Russia continues to use money and powerful allies among Ukrainian regional elites and criminal circles. It seeks to strengthen its presence in Ukraine after its influence there has weakened considerably since 2014. Russia is also successfully manipulating President Zelensky’s close connections to assist in carrying out its plans.
This is the central message of the investigative film “Russia returns to Ukraine: oligarchs, criminals and local elites”, presented in London on October 26th.
The maker of the film, investigative journalist Tim White, is known for his high-profile investigations into Russian hybrid influences: “Nothing but lies: Fighting fake news” (exposing Russian propaganda and the Kremlin’s hybrid influences), as well as “One World Cup, One War, How Much Corruption” (about the corrupt cooperation with Russia during the selection of the host country of the 2018 FIFA World Cup).
The situation in one of the key industrial centres in the city of Dnipro clearly shows the methods of the Russian special services. Along with other strategic cities – Odesa and Kharkiv, Dnipro is considered by Russia as one of the means of exercising an influence on the situation in Ukraine.
In 2014, pro-Russian activists raised the Russian flag of the Russian Federation in Dnipro. This happened even before the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. But the city of Dnipro united and was able to stop the onset of the “Russian Spring”, Tim White says.
In 2015, the citizens of Dnipro elected Borys Filatov as the mayor, who then presented himself as a patriot and an active participant in the new Russian-Ukrainian war. But during his six years in power, Filatov’s methods and connections give a reason to believe that the Russians actively involve the mayor of Dnipro in their game.
The main result of the six-year term of Filatov is that Dnipro actually became much less under the control of the central government. It became an enclave where the Ukrainian Constitution or laws do not apply. A vivid example is the pressure on the judiciary. In July, the Amur-Nyzhnodniprovskyi District Court of Dnipro ruled against the city council. Then, Borys Filatov ordered the District Court to be cut off from water. At the same time, he publicly boasted about it on his Facebook page.
By using loopholes in the Ukrainian law, the mayor of Dnipro legalized his own power structure, the Municipal Guard, often referred to by the citizens of Dnipro as simply “Filatov’s private army”. Usually, this structure, which is financed from the city budget ($2 million per year), takes over the functions of the police, even though only the state has a monopoly on the use of force. The Municipal Guard consists of criminals, actual “anti-Maidan veterans” who took part in the pro-Russian uprising in Dnipro in 2014 (the so-called “Russian Spring”). Mykhailo Koshlyak, a longtime partner of Filatov, owner of security business and now a deputy of the Dnipropetrovsk regional council from the pro-Russian party “Opposition Platform — For Life”, is believed to be the caretaker of the Municipal Guard.
At the same time, the city actually has a “secret” Mayor’s Office headed by Hennadiy Korban, a close friend and business partner of Boris Filatov. Korban is considered the “#1 Raider” in Ukraine. He was once suspected of kidnapping and embezzling funds, for which he was arrested. He is also known as the man who helped Ihor Kolomoyskyi create his business empire. Kolomoyskyi is under US sanctions for embezzling Privatbank funds. The Ukrainian government’s unwillingness to prosecute the oligarch is one of the main stumbling blocks in US-Ukrainian relations.
According to experts, today, all the key decisions in Dnipro are actually made in the “Amsterdam” complex, where Korban lives, ignoring all democratic procedures and following only this group’s interests.
Filatov and Korban involve people with openly pro-Russian political views in governing the city, considered borderline direct agents of Moscow. For a long time, Filatov’s adviser was Valery Chornobuk, the former chairman of the Court of Appeal of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Mr Chornobuk is known for forcing his colleagues to betray Ukraine’s oath and side with the Russian occupation administration during the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Pro-Russian forces are also helping Filatov make the necessary decisions for this group. After the 2020 elections, a coalition was formed in the city council, which includes the “Opposition Platform – For Life” party (led by Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter’s godfather is Vladimir Putin’s) along with the “Propozitsiya” (Proposition) party (Filatov is one of the party’s leaders).
Veterans of the Russian-Ukrainian war, business people, public activists, and independent media oppose the current ruling political party. Filatov is putting pressure on the opposition with the help of the Municipal Guard fighters. In 2018, dozens of entrepreneurs were brutally beaten during the destruction of their kiosks by the city’s public utility workers. In July 2021, fighters of the Municipal Guard attacked journalists of several television channels opposed to Filatov, which covered the illegal dismantling of advertisements in the city. One of the operators, Serhiy Faizulin, was hospitalised with a brain injury.
According to the investigation, Filatov-Korban’s group appears to have serious influence in the Office of the President of Ukraine. First of all, through Kyryl Tymoshenko, who is the Deputy Head of the Office. He is also from Dnipro. The key channel of influence for Tymoshenko is through his father, who co-owns luxury real estate with Korban, and until recently was a member of the Dnipropetrovsk Regional Council from the “Ukrop” party, which Mr Korban also controlled.
The concentration of too much political power in the hands of one person, unrestrained disregard for Ukrainian laws, challenging the authority of the central government – all these are very dangerous signals. Similar signals happened before the fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk. Russian special services skilfully manipulate the regional elites, showing how they can force anyone to choose the pro-Russian side.
How long will Volodymyr Zelensky manage to maintain a balance between his own interests, the need to protect national interests and the appetites of regional elites that can be controlled by the aggressor state? Unfortunately, there is no answer to this question yet, Tim White sums up.
According to the author of the investigation, this is the first 30-minute film in a series of investigations into new security threats arising from the intensification of networks of Russian agents in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. It will be available for viewing in both English and Ukrainian languages on public media platforms.
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