KYIV -- Ukraine has announced a fresh set of sanctions against 10 individuals close to ousted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, the latest in a series of moves by incumbent President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration against actors with ties to Russia.
Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council on February 26 announced sanctions against former Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, former Security Service Chief Oleksandr Yakymenko, and eight other individuals.
Zakharchenko was accused of unleashing deadly force against anti-government protesters in Kyiv in 2014. He later fled to Russia, as did Yakymenko and Yanukovych.
The sanctions freeze any assets, such as bank accounts, the men have inside Ukraine.
Zelenskiy’s administration has now announced three rounds of sanctions this month alone against individuals, including lawmakers, with close ties to Russia.
The moves come after a sharp drop in Zelenskiy’s popularity and as he seeks to build strong relations with the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Eugene Majda, a political analyst at the Ukrainian Institute of Politics in Kyiv, told RFE/RL the latest round of sanctions was aimed at “pleasing voters” as it will have little impact on the country since none of the individuals are in a position of power and some have fled.
The Security and Defense Council on February 19 announced sanctions against tycoon and political heavyweight Viktor Medvedchuk, his wife Oksana Marchenko, as well as several individuals and companies connected to him.
Medvedchuk is the chairman of the political council for the second-largest party in the Ukrainian parliament after Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People.
Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform-For Life party has its base in Ukraine’s eastern provinces and advocates a pro-Russia policy. He has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Crackdown On TV Stations
Earlier in the month, Zelenskiy’s administration sanctioned Taras Kozak, a close associate of Medvedchuk, and three television stations that he owns.
Zelenskiy’s administration justified the sanctions on the grounds of combatting “terrorism financing,” claiming the stations receive money from mining activities in regions of Ukraine not controlled by the central government.
Russia-backed separatists in 2014 took control of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine after Yanukovych fled. Kyiv continues to battle the separatists in a low-intensity war that has killed more than 13,000 people.
Zelenskiy’s administration justified the sanctions, claiming the stations receive money from mining activities in regions of Ukraine not controlled by the central government.
Russia is backing separatists in parts of two regions in eastern Ukraine that Kyiv is seeking to re-exert control over. The war, now heading into its eighth year, has killed more than 13,000 people.
Ukrainian media claim the stations are actually owned by Medvedchuk, who uses them to promote his pro-Russia agenda and slam Zelenskiy’s leadership.
“Zelenskiy has obviously realized that pro-Russian television stations and politicians are causing a significant influence on his rating,” Majda said of the sanctioned stations.
A former comic with no political experience, Zelenskiy won a landslide victory in April 2019, garnering about 73 percent of the vote on promises to fight corruption and take on the tycoons who control Ukrainian politics from behind the scenes.
However, Zelenskiy has failed to make significant progress to date, leading to a sharp decline in his ratings to around 25 percent. Servant of the People stands at just 22 percent versus 17 percent for Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform-For Life.
On January 27, Oleksandr Danylyuk, Zelenskiy's former national-security chief, described his government as “very weak.”
Mykhailo Minakov, the Kennan Institute's senior adviser on Ukraine, told RFE/RL on February 24 the moves to impose sanctions on Medvedchuk and others was driven by Zelenskiy’s desire to boost his ratings and that it appeared to be working.
“His risky moves have generated him support and his approval rating is back to growth and this is very important for him,” Minakov said.
It has also won him praise from the United States, another key constituent for the Ukrainian president.
The United States is Ukraine’s biggest backer in its standoff with Russia and drive to reform its economy and government. However, relations were strained during the term of former President Donald Trump.
Zelenskiy is keen to revive the bilateral relationship under the new Biden administration.
Zelenskiy's moves to impose sanctions -- and arrest former bank officials tied to one of the nation’s biggest corruption sandals -- coincided with the start of the new U.S. administration.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has welcomed the sanctions against the television stations and Medvedchuk, whom Washington sanctioned in 2014 for undermining democracy in Ukraine.