Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to shut down the pro-Russian television channels in Ukraine. What is at stake - domestically and internationally - in the fight against the multi-headed hydra of Russian disinformation?
At the end of August 2019, when the political sun of Volodymyr Zelenskyy was at its zenith, he was quite harsh on Viktor Medvedchuk and the group of TV channels he controlled [Medvedchuk is an influential pro-Russian politician and oligarch with personal ties to Vladimir Putin -ed.].
Zelenskyy said that sources from which the Opposition Platform [Opposition Platform - For Life is a major pro-Russian party in Ukraine -ed.] received its funding are "mysterious", referring in particular to the funding of NewsOne, ZIK and 112 Ukraine (in legal terms they belong to Taras Kozak, a deputy from the Opposition Platform).
“We know the answers, we know the amount of cash and where and from which country they got it all. And it will be a very loud story, which will end very badly,” the president promised back then.
However, the turbulent political life in Ukraine regularly issues new, equally sensational stories, so almost everyone forgot about this one. As it turned out - all too quickly.
A huge blow from a "weak" president
The blocking of Medvedchuk's media is taking place against the backdrop of increasing support for the Opposition Platform and a fall in the ratings of Zelenskyy and Servant of the People. In the previous parliamentary elections, it was the president's party that took votes away from the Opposition Platform in the South and East.
Meanwhile, a year and a half after the elections, Zelenskyy is very far from fulfilling the promises to overcome poverty, enhanced by the ongoing pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis. This is why former members of the Party of Regions [a pro-Russian party that co-governed Ukraine before Euromaidan -ed.] and members of its successor parties, which primarily target the older generations, are now focusing on socio-economic problems, such as utility rates.
Now, Ukrainians will no longer be able to watch NewsOne, ZIK, and 112 Ukraine with their apocalyptic stories about the “utility rates' genocide” and the knights from the Opposition Platform, capable of reducing gas, electricity, and all the other prices. According to political strategist Sergei Gaidai, this is a serious blow to the Opposition Platform.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks out of a trench while visiting Ukrainian Armed Forces positions in Donetsk region, Ukraine, December 6, 2020. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine
"Of course, it works to Zelenskyy's benefit because it means taking important campaign resources away from his political rivals, especially the ones his supporters are most likely to turn to," he said in a comment to hromadske.
Moreover, Gaidai argues that this story is a significant blow to the ex-president's Petro Poroshenko image, during whose presidency Medvedchuk increased his influence.
"Back then, Poroshenko not only allowed Medvedchuk to acquire the media channels, but also other businesses, and thus let him gain both political and business influence in Ukraine. So, the ex-president was lax with Medvedchuk. Zelenskyy, on the other hand, is now showing the public how to deal with the enemies of the state," believes the political strategist.
As for the possibility of Poroshenko's voters joining Zelenskyy's camp, Gaidai explains that there are different groups of voters: there is a core group that in no case will leave the ex-president, but there are also those who doubt.
"Poroshenko was telling us that it was impossible to block Medvedchuk's media channels. And he was considered a strong president. And Zelenskyy is perceived as weak. Yet the 'strong' president could not stop Medvedchuk, but the 'weak' one, as it turns out, has managed to," this is why, according to Gaidai, some Poroshenko's voters may have second thoughts.
Obviously, Poroshenko also sees this "image attack" as a danger. Within one day he wrote a post in which he apologizes for not blocking the Opposition Platform's media channels (because of the upcoming elections), and to publish a video in which he welcomed the Security Service of Ukraine's operation against Taras Kozak, the media channels' legal owner.
All in all, Zelenskyy looks like a winner, and victories are exactly what he needs.
"If you cannot defeat Putin, then at least you can show that you can defeat Medvedchuk. I can see a lot of patriotically-minded people who say: 'I am as critical of Zelenskyy as possible, but in this matter I am grateful, and I am ready to support him," says Gaidai.
