In the Face of a Kremlin Threat

In the Face of a Kremlin Threat

What does the blocking of pro-Russian television channels in Ukraine mean for Belarus?

Marta Dorot
10.02.2021 Maria Avdeeva

The work of pro-Russian media in Ukraine is directly related to the Kremlin’s use of Ukrainian oligarchs to achieve its own political and economic goals. The Kremlin is involved in creating financial schemes that convert money earned into increased political influence. Likewise, Moscow is increasing its influence on Belarus and is using Belarusian businessmen – «purses» from Lukashenko’s circle. Analysis shows that the Belarusian and Ukrainian business groups used by the Kremlin are directly related to each other or are involved in the same schemes.

On February 2, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree on the imposing of sanctions against deputy Taras Kozak of Ukraine’s Opposition Platform – For Life party of the Verkhovna Rada and the television stations 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK, which he formally owns. The sanctions are imposed for a period of five years and include blocking assets, restricting trading operations, a ban on capital withdrawal from the country, and a ban on securities transactions. The channels have stopped broadcasting and their websites have been blocked, except for their YouTube channels.

Commenting on the decision on sanctions, the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov said that Russia is conducting «information terrorism, which is part of a hybrid Russian aggression».

Taras Kozak is a long-term business partner of Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Vladimir Putin’s closest connection in Ukraine and godson. In 2014, the United States imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk for assisting the occupation of Crimea and he was forced to work through various financial schemes. It was essentially Medvedchuk who created and who controls the media holding of NewsOne, 112, and ZIK, using it to raise his own profile and that of the Opposition Platform – For Life party, where he heads the political council. However, it is not Medvedchuk’s political ambitions that pose a threat to Ukraine’s national security, but rather the fact that these channels are used by the Kremlin to influence Ukraine’s information space, promoting Kremlin propaganda narratives under the guise of national media.

Ukrainian legislation explicitly states that Russia is conducting an act of armed aggression against Ukraine and Kyiv is systematically taking steps to limit the destructive influence of information. After the blocking of Russian social networks in 2017 and the ban on broadcasting in Ukraine of Channel One, Russia 24, Russia 1, NTV, Russia Today, and others, the audience of Russian media has radically decreased. 73% of Ukrainians do not use Russian media at all. To retain its influence, the Kremlin needed to increase its presence in the Ukrainian media field through a controlled Ukrainian media. National media officially began to expand its audience in the country, the content of which is ideologically and thematically closely intertwined with Russian propaganda.

The creation of a pro-Russian media holding was completed in 2019, when Taras Kozak, in addition to 112 Ukraine and NewsOne, acquired the ZIK television channel. These three channels made up the newly created Novosti media holding.

112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK have become a platform for promoting Russia’s agenda and Kremlin narratives in Ukraine. After Medvedchuk concentrated the three television channels into a media conglomerate, it became possible to lobby for views beneficial to Moscow, foremost of which was rapprochement with Russia. At the same time, the political influence of pro-Russian party projects grew.

The Kremlin systematically uses controlled media to conduct information operations both in Ukraine and in Belarus.

 

Analysis indicates that there are strong ties between the owners of large assets in Belarus and Ukraine that are connected to Russia, which are being strengthened and used under the control of Moscow.

The difference between the countries is that in Belarus these businessmen are «purses» from Lukashenko’s circle who finance the regime, while in Ukraine they play on the side of the pro-Russian opposition. In Belarus, Lukashenko’s «purses» provide information and logistical support to Russian propagandists. In Ukraine, Ukrainian pro-Russian groups finance their own media.

The development of media projects always requires significant financial investments. Support from the Kremlin, levers of influence both in the economic and political plane, help both Belarusian and Ukrainian groups to remain in power and receive super-profits through shadow schemes.

 

In return, the Kremlin demands unconditional support for its own foreign policy interests.

There are close economic ties between Ukraine and Belarus. An analysis of the presence of Belarusian businessmen close to Alexander Lukashenko in Ukraine shows that their work has been significantly influenced by the imposing of sanctions adopted as a result of the illegal occupation of Crimea and Russia’s armed aggression in the Donbass. The sanctions became the impetus for the organization of economically profitable schemes for using Belarus as a transit country for the supply of sanctioned products both to and from Russia. The largest fields are controlled by Lukashenko’s «purses».

