KYIV -- More than a decade ago, Viktor Medvedchuk became known as the "Gray Cardinal" because his low profile masked unparalleled clout in the halls of power in Ukraine.
These days, detractors have another nickname for the millionaire tycoon and backroom politician with close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin: they call him the Prince of Darkness.
A behind-the-scenes force in Ukrainian politics ever since Leonid Kuchma's presidency, when he served as chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, Medvedchuk holds no prominent post today -- and he says he doesn't want one. In a recent interview, he told RFE/RL he feels more "free" and effective without the confines of political office.
But his outsize influence has been thrown into relief again by the upheaval that has hit Ukraine since protesters drove a Moscow-friendly president from power in February 2014. Russia responded by seizing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, setting off a war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,500 people.
With ties in tatters, Ukraine's new, pro-Western leadership appointed Medvedchuk that June to act as a lead arbiter in dealings with Russia. The hope was that the Kremlin connections of a man who has Putin as the godfather of his daughter would be helpful -- particularly in negotiating prisoner exchanges.
But Medvedchuk's Kremlin connections meant that, while the appointment was celebrated in Moscow, it was met with widespread concern and suspicion by the Ukrainian public.
More than two years later, that wariness has not gone away. Several Ukrainians who were jailed in Russia have returned home in swap deals, including the prominent former helicopter navigator Nadia Savchenko, but many others remain behind bars.
Meanwhile, the peace deal Medvedchuk helped forge for eastern Ukraine is in danger of falling apart. The cease-fire is in tatters, with increased fighting this summer stoking fears of a return to full-scale war. And political aspects of the Minsk accords, which were supposed to reintegrate separatist-held territory into Ukraine and restore Kyiv's control over its border with Russia by the end of 2015, have gone largely unfulfilled.
For many in Ukraine, questions about the motives of Medvedchuk have only been amplified.
Medvedchuk is "Putin's personal representative in Ukraine," said Taras Berezovets, director of the Kyiv-based political consultancy firm Berta Communications.
Medvedchuk has said it is a "great honor" to be counted among Putin's friends. The Russian president reportedly baptized Medvedchuk's daughter in St. Petersburg in 2004, and cameras have repeatedly captured him at Putin's side -- whether it's at a Formula One race in Sochi, Russia, at a sambo martial arts meet, or with wife and kids in tow at a lavish Crimean villa.
In the interview with RFE/RL, Medvedchuk made no apology for his closeness with Putin. On the contrary.
"You know, those who talk about it, it seems to me they're just jealous of me. They are just jealous of me, and that's it," he said, adding that he has nothing to hide: "I don't even want to make other comments on this subject, because my work is transparent."
Medvedchuk spoke to RFE/RL in a boardroom at his office, behind heavy doors flanked by beefy security guards in an unassuming building off Kyiv's Leo Tolstoy Square.
He wore well-shined loafers, pressed slacks, musky cologne, and a tight-fitting white shirt that set off a fresh suntan he acquired in what might seem like the last place a Ukrainian politician would go for a summer vacation these days: Crimea.
"It was perfect -- a warm sea, nice temperature, great location," said Medvedchuk, whose practiced, pearly smile seemed to project a confidence grounded in careful preparation. "I first vacationed in Crimea sometime in the early 1990s and I've continued that tradition since."
But this is not the early 1990s. Today, Crimea is at the heart of a rift between Moscow and Kyiv that may never heal: Ukraine says it will never give up the peninsula, while Moscow says it will never give back what Putin has called Russia's holy land. Kyiv, rights groups, and Western governments say Russia has abused and oppressed Tatars and other Crimeans who opposed the annexation in March 2014, and visitors from other parts of Ukraine have been intimidated and threatened with imprisonment by the Moscow-imposed authorities.
Viktor Medvedchuk appears to have had no qualms about vacationing in Crimea, even thought the annexed peninsula is a major source of friction between Kyiv and Moscow. (file photo)
Medvedchuk said that he understood their frustration and stressed that legally, Crimea is part of Ukraine. That is the position of Kyiv and most of the world.