The political strategist adds that while Zelenskyy could now regain support, the key question remains whether he will be able to push to the end and withstand the attack when his actions face a response, from Moscow, for instance. Is he ready to continue this war?
"Death of Democracy" vs defending National Security
Vehement reactions and sharp criticism were expected from the leaders of the Opposition Platform. On the following day, the party's deputies, represented by the rather emotional Vadym Rabinovych, announced their intention to seek Zelenskyy's impeachment.
Fellow oppositionist Nestor Shufrych called the authorities' decision "destroying the freedom of speech" in Ukraine.
"The decision to stop broadcasting three TV channels, which, in fact, amounts to withholding the right to work, will have grave legal and social consequences. It was an abuse of power, and it cannot be grounded in the law on sanctions," he said specifying the reasons for impeachment.
It is difficult, however, to seriously consider the possibility that the Opposition Platform will succeed in removing Zelenskyy from office. "This is nonsense," says Gaidai.
At the same time, the authorities explain the "cleansing" of the informational capabilities of the Opposition Platform solely by invoking the need to defend national security. The Security Service of Ukraine called it a "consistent step" in the fight against Russian aggression.
"These media have become one of the instruments in the war against Ukraine, so they are blocked in order to protect national security. Russian funding of these channels has already been confirmed," Iuliia Mendel, Zelenskyy's press secretary, wrote.
Perhaps the harshest statements were made by Oleksiy Danilov the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. He said that "we are talking here about informational terrorism targeted at our country," and that these channels are "the fifth column that is undermining the state". "What right do they have to cry about freedom of speech now?" he asked.
The authorities categorically disagree that this decision will bring them political gains. However, in the end, nobody shies away from "combining business with pleasure", that is attacking competitors and repulsing the aggressor.
MPs Vadym Rabinovych, Yuriy Boyko, and Viktor Medvedchuk talk to journalists on the sidelines of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, February 3, 2021. Photo: UNIAN / Oleksandr Kuzmin
Threat to national security
Mariia Zolkina, a political analyst at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, does agree that the shutdown has a political component: suppressing the mouthpieces of the Opposition Platform. But at the same time, she is sure that it lies in the interests of Ukraine's national security.
Zolkina stresses that the Opposition Platform holds strongly in the southern and in the eastern regions, especially in the part of Donbas controlled by Ukraine. It is largely represented in the local authorities, it is supported by well-known and authoritative local commentators, and it has ties to business and media resources.
"They used to demonize Poroshenko, but in the beginning, they were softer on Zelenskyy," she said.
However, their hopes for Zelenskyy did not materialize. Not only did he not agree to conclude a peace on Moscow's terms, as the Opposition Platform wanted, but also removed Medvedchuk from the negotiations, so the president was ultimately "demonized" too. Therefore, Zelenskyy settled for war with the Opposition Platform. Zolkina argues that he was not afraid to take such a step, because he no longer sees the prospect of reaching an agreement with Putin.
"Zelenskyy can no longer make big concessions, in particular because he is limited by the 'red lines' of the civil society. And Russia does not change its conditions in Donbas. Previously, the president was very cautiously commenting on everything related to Donbas, in fear of disrupting a major deal. But there has been no progress for half a year," she said.
Although Zolkina compares the shutdown of NewsOne, ZIK, and 112 Ukraine with cutting the neck of a multi-headed hydra, she warns that in the southern and eastern regions, the Opposition Platform and Russia may become more active and internally disrupt the situation.
At the same time, she does not expect a rise in hostilities in Donbas as Kremlin's response to Ukrainian sanctions.
Has Kyiv chosen the right moment?
The attack on Medvedchuk took place in a considerably good moment. His patron (as well as his daughter's godfather) Vladimir Putin is now primarily concerned with the situation in Russia, which aggravated due to protests.