Alexander Lukashenko, considering the favorable transit location of the country and the expansion of the transit of goods from China through Belarus within the framework of the Silk Road project, monopolizes the logistics infrastructure and the market of transit services in Belarus through close «big» businessmen.

Businessmen close to Lukashenko, including Alexander Zaitsev, Alexey Oleksin, and Nikolay Vorobey – founders of the Bremino Group – are essentially beneficiaries from the development of logistics complexes in Belarus, including in special economic zones such as Bremino Orsha.

The development of the logistics infrastructure of the Bremino Group involves persons who are connected to the customs and state security bodies of Belarus. This process also benefits from the experience of the national unitary enterprise Beltamozhservice, which is the largest state logistics operator in Belarus. Within the framework of establishing transit schemes, large deliveries from Russia to Belarus of petroleum products and energy carriers and their transit to Ukraine, the control of which are connected with Nikolay Vorobey, Alexey Oleksin, and Mikhail Gutseriev deserve special attention. A striking example is the supply of coal to Ukraine, which Belarus does not produce.

According to media reports, during 2019-2020, Russia tried to monopolize the transit of oil and coal through the territory of Ukraine and Belarus through Nikolay Vorobey under the control of Viktor Medvedchuk. Russia’s RBC called Medvedchuk and Vorobey business partners who are united through the supply of Russian coal to Ukraine. In matters of transit, Belarusian businessmen also actively cooperate with businessmen from the Baltic states who are connected to Russia.

Likely, it is Viktor Medvedchuk who is the catalyst for strengthening interaction between Belarusian and Ukrainian business groups. Nikolay Vorobey’s successful activity in acquiring assets in Ukraine began after Medvedchuk’s visits to Minsk to meet with Alexander Lukashenko. Specifically, Lukashenko and Medvedchuk met on January 14 and April 4, 2019, which coincides with Nikolay Vorobey’s entering the Ukrainian market.

On July 18, 2019, a meeting of Putin, Lukashenko, and Medvedchuk took place in St. Petersburg. According to Medvedchuk’s party Opposition Platform – For Life, during the meeting, Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko, and Viktor Medvedchuk discussed issues of economic cooperation and the development of trade and economic relations among the three countries. And in March 2019, Nikolay Vorobey purchased a 51% stake in PrykarpatZapadTrans LLC, the operator of the Ukrainian section of the Samara-Western Direction oil product pipeline, which is used to supply Russian and Belarusian diesel fuel to Ukraine.

In October 2019, Nikolay Vorobey’s company BelKazTrans received full control over the transit transportation of coal through Belarus. In December 2019, the services of BelKazTrans Ukraine, connected to Vorobey, were imposed on Ukrainian forwarders and Russian shippers. Also, media reports referring to the General Director of the Association of International Freight Forwarders of Ukraine Viktor Berestenko, indicated that Russian officials had made a decision to organize transit traffic through Nikolay Vorobey and his partner, Ukrainian citizen Viktor Medvedchuk.

This confirms the fact that Medvedchuk and Vorobey, with the support of Russia, are endeavoring to obtain monopoly control over the transit of energy resources from Russia. The monopolization of energy transit will become a political instrument of influence on European countries.

In November 2020, Nikolay Vorobey tried to buy a controlling stake in BTA Bank, a subsidiary of the Kazakh BTA Bank in Ukraine. And although the Antimonopoly Committee approved the deal, the National Bank of Ukraine did not approve the sale of the bank, since EU sanctions were already imposed on Vorobey in December. Not only Vorobey, but also his partner Medvedchuk would be interested in purchasing a bank, as having their «own» bank allows for not only making money on deposits and loans, but also for keeping funds there and carrying out essential financial transactions. As is clear from People’s Deputy of Ukraine Taras Kozak’s tax declaration, he purchased the television channels in Belarus. On December 11, 2019, he paid 62.32 million UAH for nine companies of the 112 Ukraine group. On the same day, Kozak paid 16.42 million UAH for air travel in Belarus and 1.06 million UAH for renting real estate.