"But de facto, unfortunately, it belongs to Russia," he said. And don't expect it be returned to Ukraine, he added, accusing the central government of pushing the peninsula away, alienating its residents, and prompting them to accept Russian control.
"If the authorities in Ukraine would like Crimea returned, they would not cut the electricity [from the mainland to the peninsula], not cut the water and declare an economic blockade," Medvedchuk said. "It would not have stopped rail transport, both freight and passenger. It would not have stopped trucking."
Medvedchuk is in lockstep with the Kremlin, or close, on other key issues.
While much of the world accuses Moscow of igniting the war in eastern Ukraine, Medvedchuk puts most of the blame on the Ukrainian government. He contended that Kyiv is wrong when it says that elections in the separatist-held territories, a key step on the path to peace set out in the Minsk deal, are possible only after Ukrainian control over the border with Russia in those regions is restored.
The accord called for an immediate and full bilateral cease-fire, followed by the withdrawal of all heavy weapons by both sides and the establishment of an effective monitoring regime before local elections should be held. Kyiv must also adopt a law governing the elections and pass legislation providing amnesty to separatists who have not committed heinous crimes, something that has become a contentious political issue in Kyiv and is yet to be done.
"Without these political changes…the Minsk deal won't budge an inch," Medvedchuk said, suggesting the onus is on Ukraine.
Viktor Medvedchuk (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.
Echoing Moscow's line, he said Kyiv must reach a consensus directly with the separatist leadership, "because there is no other way to bring these territories back [to Ukraine]."
"Well, there is one more way, but it is unrealistic," he continued. "The Ukrainian army must go on the offensive and seize these territories by force. But neither Washington nor Brussels will let Ukraine do that."
In contrast with Medvedchuk and the Kremlin, Kyiv and the West have stressed the need for Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk deal, which requires the withdrawal of "all foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries" from Ukraine.
In addition to being an architect of the Minsk deal, Medvedchuk has become a key go-between for Kyiv and Moscow in arranging prisoner exchanges -- most notably the swap of Savchenko, on May 25, for two Russians Kyiv says were military intelligence officers. In all, he claims to have facilitated the release of 402 illegally held persons since December 2014.
In this area, he is quick to tout his importance.
"I am the only person conducting negotiations with the administrations of the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR [and] with the administration of the Russian Federation," he said, grasping his chest with his hands and leaning over the table. LNR and DNR are acronyms of the names the Russia-backed separatists use for the territory they control.
Three weeks after Savchenko came home, Medvedchuk was able to get Russia to release and return Ukrainians Hennadiy Afanasyev and Yuriy Soloshenko, in exchange for two Ukrainian citizens charged with promoting separatism in Odesa.
Since then, though, the swaps have stalled, and each side still holds many dozens of people in custody. Among the Ukrainians held by Russia are Oleh Sentsov -- a filmmaker who was detained in Crimea in May 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in prison in August 2015 on a terror plot conviction that supporters say is a travesty of justice -- and Oleksandr Kolchenko, who was detained at the same time and sentenced to 10 years.
The U.S. State Department has called the charges against Sentsov and Kolchenko "groundless" and said they "were taken hostage on Ukrainian territory."
Viktor Medvedchuk says securing the release of jailed Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov (left) and Oleksandr Kolchenko (right) may be complicated by the fact that they were convicted of an offense in Crimea, which Russia views as its territory.
There have been rumors in recent months of negotiations to free them, but no deal has materialized. According to Medvedchuk, that's because the men are in a different category than those detained on the battlefields of the Donbas.
"There are people who [were detained] in Donetsk and Luhansk…in connection with events that occurred on the territory of the 'antiterrorist operation,'" Medvedchuk said, using Kyiv's term for its military operation in eastern Ukraine. He said Savchenko is the best example.
In Russia's view, he said, the cases of Sentsov, Kolchenko and some others are different because "they were convicted of an offense committed on the territory of Crimea, which de jure is perceived by Russia as its territory."
According to Medvedchuk, more than 600 people whose release is sought by the separatists are being held on Kyiv-controlled territory. He said that's about equal to the number of those held by the DNR, LNR, and Russia combined.
