The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Russian troops massing on the border, Ukraine’s Zelensky focuses instead on internal foes

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels on Dec. 15. (Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

KYIV, Ukraine — With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has chosen this moment to pick internal battles — an approach that risks dividing the country amid what Western officials warn could be a full-scale military attack by Moscow.

Zelensky is focusing on two of Ukraine’s most powerful men: Rinat Akhmetov, a metals and media mogul whose total wealth Forbes Magazine estimates to be around $7 billion, and Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire former president whom Zelensky defeated in 2019.

Analysts say Zelensky, whose popularity has slumped since he swept to commanding victory in Ukraine’s presidential election two years ago, could be making a populist play. But he risks presenting a disorganized image of Ukraine to an international community contemplating aid for the country to counter this latest escalation with Russia.

Western officials are privately expressing bafflement that the Ukrainian public has largely shrugged off the threat of an invasion from Russia — in contrast to the alarm expressed by the United States and Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to reiterate what the Kremlin considers a “red line” regarding NATO expansion into Ukraine during his marathon annual news conference on Thursday. Moscow has demanded the alliance guarantee it will not carry out any military activity outside its territory in Ukraine and other former Soviet states.

Putin told senior officers at the Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday that Russia will “take adequate military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps.”

Since early December, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that Russia was planning a massive military invasion of Ukraine. Here’s why Moscow would do that. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Zelensky campaigned on ending what he said were the two greatest threats to the country: The war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and oligarchs’ political and economic domination of the country. But choosing to tackle both at the same time could lead to not delivering on either promise.

“Unfortunately, this is a really dangerous step,” said Yevhen Magda, an analyst at the Institute of World Policy in Kyiv. “Given the real threat of Russian invasion, looking for enemies inside the country is not the best way. Russia can only applaud any destabilization.”

On Ukraine’s front, a real war overshadows worries about a possible future one with Russia

Ukrainian authorities said this week they were placing Poroshenko under formal investigation for alleged state treason and “facilitating the activity of terrorist organizations.”

The charges stem from coal purchases by the government for state enterprises six years ago, when Poroshenko was president. The coal allegedly came from mines controlled by Moscow-backed militants in eastern Ukraine; its sale would have helped finance their battle against the Kyiv government.

Officials in Poroshenko’s political party reject the accusations. The government bodies involved in the investigation, such as the prosecutor general’s office, say they work independently of any influence from the president.

Zelensky claimed last month that Akhmetov was being recruited to take part in a coup against the Ukrainian government. He didn’t provide evidence or further details.

Zelensky did not say Akhmetov was planning the coup himself. Still, the billionaire was outraged.

“The very idea of my involvement” was “utterly absurd,” Akhmetov said in a statement to The Washington Post, and “came out of the blue for me completely.”

Among Ukrainians, “de-oligarchization,” as it’s referred to here, is a political slam dunk: Billionaires and multimillionaires are widely seen to have built their fortunes through insider connections or illegal means and now finance political parties and manipulate the gears of government.

In a recent poll conducted by a Ukrainian research consortium, nearly half of those surveyed said they thought that oligarchs are “the greatest danger to the country.”

Ukraine wants to show Biden it’s serious about ending ‘oligarch era.’ That’s not so easy.

The de-oligarchization drive is a centerpiece of Zelensky’s anti-corruption agenda. That agenda is backed by the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund, which have linked support for Ukraine to its fight against graft. In June, President Biden said Ukraine needed to clean up corruption before it could be a candidate for NATO ascension.

What’s less clear is whether Ukrainians trust Zelensky to get the job done, or support him right now, as Ukraine faces a military threat from Russia.

In March, Zelensky, a former comedian who played an oligarch-battling president in a popular television series before he was elected, released a video in which he addressed the oligarchs directly.

“Are you ready to work legally and transparently, or do you want to continue to create monopolies, control the media, influence deputies and other civil servants?” he said.

At the time, only one member of the country’s super rich was directly affected by Zelensky’s crackdown on oligarchs: Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Putin’s and leader of one of the country’s main opposition parties.

Ukrainian officials froze his assets and blocked transmission of three television stations connected to him for allegedly disseminating pro-Russian propaganda. Medvedchuk denies the stations are his.

In October, prosecutors accused Medvedchuk of treason in the same coal-purchase case that swept up Poroshenko.

Ukrainians in Kyiv voiced concern on Dec. 15, as the threat of another Russian invasion has some in the region on edge. (Video: The Washington Post)

Zelensky’s new “anti-oligarch” legislation, which goes into effect next year, sets out four key areas that define an “oligarch”: influence in politics, media holdings, economic monopolies and minimum total assets of around $100 million. An oligarch is defined as possessing at least three of these.

Those who meet the criteria will be required to declare all their assets and are barred from taking part in privatizations or financing political parties. Government officials also must report interactions they have with oligarchs or their representatives.

Opinion polls at the beginning of the summer showed that more than one-third of Ukrainians thought the anti-oligarch law was driven by “populism” aimed at boosting Zelensky’s ratings. Only around 20 percent thought it reflected a “sincere desire for justice.”

Putin keeps Washington guessing as U.S. huddles with allies to prevent Ukraine invasion

Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, which Zelensky heads, will make the final decision on who qualifies as an oligarch. The names of those designated oligarchs will be listed on a national register.

Some political observers see a risk that the oligarch law could be used as a “club,” in Magda’s words, to limit funding for Zelensky’s political opponents.

Akhmetov insists he is an investor, not an oligarch, and said he’s ready to defend himself in Ukrainian and international courts. He said he doesn’t oppose the law per se but is “against violations of human rights and the suppression of freedom of speech.”

“I support the move to combat corruption in Ukraine,” he said. “But this problem will not be solved by adopting controversial laws and making lists of ‘enemies of the people.’”

In recent weeks, Akhmetov’s television channels have become a platform for some of Zelensky’s sharpest critics, which appears to have fueled the animosity between them.

Akhmetov says that he does not interfere with the channels’ editorial policy and that it’s the “guests who come to the channels” and not the channels themselves that criticize Zelensky.

Daria Kaleniuk, the director of Kyiv’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, said she thinks “people are now supporting Zelensky more” than Akhmetov in their feud. But Akhmetov’s control over “the most popular national TV channel” can influence the public’s perception.

Ukraine’s foreign minister wants West to clarify its sanction threats to Moscow

In his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament this month, Zelensky said the government would prevail in its “battle with the oligarchs.”

“Ukraine will put an end to this,” he said.

The next day, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, announced in a Facebook post that her office was investigating around 200 cases that involved the businesses of an unnamed oligarch. Ukrainian media identified the person as Akhmetov.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko on Tuesday released a video from Warsaw vowing to return to Ukraine in early January. He could face a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

“I want to emphasize that placing a head of state under suspicion for high treason and financing terrorism is crossing a red line,” he said in the video. “This is no longer a joke. The joke is over. And one has to answer for this. But later. Now, we have to unite and save the country.”

Read more:

Kyiv keeping calm and carrying on even as Kremlin boosts pressure on Ukraine

Russian military movements near Ukraine: What satellite images show

Russia broadens security demands from West, seeking to curb U.S. and NATO influence on borders