The deputy reported on obtaining the corporate rights of these companies a year earlier, in mid-December 2018. At that time, he clarified that the seller was the Swiss Plirofories AG, having declared obligations to it for 2.63 million USD. The payment of 41.06 million UAH for one of the companies that fell under the sanctions – LLC Novosti 24 Hours – Kozak also conducted in Minsk, but in 2018 through the Swiss company MW Investment AG. In the same year, he spent 20.56 million UAH in Belarus on air travel.

In his tax declaration for 2019, Kozak declared 1.4 million EUR in the Belarusian MTBank, which belongs to another Lukashenko «purse», Alexander Oleksin, and 6.5 million EUR in Nikolay Vorobey’s Absolutbank, while his deposits in Ukraine were much more modest – 3,000 EUR and 378,000 UAH in Ukrbudinvestbank – and cash totaling 2.45 million UAH and 150,000 USD. Viktor Medvedchuk keeps money in the same banks as Kozak. In September 2019, Viktor Medvedchuk received 2.3 million UAH from the Belarusian Absolutbank as a fee, where he and his wife Oksana Marchenko, according to the declaration, keep part of their savings totaling 4.9 million EUR.

The close intertwining and joint participation of business groups connected to Russia in the implementation of the Kremlin’s information policy in Ukraine and Belarus is evidenced by the provision of the work of Russian propagandists, primarily the channel RT in Minsk, which became active after the presidential elections in Belarus.

Taras Kozak also appeared in attempts to whitewash Lukashenko. On November 13, 2020, Lukashenko gave an interview to Belarusian and foreign political observers, among whom was the editor-in-chief of the 112 Ukraine television channel Pavel Kuzheev. Kozak was one of the organizers of this event. Presumably, it was on his Gulfstream G450 airplane that the editor of his channel arrived in Minsk to take part in the propaganda endeavor. According to iSANS, on the day before the Russian propagandist from the All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company Andrey Kondrashov, known as the author of the film Crimea. The Way to the Homeland, political observer from Russia’s Channel One Natalia Polikarpova, and Yulia Belyanskaya, a representative from Moldova’s Accent TV, arrived on the same airplane.

In addition, the resources of Mikhail Gutseriev, a Russian businessman close to Lukashenko, were used in organizing the work of Moscow’s «landing» in Belarus. According to information provided by Meduza, employees of the Russian state and pro-government media went to Belarus in several stages, organized centrally. For them, among other things, a whole floor of the Minsk Renaissance Hotel, owned by Mikhail Gutseriev, was booked. However, Gutseriev’s participation was not limited to the placement of Russian journalists in his own hotel. The plane belonging to Gutseriev flew between Moscow and Minsk four times from August 1 to September 4, 2020. On one of these flights, the deputy head of one of the structural divisions of RT flew to Minsk and then the first group of Russian technical specialists appeared in the studio of the state Belteleradiocompany.

As a result, according to Andrei Yeliseyeu, an expert at the iSANS analytical center, a few weeks after the elections, the entire media agenda of the Belarusian state media was synchronized with the agenda of pro-Kremlin media. At the same time, even commentators on Belarusian events were almost totally replaced – from controlled local commentators to Russian and Ukrainian ones that were previously unknown in Belarus.

After the blocking of broadcasting in Ukraine of the three Kozak/Medvedchuk channels, the Belarusian state media, in unison with Russian media, began to actively defend freedom of speech in Ukraine. One of the reasons for the position of Belarus may be Medvedchuk’s close ties with the Belarusian authorities and their «purses».

Russian hybrid aggression primarily depends on the successful management of information operations. This requires financial resources and influence groups in target countries. Ukraine and Belarus are prime examples for studying the Kremlin’s tactics in creating and supporting a pro-Russian lobby.

The imposition of sanctions against Taras Kozak is aimed at reducing the influence of oligarchs and their shadow schemes in Ukraine. Such changes, especially if they are supported by symmetrical Western sanctions, will lead to the wellbeing of the entire region and the erosion of Russian influence.

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