medvedchuk is also boosting his influence on the media — another crucial tool for Russian interference in the elections.
One of the main channels with pro-Russian coverage is 112 Ukraine.
Until April, 112 Ukraine was formally owned by businessman Andriy Podshchipkov, but numerous market sources said it was actually owned by Kremlin-friendly allies of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, although this was denied by the channel.
An investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty revealed in August that the channel may have been de facto taken over by Medvedchuk, who denies acquiring it.
In April Eduard Katz, a little-known German businessman without any overt links to Ukraine, bought 112 Ukraine. After the acquisition, 112 Ukraine’s already mostly positive coverage of Medvedchuk increased dramatically.
Meanwhile, Artem Marchevsky became the general producer of the channel. In 2015 he ran on the list of the People’s Right, a party headed by an associate of Medvedchuk, in the election for Kyiv City Council.
Another pro-Russian channel, NewsOne, was previously owned by Rabynovych, head of the Za Zhyttia party, and was sold in 2014 to Yevheny Murayev, an ex-top member of Za Zhyttia.
Concerns about Russian influence on the channel also increased in August, when Andriy Portnov, an exiled ex-deputy chief of staff for Yanukovych, became the trustee with exclusive rights to run NewsOne, although Murayev remains the owner.
Much of NewsOne’s coverage is devoted to promoting Rabynovych and Murayev. And since Medvedchuk is now a top member of Za Zhyttia, NewsOne has become yet another media tool at his disposal.
On Oct. 4, the Verkhovna Rada approved the imposition of sanctions on NewsOne and 112 Ukraine for their pro-Russian coverage.
The much bigger Inter and Ukraine television channels have less explicit pro-Russian coverage. However, they are used to promote pro-Russian politicians, since Inter is owned by Akhmetov, and Ukraine is owned by Lyovochkin and his ally, the oligarch Dmytro Firtash.
Other Russian tools
Russia may also try to influence the elections through the Internet, including social networks.
"The experience of the United States and United Kingdom shows that Internet bots can influence the political situation," Fesenko said.
He added that it was even easier in Ukraine's case because Russia and Ukraine are part of one cultural and linguistic space.
Another way for Russia to influence the outcome would be to escalate its war against Ukraine. In that case, Medvedchuk can be used by Russia as a bargaining tool and "peacemaker,” Fesenko argued.
Russia can also use economic tools — such as blackmailing Ukraine over natural gas transit, he added.
Alexander Babakov, a pro-Kremlin member of the Russian parliament’s upper house, controls many power companies in Ukraine, and pro-Russian oligarch and former Russian citizen Vadym Novynsky owns banks, food producers and gas companies. Russian banks are still functioning despite legislation under which they must sell their assets.
Another concern is that the Kremlin may use ostensibly pro-Ukrainian presidential candidates to promote its goals. As part of the presidential campaign, various politicians have accused each other of being secretly pro-Kremlin.
Ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been accused by her opponents — mainly President Petro Poroshenko’s supporters — of having promoted the Kremlin's interests in Ukraine for years. She has denied the accusations.
When Tymoshenko was prime minister in 2007 to 2010, she enjoyed better relations with Putin than President Viktor Yushchenko. In 2009 she signed a natural gas supply contract with Putin that was highly unfavorable for Ukraine.
In 2011, when Viktor Yanukovych was president, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of abusing her power by signing the gas contract. The case was recognized by Ukrainian and European authorities as politically motivated.
But Fesenko argued that “portraying Tymoshenko as a Russian agent is nonsense and a propaganda tool.”
He argued, however, that the Kremlin was ready to negotiate with Tymoshenko, and she might reach some compromise with Russia — for example, a permanent cease-fire on the war front.
In return, Tymoshenko’s supporters and other opponents have accused Poroshenko of having links to Russia — a claim vehemently denied by the president.
Russian opposition political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky claimed in September that “Putin has decided to back Poroshenko in the elections and create all necessary conditions for his victory next year.”
Poroshenko’s Roshen confectionary paid taxes to the Russian budget from its Lipetsk factory in Russia until 2017, when production at the factory was suspended, triggering accusations that Poroshenko took part in funding the aggressor state.
Poroshenko has also had ties to Medvedchuk since 1998, when he was a member of Medvedchuk’s Socialist Party of Ukraine.
Lawmaker Sergii Leshchenko has accused Poroshenko of effectively being a business partner of Medvedchuk in the liquefied natural gas business, and allowing him to bypass the ban on direct flights to Russia. Poroshenko and Medvedchuk have denied the accusations.
And despite heading the overtly separatist Ukrainian Choice party, Medvedchuk has not faced any criminal cases.
“It is Poroshenko who allowed Medvedchuk to get out of his political grave and return to the pre-election scene,” Leshchenko argued in September. “Medvedchuk can be used for doing business and creating a scarecrow for the country with the dilemma of 'either Poroshenko or Moscow’s victory.’”
“In fact Poroshenko is himself a victory for Moscow, because the incumbent president’s corruption makes Ukraine an easy target for aggression, destroys the West’s trust in Ukraine and undermines society’s belief in the European choice and reforms.”
Poroshenko has also been criticized for appointing or failing to fire officials with reported links to Russia — such as Foreign Intelligence Service Deputy Chief Serhiy Semochko, Supreme Court Justice Valentyna Simonenko and Security Service of Ukraine Deputy Chief Vitaly Malikov. Poroshenko and the officials have denied accusations of wrongdoing.
But Fesenko disagreed with the claims that the Kremlin is backing Poroshenko.
“The Kremlin doesn’t trust Poroshenko and wants him to quit,” he said. “Relations between Putin and Poroshenko have deteriorated since 2015.”
Vadym Rabynovych, head of the Za Zhyttia (For Life) party (R) and lawmaker from the 43-member Opposition Bloc, stands in the Verkhovna Rada on Feb. 9, 2017. In July Rabynovych's party was joined by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Za Zhyttia is currently in talks on a merger with the Opposition Bloc in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. (Volodymyr Petrov).
Opposition Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko (L) and Opposition Bloc lawmaker Mykhailo Dobkin (C) stand in front of a court during a hearing on Dobkin 's arrest in a graft case on July 15, 2017. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin).
A protester holds a banner showing Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash and Opposition Bloc lawmaker Serhiy Lovochkin, who co-own Inter TV channel, and pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who reportedly owns Channel 112, calling them the "Kremlin's mouthpieces in Ukraine" during a protest near the Ukrainian parliament building on Sept. 21 in Kyiv. (UNIAN)