Vladimir Putin’s “right-hand man” in Ukraine has been captured after fleeing house arrest following the Russian invasion almost two months ago.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last night posted an image of a “dishevelled” Viktor Medvedchuk, a Kremlin-linked oligarch known as the “Grey Cardinal”, wearing “handcuffs and dressed in army fatigues with a Ukrainian flag patch”, The Guardian reported.
Zelenskyy said the arrest took place after a “special operation” by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), adding in a video address: “I propose to the Russian Federation to exchange this guy of yours for our boys and our girls who are now in Russian captivity.”
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Medvedchuk, who has said Putin is his daughter’s godfather, has been estimated by Ukrainian magazine Focus to have assets worth $460m (£353.8m), making him the 57th richest man in Ukraine. Experts have described him as Putin’s closest ally in the country.
Originally a lawyer who came to prominence through the defence of dissidents during Soviet show trials, he “grew rich from Russian oil interests and his proximity to the Kremlin”, The Guardian reported. He then founded “Opposition Platform – For Life” in 2018, a Ukrainian political party that “pursued a pro-Moscow agenda”.
In 2014, the White House said that he had deployed his “resources or influence to support or act on behalf of senior Russian government officials” during the annexation of Crimea. He was sanctioned by the US earlier this year in relation to an alleged plot to install a pro-Kremlin government in the event of a successful Russian invasion.
In May 2021, he was charged with treason in Ukraine over allegations of “selling military secrets to Russia and exploiting the natural resources of Crimea under Russian occupation”, The Guardian added. He denied the charges and was under house arrest until he successfully fled in the early days of the invasion.
Putin is “known to be a close personal friend” of the oligarch, Politico said. But his close links to the Kremlin mean that Zelenskyy has overseen a “crackdown” on Medvedchuk’s political activities since he was “elected president on a pro-Western platform in 2019”.
In February 2021, the president slapped sanctions on him and “ordered three Russia-linked TV channels that are thought to have been owned by the oligarch off the air for allegedly promoting anti-Ukrainian propaganda”, the site reported.
Following the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy also suspended his party along with a number of other political parties and organisations with close links to the Kremlin.
Fall from grace
For decades, Medvedchuk was “tolerated in Ukrainian political circles because he was seen as an important channel of communication with the Kremlin”, the BBC reported. But his treason charge and Putin’s invasion impacted his ability to run his political operations.
The Kremlin yesterday said that it had seen the image of Medvedchuk shared by Zelenskyy. Putin’s Dmitry Peskov said the photograph was being verified as there are “so many fakes now coming from Ukraine” that “everything needs to be checked”.
Following his arrest, the SBU said in a statement: “You can be a pro-Russian politician and work for the aggressor state for years. You may have been hiding from justice lately. You can even wear a Ukrainian military uniform for camouflage.
“But will it help you escape punishment? Not at all! Shackles are waiting for you and the same goes for traitors to Ukraine like you.”
His original arrest on treason charges “angered Putin who threatened to respond to what he deemed to be political persecution”, The Guardian said. And his detention now will come as a “significant blow” to the Russian president, The New York Times added.
Medvedchuk has been seen as the “Kremlin’s main agent of influence in Ukraine in recent years”, the paper said, meaning that his arrest could dramatically blunt Russia’s ability to destabilise the government in Kyiv in the years following the conflict.
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