KYIV -- Ukraine has sanctioned the media assets connected to a political heavyweight with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kyiv’s latest move against pro-Kremlin figures inside the country.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 2 signed off on the sanctions proposed by his national-security team against three television stations nominally owned by Taras Kozak, a member of the pro-Russian faction Opposition Platform For Life.
However, Ukrainian media claim the broadcasters -- Ukrainian television channels 112, NewsOne, and ZIK -- are actually owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the faction’s political council and one of the richest and most influential individuals in the country.
Medvedchuk denies he owns the television stations.
The 66-year-old Medvedchuk, who picked Putin to be the godfather of his daughter, was sanctioned by the United States in March 2014 following the overthrow of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych for his role in undermining democracy in Ukraine.
As a result of the sanctions approved on February 2, the stations were immediately shut down but they continue to stream their content on the Internet.
Zelenskiy said in a posting on Twitter that the move had been a difficult decision and that Ukraine supported freedom of speech but not "propaganda financed by the aggressor country."
Serhiy Leshchenko, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament, called the sanctions against the stations a “powerful step” and described the stations as a “Russian Trojan horse” for disseminating Kremlin propaganda inside the country.
Leshchenko called for YouTube to ban the stations.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the presidential office, told local media that the channels were “quite actively and often openly used as tools of foreign propaganda in Ukraine.”
"By shutting down opposition television channels, Zelenskiy acknowledged his inability to withstand political competition," Aleksei Pushkov, a political analyst and frequent critic of the West who is also a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, wrote on Twitter.
"We regard this decision...as a political reprisal against objectionable media," channels 112, NewsOne, and ZiK said in a joint statement quoted by Reuters.
The move is the latest in a series taken by Kyiv since late January against figures considered Russian agents and follow the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a staunch supporter of Ukraine.
It also comes a day after the first call between the new U.S. administration and Zelenskiy's government.
On February 1, Zelenskiy’s Servant Of The People party voted to expel Oleksandr Dubinskiy, a lawmaker that Washington had put under sanctions over alleged interference in the 2020 U.S. election.
And on January 28, Ukraine announced it had launched a criminal investigation into attempts by individuals to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
The U.S. Treasury Department in September 2020 sanctioned Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach for interfering in the U.S. election, accusing him of being a Russian agent.
Derkach published what he claimed was compromising information on Biden and his son, Hunter, in the months leading up to the November election in what was seen as an attempt to help incumbent President Donald Trump.
Treasury in January also sanctioned seven individuals and four entities it claimed were associated with Derkach’s influence operation, including Dubinskiy.
Zelenskiy’s former national-security chief, Oleksandr Danylyuk, warned on January 27 that his former boss would have to clean house of those officials connected to the interference operation as it sought better relations with the new U.S. administration.
The United States has been one of the biggest backers of Ukraine as it seeks to reform its economy and integrate with the European Union. Washington has given Ukraine more than $1.6 billion in military aid since 2014 to combat Russian aggression as well as billions in financial aid.
Biden oversaw Ukraine policy while serving as vice president from 2009 to 2017.