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In late March 2024, a close associate of Putin faced accusations of bribing European lawmakers as part of a Russian influence operation ahead of the June European Parliament elections. This pertains to Viktor Medvedchuk, accused of treason by the former MP of the Verkhovna Rada from the now-banned Opposition Platform for Life party. The Czech government sanctioned Medvedchuk and his associate, former general producer of the 112 Ukraine channel Artem Marchevsky, and identified the news site "Voice of Europe" they manage as a pro-Russian influence source. Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre De Croix praised the Czech government's decision to impose sanctions on this propaganda resource, which Prague called part of a pro-Russian influence campaign, noting that Russia had targeted European Parliament members and "paid them to promote Russian propaganda here."

Valérie Hayer, head of the centrist group Renew Europe in the European Parliament, addressed President Roberta Metzola about the issue, characterizing it as a "clear attack" on the parliament and its "democratic mandate." Aye emphasized that if any current or upcoming European Parliament members accepted money from the Russian government or its confidants or were otherwise corrupted, they must be exposed. According to Euronews, citing Czech media and sources in special services, politicians from Germany, France, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Hungary are implicated in the accusations, including at least 13 European Parliament members mentioned in "Voice of Europe" materials.

We are not evaluating the views propagated by "Voice of Europe" or gauging its impact on the European Parliament elections. Nor are we examining the statements of European parliamentarians that align with the Medvedchuk project. Instead, our focus is on a different question: Why does enemy propaganda rely on "old faces" to achieve its goals? Why does Putin exclude new personnel from his authoritarian decision-making system or key operations of covert influence, opting instead for old, albeit discredited, figures? Wouldn't Putin have more success with someone less obviously linked to propaganda and harmful information, making them harder to suspect of working for the Kremlin?

Viktor Yanukovych: the "legitimate" leader of Donbas or of Ukraine

Among all Ukrainian presidents, Viktor Yanukovych has the lowest approval rating and the highest disapproval rating. As of August 2014, a KMIS survey showed that support for the Party of Regions in eastern Ukraine had dropped to 3%. In a 2023 KMIS study, only 7% of surveyed Ukrainians viewed Yanukovych favorably, while 91% had a negative opinion of him. In 2019, journalists from "Donbas. Realiy" reported an overwhelmingly negative view of Yanukovych among residents of the occupied eastern territories, despite his former popularity in those areas. The prevailing sentiment was negative and often vehement, with few defending him and most considering him a traitor responsible for the war. Disappointment was clear in the aggressive remarks, with little to no sympathy for him.

Despite this, Putin's regime has continued to attempt to elevate Yanukovych, who fled to Russia during the Euromaidan and lost trust even among those in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under Russian control—Yanukovych's own home territory—where Russian information campaigns are prevalent.

In 2017, Radio Svoboda reported that the American political technologist Paul Manafort, who at one time was the political technologist of Yanukovych and Donald Trump, developed the Mariupol Plan. This plan envisaged the return of Yanukovych as a "regional leader" who would rule the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with his associate Serhii Lyovochkin.

In 2018, four years after fleeing to Russia, Viktor Yanukovych spoke at a press conference in Moscow with a proposal — they say he has his own plan for settling the war, and he is ready to present it to Putin and the then US President Donald Trump. It would seem, why "pull this played card from the deck of your puppets out of your sleeve again", asks the journalist Vitaliy Portnikov, a person who has a reputation as a traitor and a coward.

By that time, the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) had become the Joint Forces Operation (JOF), but it had little effect on the situation at the front. Although the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk declared a "complete and indefinite cease-fire", the positional war continued. In 2018, the combat losses of the Ukrainian side exceeded 110 servicemen; this is less than in previous years. The parties reached an impasse, Putin was probably looking for a solution that could "revive" the situation and tilt it to Russia's side, forcing the tame Yanukovych to say he was ready to find new solutions in eastern Ukraine. However, "Yanukovych's plan" was never announced and implemented. In 2019, the government in Ukraine changed, the newly elected President Zelenskyi personally met with the Russian dictator, but Moscow never managed to force Kyiv to implement the disastrous Minsk peace.

Amid all these developments, the Yanukovych’s role wasn't fully utilized. In December 2021, just before a full-scale invasion, the former politician continued his efforts to challenge the Ukrainian legislature's 2014 decision to remove him from the presidency. Investigative journalists from the program "Schemes" uncovered details of two court cases that could potentially give the fugitive ex-president—at least on paper—a semblance of legal legitimacy, despite his lack of support from millions of Ukrainians. According to The Washington Post, which cited intercepted intelligence, Yanukovych was in Belarus in early March 2022, waiting for an opportunity to return to Ukraine and lead a puppet government. Following the invasion, Medvedchuk referred to Yanukovych as "the last legitimate president of Ukraine," as reported by the propaganda outlet "RIA Novosti," suggesting that the former regional leader may still have a role to play.

