May 13, 2021

Charges of high treason


On May 11 the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) conducted a search of the Kyiv home of Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch, politician and millionaire who is widely regarded to be sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin is, after all, godfather to Mr. Medvedchuk’s daughter and Mr. Medvedchuk has long been known to harbor sympathy for the Kremlin even before Ukraine’s ongoing war against pro-Russian and Russian-backed separatists began in the east of the country. The SBU did not disclose details of the search, though they assured reporters that more information regarding the case against Mr. Medvedchuk would be made public.

That same day, Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venedyktova said her office had signed notices of suspicion for two Ukrainian lawmakers, tagging the suspects for alleged high treason and for illegally exploiting natural resources in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The Ukrainian press later identified the two suspects – whom Ms. Venedyktova identified only as M. and K. – as Mr. Medvedchuk and pro-Russian lawmaker Taras Kozak.

Two days later, on May 13, Ms. Venedyktova’s office asked a Kyiv court to set Mr. Medvedchuk’s bail at $10.8 million. He was also hit with sanctions by the United States in 2014 and this past February the National Security Council in Ukraine also sanctioned Mr. Medvedchuk’s wife, Oksana Marchenko. Those sanctions prevented the couple from doing business in Ukraine and froze their assets for three years. While Mr. Medvedchuk is still believed to have a significant amount of wealth, it is not clear how much money he has and whether that money is liquid and can be used to pay his bail.

The latest round of news regarding the charges against Messrs. Medvedchuk and Kozak come soon after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Kyiv on May 6 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Following his meetings with Ukrainian officials, Mr. Blinken made it clear that Ukraine can count on additional U.S. support, but he also noted that it was imperative for Ukraine to tackle corruption and carry out a series of reforms needed in many sectors of Ukrainian society.

“Ukraine is facing two challenges,” Mr. Blinken said during a joint press conference in Kyiv with Mr. Zelenskyy. There is “aggression from outside, coming from Russia, and in effect aggression from within, coming from corruption, oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people.”

Pro-Kremlin politicians such as Messrs. Medvedchuk and Kozak have long put their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people. While we are under no illusions that the situation regarding corruption and graft will change anytime soon in Ukraine, this latest round of news is a small sign that perhaps Ukrainian officials have heard the message and will get serious about reforms and holding corrupt politicians accountable. On the other hand, this is most likely yet another example in which Ukraine’s leadership takes a few steps forward before taking many more backwards. Only time will tell.