From Kyiv to Washington, many have long viewed Medvedchuk as a Russian stooge, an accusation he vehemently denies.
When Russia seized control of Crimea, the United States imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk for "threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine's democratic institutions and processes."
Viktor Medvedchuk (second left) was a behind-the-scenes force during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (third left), for whom he served as chief of staff.
A White House statement also said that Medvedchuk had "provided financial, material, or technological support" to Viktor Yanukovych, the president who was pushed from power and fled to Russia after setting Ukraine's upheaval in motion by scrapping plans for a far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union and seeking closer ties with Russia.
That decision was in line with policies advocated by Medvedchuk, who had been criticizing the EU for years.
In 2012, his nonprofit political group Ukrainian Choice pushed for a referendum on Ukraine's accession to the Moscow-led Customs Union -- one of the groupings of former Soviet republics that Putin seems to see as a counterbalance to the European Union and to Western influence in the region.
Ukrainian Choice also played a role in stirring up anti-EU sentiment ahead of the November 2013 summit in Vilnius during which Yanukovych had been set to sign the Association Agreement. In a nationwide campaign, it put up billboards showing same-sex stick-figure couples holding hands and the words: "Association with the EU means same-sex marriage."
Born in Siberia to a father who was deported there from western Ukraine after suffering political repression for participating in national movements, Medvedchuk was not always such a critic of the West.
East And West
While a deputy in Ukraine's parliament between 1997 and 2002, he often spoke well of Europe and especially Poland, where he enjoyed close working relationships with government officials. Those who know him say they noticed a shift to pro-Russian views when he worked as Kuchma's chief of staff from 2002 to 2005.
Since then, Medvedchuk has helped shape political and economic policies in a way that detractors say plays directly into Putin's hands.
They point to his involvement in drafting a contentious 2010 gas agreement signed by Putin, then prime minister, and his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko, as an example of him brokering a deal that favored Moscow.
More recently, he has said that Ukraine must be "federalized" if it is to be stable, meaning that that regional authorities including the separatists in the east should be granted more power at the expense of the central government -- an idea that has also been promoted by Moscow.
"Medvedchuk is a political genius," said Berezovets. "But his efforts are directed at Putin's success, not Ukraine."
Turning to the third person to refer to himself, Medvedchuk denied that in the interview.
"Mr. Medvedchuk lives here in Ukraine," he told RFE/RL. "He studied here, worked here, continues to work here. It is home to his family; his children are studying here."
"I'm not going to go anywhere. I wish happiness and prosperity for the country and will do everything to ensure that this country finds peace," Medvedchuk continued. "My relationship with the president of Russia, I believe, helps me to help [Ukraine's] interests. I use it wherever possible."
Right now, Medvedchuk said, he is using it to seek an end to the war in Donbas. It is coincidence, he says, that his position on this issue -- that Donbas is part of Ukraine -- is shared by Putin.
"[Putin says] that there should be peace in Donbas. He also recognized and continually said that the Donbas is the territory of Ukraine," Medvedchuk said. "Putin, however, also repeatedly said that he thinks about the safety of the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas…as outlined in the Minsk agreements."
Two days after interviewing Medvedchuk, RFE/RL visited the front-line positions of a Ukrainian battalion in Maryinka, a town 28 kilometers from the center of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. There was no cease-fire.
On the night of July 27, tanks unleashed a barrage of shells on the battalion's positions from the separatist-held side about 100 meters away, setting off blasts that rocked the town and set one home ablaze. There was nobody inside; many have fled Maryinka since the start of the war.
It's a conflict that many of those fighting want to end. Asked about the Minsk deal and Medvedchuk's role as an arbiter between Kyiv, Moscow, and the separatists, battalion commander Vyacheslav Vlasenko echoed what has become a widespread sentiment in war-torn eastern Ukraine: "I don't care."
"It could be the devil or Adolf Hitler himself," Vlasenko told RFE/RL at the battalion's Maryinka headquarters. "If this person brings real peace, then I don't care who he is."