In the evening of February 2, Moscow resembled a war zone. After the court decision to send the main leader of the opposition to prison, thousands of Alexei Navalny's supporters took to the streets. But the protesters on the streets were equalled in numbers by the "cosmonauts" from the OMON [Russian special police units, which are sometimes compared to cosmonauts because of their armours -ed.]. They blocked the streets, detained and brutally beat everyone who could be suspected of sympathizing with Navalny. Apparently, Putin is really afraid of the next 'color revolution'.
The unsuccessful poisoning of Navalny was another blow to Putin, both domestically and in terms of his relations with the West, but the real internal bomb was the video about Putin's palace made by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, which gained over 100 million views on YouTube.
The video's publication and Navalny's detention in Russia were followed by protests unprecedented in their geographical scope (they took place in dozens of cities), which ended in large-scale arrests and beatings. These actions have elevated Kremlin's paranoia towards the "color revolutions" to another level, so, obviously, Putin is now sparse of time to help Medvedchuk.
Zolkina argues that shutting down the pro-Russian TV channels by Ukrainian authorities right now was not a deliberate decision but a "lucky coincidence". She is confident that this decision had been prepared for a long time, but now that the West has new accusations towards the Kremlin, the United States and other partners will be more eager to accept these sanctions from Kyiv. And it seems that she is right.
Soldiers of the Russian National Guard gather on Red Square to prevent a protest rally in Moscow, Russia, on February 2, 2021.
Photo: AP / Pavel Golovkin
So what is happening on the international stage?
The authorities' calculation might have been the following: because of the significant deterioration in relations between Russia and the West due to repressions against Navalny and his supporters, the EU and the US will not accuse Ukraine of violating freedom of speech.
Former parliamentary deputy Serhiy Leshchenko also points to a well-chosen moment due to the internal situation in the Russian Federation, when "the entire civilized world has consolidated against Putin's regime".
"Establishing contact with Joe Biden's new administration, after Secretary's of State Antony Blinken call to Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also influenced the decision" he added.
If that was the calculation, it proved successful. The day after the blocking of the TV channels of the Opposition Platform, the US Embassy in Ukraine published its commentary supporting the authorities' actions, without the usual concerns, often expressed by the Western partners regarding the attacks on Ukrainian anti-corruption officials.
The US supports 🇺🇦 efforts yesterday to counter Russia’s malign influence, in line with 🇺🇦 law, in defense of its sovereignty & territorial integrity. We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an info war against sovereign states.— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) February 3, 2021
The EU, although so far unofficially, also supported the actions of the Ukrainian authorities, said Mykola Tochytskyi, the representative of Ukraine to the European Union.
Gaidai and Zolkina also point out that Zelenskyy's team is trying to build partnerships with the administration of the new US President Joe Biden, which did not work out with the Trump administration, and blocking the Medvedchuk group is a message to Washington.
"And due to the fact that Biden has clearly stated his intention to help Ukraine and exercise maximum pressure on Russia, this may be a move that demonstrates that Zelenskyy is ready for joint coordination of forces. As if he was saying: 'I’m already doing it for real'' explains Gaidai.
Moreover, Zelenskyy's decree also speaks of the possibility of imposing sanctions against Kozak and his channels in the West.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine shall inform the competent authorities of the European Union, the United States of America and other states about the application of sanctions and ask them to introduce similar restrictive measures," states the document.
The broadcasting of pro-Russian TV channels still continues on YouTube, which adheres only to US sanctions (as, for example, in the case of Oleksandr Dubinsky [whose YouTube channel was shut down after allegation of interfering in the US elections -ed.]. The Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko has already announced that he will send the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine to the YouTube administration and ask them to block the accounts of NewsOne, ZIK, and 112 Ukraine.
Regardless of whether the video hosting service will listen to the calls of the Ministry of Culture, the Opposition Platform and Medvedchuk need to look for some new means of communication with their supporters who are used to sitting in front of the TV and are not likely to massively switch to YouTube or other Internet platforms.
/ The original article was written by Pavlo Kalashnyk
/ Translated into English by Forum.eu