By Bohdan Nahaylo
February 13, 2021
So, to a large extent, the die is cast, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has finally acted resolutely in confronting Russia’s fifth column in Ukraine, headed and financed to a significant degree by tycoon Viktor Medvechuk, a close associate of Ukraine’s primary enemy, the Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin.
By endorsing sanctions against pro-Kremlin TV channels believed to be part of Medvechuk’s business and political empire in Ukraine, Zelensky has clarified the political battle lines in the country. He has defied the Kremlin’s continuation of war by other means against his country, namely through subversion in the form of disinformation and sedition conducted under the banner of freedom of speech and democracy.
As expected, the pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine, invoking democracy – a principle being trampled on yet again at this very moment in Moscow and its domain – are crying “Foul!” “Censorship!” and even “Fascism!”, and appealing to the country’s Supreme Court and the well-meaning, but often naive Western world.
And within Ukraine, there is confusion about what has happened or rather what is at stake. According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) from Feb. 5 to Feb 7, 43% of Ukrainians supported Zelensky’s decree on the enactment of the decision of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) regarding sanctions against TV channels 112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK, while 40.3% did not.
34.6% of respondents considered the ban as a necessary step to protect the state, while 40.8%, disagreed and perceived it as in effect a restriction of human rights. And abroad too, the response has been too ambiguous to be helpful.
Typically, on Feb. 3, the spokesperson of European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, said that while Ukraine’s efforts to protect itself from Russian military and “information manipulation” are “legitimate,” this should not be “at the expense of freedom of the media and must be done in full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms and following international standards.”
So, if this latest game-changing experience in Ukrainian politics teaches us anything, it is how poorly Ukraine was prepared to face Russia’s military aggression in 2014. And how ill-equipped it still is to confront Moscow’s incessant onslaught against the values and institutions that characterize modern democratic and westward oriented Ukraine.
And here, Ukraine, or rather its various leaders over the last 30 years, and especially since the country has faced naked Russian aggression in Crimea and the Donbas, have only themselves to blame. They failed to provide the legal edifice to withstand such aggression and to wage an effective defensive war in the informational and ideological spheres.
Let’s allude to the legal aspects. Formally, even as Russia continues to occupy Ukrainian territory and kill its soldiers and civilians, Ukraine is not at war with Russia. On the sixth anniversary of the second Minsk Accords supposed to establish a framework for a peaceful resolution of the “conflict” – read Russia’s aggression – in the Donbas, officially neither Ukraine nor its Western partners call a spade a spade, and play along out of some misplaced diplomatic nonsense, that Russia is not the warmonger that it is.
So, in undoubtedly difficult conditions, the administration of the then-president Petro Poroshenko let its own side down badly by agreeing to label the struggle against Russian aggression in the Donbas euphemistically as an anti-terrorist operation. And we are still confronted with the consequences of this grave non-sequitur.
Given the rapacious nature of Ukraine’s eastern neighbor and the lessons from history, the only explanation for the serious gaps that have remained in Ukraine’s constitution and legislation since independence was achieved in 1991 is unforgivable shortsightedness. How else can one explain that the crimes of treason, subversion, and collaborationism with the enemy remain so vague, or are completely absent?
Yes, Article 37 of the Ukrainian Constitution prohibits political parties and public associations that, among other things, are in general terms against the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Article 111 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code dealing with High Treason goes further and criminalizes “joining the enemy at a time of martial law or armed conflict, espionage, assistance in subversive activities against Ukraine provided to a foreign state […].”
Yet this is all very hazy. In Ukraine’s current legal system, still far from being genuinely independent and reliable, it is difficult to prove, even if the will is there, that someone has aided and abetted Ukraine’s enemy, alone convict and punish them. And such flaws need to be addressed with a renewed sense of urgency.
The accumulated evidence about the methods and aims of Russia’s broad-ranging subversion efforts is out there and demands to be taken far more seriously. Even the Americans, even the French have discovered this during the last few years as Russian interference in their domestic politics has become more brazen.
Exactly a year ago, the authoritative U.S. think tank, the RAND Corporation, produced a highly relevant analysis entitled: “Understanding Russian Subversion: Patterns, Threats and Responses.” The authors note that Russia is accused of “having undertaken a wide range of subversive activities against the United States and its partners since 2014,” aimed at influencing and undermining target countries’ domestic politics and institutions. These methods “leverage concepts and tools that were established to protect democratic societies (e.g., freedom of speech and freedom of assembly) to undermine democratic values and practices.”
The specialists devote considerable attention to the subversive strategies that Russia has applied against Ukraine – military, political, economic, information [or rather disinformation] and cyber. They emphasize that “denied and covert subversive activities are, especially threatening.”
Zelensky’s courageous stand against Russia’s political and media proxies has clearly embarrassed his predecessor, former president Poroshenko, who still rather pathetically claims to be the unchallenged leader of Ukraine’s patriotic forces. Yet it was he who failed to put Medvechuk and his allies in their place.
Zelensky’s action is both very important and timely. It’s not a case of better late than never but rather, given the growing treacherous impudence of the collaborationists (including not simply fraternizing with the enemy, but portraying themselves as Putin’s trusted representatives), and their successes in manipulating popular attitudes, one of now or never, otherwise it might be too late.
This is not about censorship, but about national security, and the defense of democracy and Ukraine’s independence. Even those enlightened foreign defenders of democratic values, who have rushed to wave the yellow card, surely do not need to be reminded that democracies have the right to defend themselves, especially from subversion and collaborationism in times of war.
After World War II, the concept of defensive democracy has been used by numerous countries, including Germany, Israel, South Korea and Taiwan. And, of course, the predicament of Ukraine, being in a de facto state of war with Russia, certainly has similarities with the challenges that have been faced by the latter three states.
The United States is not at war with Russia, yet it has applied sanctions against those perceived as Russian agents interfering in its domestic politics. And at the beginning of February, EU and NATO member Latvia dropped several Russian television channels from its digital territorial broadcast and cable TV offerings. This, despite the fact that around a third of Latvia’s population speaks Russian as a first language. “It will diminish the pressure of Russian propaganda in Latvia,” Ivars Abolins, chairman of the broadcast watchdog agency NEPLP, told Agence-France Presse explicitly.
Unfortunately, the problem is far more complex than simply silencing the channels connected with Medvechuk. Other Ukrainian TV channels, such as NASH and Inter have also been accused of displaying ambiguous political attitudes inconsistent with the interest of national security at a time of war.
Thus, Zelensky’s move serves as a signal and a warning to others. His immediate challenge is to ensure his actions are properly understood and to build political and popular support for them. He has carefully avoided being seen to go after all the TV channels hostile to him – including Poroshenko’s – and specified that his “difficult decision” has targeted only the ones most directly linked with Russian propaganda.
But, of course, Zelensky’s direct strike at Putin’s point-man in Ukraine, Medvechuk, and his allies and sympathizers has raised not only eyebrows, but the political stakes. And the knives are out.
A dubious role is already being played by the president’s former close political associate, Dmytro Razumkov, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament who at this critical moment has broken ranks with the colleague who made his political rise possible.
So, hopefully, Zelensky will find sufficient internal and external understanding and support for his measures to safeguard Ukraine’s democracy and independence.
And at the same time, take heed – “Beware the Ides of March.”