Vinnytsia, Ukraine – Last May, Viktor Medvedchuk, a 67-year-old Ukrainian politician close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was charged with treason in kyiv, accused of selling military secrets to Russia and looting natural resources in annexed Crimea.
He was placed under house arrest, and Putin immediately accused kyiv of “purging the political field of all forces advocating a peaceful resolution” of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
“So everyone who works with Russia in Ukraine will be held accountable?” said Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.
On February 28 this year, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Medvedchuk fled from house arrest.
His unimpeded escape was seen as a sign of weakness in the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy amid the chaos and uncertainty of the first days of the war.
But Ukrainian forces thwarted Putin’s blitzkrieg, and the intelligence service continued to hunt for Medvedchuk, whose pro-Russian political party, Eurosceptic Opposition Platform – For Life, suspended operations a month after his escape.
On Tuesday, Zelenskyy announced in a Twitter post that Medvedchuk had been detained after a “lightning-fast operation” by the Ukrainian Security Service.
The post included a photo of Medvedchuk handcuffed, pale and disheveled in an ill-fitting military uniform; in the past, he was often seen in tailored suits with a smile on his face.
Medvedchuk’s transformation from Putin’s right-hand man into a fugitive became the perfect counterpoint to Ukraine’s political and ideological metamorphosis.
Pro-Moscow and pro-Western political forces had polarized the former Soviet nation of 43 million, where a third of the population still speaks Russian at home. The lack of unity in the corridors of power hampered reforms, spawned corruption and made Medvedchuk the most powerful conduit for Moscow’s influence.
From lawyer to Putin man in Ukraine
A Soviet-era lawyer criticized for poorly defending Ukrainian dissidents in the 1980s, Medvedchuk entered politics a decade later after joining and later heading a pro-Moscow socialist party.
In the early 2000s, he headed the administration of Leonid Kuchma, a pro-Russian president, and developed the image of a taciturn “gray cardinal.”
She first met Putin in 2003, and a year later the Russian president baptized her youngest daughter Darya in a St. Petersburg cathedral.
Medvedchuk then ran the election campaign of Victor Yanukovych, a fiercely pro-Moscow presidential candidate.
Yanukovych’s victory in the 2004 vote sparked the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s first pro-Western revolt, whose organizers accused Medvedchuk of rigging the vote.
It was also dubbed the “battle of the three victors” because Yanukovych’s main rival was Viktor Yushchenko, whose face was disfigured after what he said was a Kremlin-orchestrated dioxin poisoning.
The subsequent victory of anti-Russian Viktor in a second round election marked Medvedchuk’s temporary fall from political Olympus. He failed to be re-elected as a legislator, and his political party got a lousy poll.
But he began to build a media empire that would eventually include three television networks and a series of publications.
Medvedchuk’s former protege Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential election, but Medvedchuk was largely sidelined.
He remained Putin’s main man and regained influence after Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 by Ukraine’s second pro-Western revolt, known as the Revolution of Dignity.
Medvedchuk financed the Opposition Platform – For Life, the largest pro-Russian party, which fielded a candidate in the 2018 presidential election.
He visited the Kremlin to promote candidate Yuri Boyko, sparking a political firestorm in Ukraine. But Boyko came in fourth and Zelenskyy won with a staggering 73 percent.
In a parliamentary election a year later, Medvedchuk’s party won 44 seats in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament, becoming the largest faction opposed to Zelenskyy’s Public Servant party.
Medvedchuk’s party resisted Ukraine’s “decommunization” efforts to remove Soviet-era monuments and symbols and opposed the “language law” that restricted the use of Russian in the media and public life.
Medvedchuk boosted the party’s media presence through his television networks, which refrained from directly praising the Kremlin.
But its presenters often described kyiv’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists as a “civil war,” said Crimeans supported the 2014 annexation and called for the restoration of trade with Moscow.
The party also paid for stories in other outlets, a media monitor claimed in 2018. Medvedchuk “commissioned” about a third of online media reports that contained strong signs of bias, the Mass Information Institute alleged.
He and his closest allies were sanctioned in 2021 by Zelenskyy, who also froze their assets and shut down their television networks.
If tried and convicted, Medvedchuk faces up to 15 years in prison. However, Zelenskyy said that he would prefer to exchange it for Ukrainian prisoners of war.
“I propose to the Russian Federation that they exchange this boy of theirs for our boys and girls who are now in Russian captivity,” Zelenskyy said in a video address, posted on Telegram.