Russia is quietly occupying Ukraine’s information space
UkraineAlert by Taras Kuzio
SAT, JUN 27, 2020
Vladimir Putin’s six-year military intervention in Ukraine has failed to reverse the country’s turn away from Russia, but the Kremlin leader is far from admitting defeat. On the contrary, his hybrid war against Ukraine remains at the heart of Russian foreign policy. Over the past year, Putin has rejected international calls for a compromise with Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Instead, he has continued to publicly undermine Ukrainian statehood while signalling his readiness for a long-term geopolitical confrontation by fast-tracking the distribution of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. There are also indications of a mounting Russian offensive in the Ukrainian information sphere, with the Kremlin acquiring indirect control over key media outlets in a bid to turn the tide of Ukrainian public opinion back in Moscow’s favor.
In June 2020, journalists from the respected investigative Ukrainian TV show “Schemes” (a joint project by Radio Liberty and UA:First TV channel) reported that Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Medvedchuk, has a 24.66% stake in Ukraine’s most popular TV channel 1+1. This claim, based on company records and Medvedchuk’s own asset statements, suggests that Medvedchuk is even more influential in the Ukrainian media industry than previously thought. Over the past few years, he has reportedly built up a formidable Ukrainian media empire via purchases fronted by partners and proxies. Acquisitions have included the TV news channels NewsOne, 112, and ZIK.
This creeping occupation of Ukraine’s information space has not gone unnoticed. Speaking in May 2020, former Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk complained that the country was in grave danger of losing control over the domestic information arena due to increasingly direct Russian influence. “Putin controls 50% of the news channels in Ukraine, so he can easily control 50% of the minds and hearts of Ukrainians,” commented the ex-PM.
Moscow’s efforts to build a Ukrainian media empire should come as no surprise. Putin has always placed great importance on control over the media. In the early days of his presidency, he moved quickly to muzzle Russia’s fledgling free press. Years later, during Russia’s 2014 offensives in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Putin’s forces prioritized the seizure of broadcasting infrastructure and made sure Ukrainian TV channels were forced off the air.
Dominating the media environment in the rest of Ukraine has proven somewhat trickier. Since 2014, the Ukrainian authorities have banned the broadcast of Russian TV channels and placed restrictions on Russian-produced TV content. Meanwhile, the oligarch owners of Ukraine’s major media holdings have largely fallen in line with public patriotism and backed the country’s efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression. This has left the Kremlin with little choice but to acquire Ukrainian media assets of its own.
The choice of Medvedchuk to lead Russia’s media offensive hints at the significance of the undertaking. While there are still large numbers of influential pro-Kremlin figures in Ukrainian politics and business, none are as personally close to Putin as Medvedchuk. In 2017, the Financial Times wrote about the re-emergence of Medvedchuk from the shadows, claiming “Many suspect him of being Mr Putin’s agent.”
In his highly praised book “All the Kremlin’s Men. Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin”, author Mikhail Zygar goes even further, saying that Medvedchuk has long been “the main source of information about what was happening in Ukraine” and the only person Putin trusts in Ukraine. According to Zygar, Medvedchuk is “effectively Putin’s special representative in Ukraine”.