Oleg Tsarev: one among others

Just before the full-scale invasion, another regional fugitive re-emerged from political obscurity. The Financial Times, referencing Western intelligence, reported that the Kremlin intended to appoint former parliamentarian Oleh Tsarev—now suspected of treason and financing Russian aggression—as the head of an "occupation government" in Ukraine. This move was planned after the full-scale invasion and the toppling of Ukraine's legitimate government, but the authors of the article expressed doubts about the plan's viability. Similarly, Reuters confirmed that Russia considered Tsarev for the role of leading a puppet government in Kyiv during the early days of the invasion, citing anonymous sources.

Despite these allegations, Tsarev denied the claims. In mid-February 2022, he told the Financial Times that he was "not important enough" to lead such a government.

From 2002 to 2014, Tsarev served as an MP in the Verkhovna Rada from the Party of Regions. He made several controversial anti-Ukrainian statements, including referring to Constitution Day as a day of shame for the Ukrainian people, suggesting Surzhik be made the state language, and urging Poland to recognize the Volyn tragedy as genocide against Poles. After Russia's annexation of Crimea and the onset of war, Tsarev became the "speaker of the parliament of Novorossiya." In 2015, he left politics to manage health resorts in Crimea.

In the spring of 2022, Tsarev entered Ukraine with an army of "liberators" under the guise of distributing humanitarian aid in the Kyiv region. Journalist Denys Kazanskyi released a video documenting Tsarev's activities.

In 2023, Tsarev was assassinated near his home in occupied Yalta. Although Ukraine did not claim responsibility for the attack, BBC Ukraine's sources within the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) indicated the assault on Tsarev was part of a special operation by the service. The news of the attack sparked malice and animosity toward Tsarev among commenters on pro-Russian local media monitored by our team. Many regarded the attack as a "just punishment" for his corrupt management of Crimean sanatoriums and expressed distrust of him as a political figure due to his alleged past connections with Ukrainian neo-Nazis during his tenure in the Verkhovna Rada, as noted in Telegram channels with 13.6 thousand subscribers.

Despite his pro-Russian stance, Tsarev never gained full acceptance even among the pro-Russian residents of Crimea, let alone the leadership of some puppet governments across the country. Currently, he serves as a commentator on events in Ukraine for Russian media. For instance, he recently appeared on air with propagandist Olga Skabeeva, claiming Russians would be "greeted with flowers in Lviv."

Yuriy Meshkov as "plan B" in 2014

In 1994–1995, Crimea had its own "president," Yuriy Meshkov, who was a representative of the "Russia" bloc. Meshkov was elected based on the "constitution" of the republic adopted by the Crimean deputies. For more details about separatism in the 1990s and Meshkov's role, please refer to our article. In 1995, the Verkhovna Rada abolished the position of president in Crimea, and the SBU deported Meshkov to Russia, where he spent 16 years believing he was the legally elected president. He briefly returned to the peninsula in 2011 to meet with voters and advocate for "confederate relations" between Ukraine and Crimea, but the SBU quickly expelled him to Russia and barred him from re-entry.

Meshkov was only able to return to Crimea unhindered on March 12, 2014, after the peninsula came under Russian control. Valery Podyachy, a pro-Russian activist and founder of the People's Front "Sevastopol — Crimea — Russia," commented to "Crimea. Realiy" that Meshkov's return was part of a plan orchestrated by those managing the special operation for the annexation of Crimea. Podyachy explained that there were concerns that those leading the "Russian Spring" in Crimea might retreat, and if they did, Meshkov would be declared the legitimate president of Crimea, enabling the "reunification" of Crimea with Russia in a different manner.

Despite being the first and last President of Crimea, Yuriy Meshkov's "services" were ultimately not required, as Serhii Aksyonov emerged as a reliable executor of Russian authority on the annexed peninsula. As a result, Meshkov was sidelined in the Crimean political arena and eventually began criticizing Aksyonov, who was appointed by the Kremlin. Meshkov argued that under Aksyonov's leadership, the peninsula "never became Russian" and called for his resignation.

Viktor Medvedchuk: "Voice of Europe", the voice of "disagreeing" Ukrainians

Ukrainian intelligence has suggested that Viktor Medvedchuk played a role in financing the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Through Medvedchuk, Russia allegedly funneled money to "buy" local "gaulists" who would organize anti-government movements in Ukraine to facilitate the capture of cities by Russian troops. According to Kyrylo Budanov, head of the State Security Service of Ukraine, these funds were embezzled, and Russia's plan was never successfully executed. Nevertheless, this setback did not stop Putin from giving Medvedchuk another opportunity and reinvigorating his political career.

In early 2023, following his arrest and subsequent exchange (where Medvedchuk and 55 Russians were exchanged for 215 Ukrainians, including many officers and defenders of Azovstal), Viktor Medvedchuk announced the launch of a new political project, "Druhaya Ukraina" (Other Ukraine). According to Medvedchuk, this project aims to "demonopolize" President Zelenskyi's right to represent Ukraine internationally. Medvedchuk claimed that between 9 to 12 million Ukrainians do not support Ukraine's current trajectory and advocated for the creation of a government in exile to represent their views, positioning himself as the official representative of this "alternative" Ukrainian voice.

The program "Schemes" reported that fugitives from Ukraine joined the "Other Ukraine" political movement, including political commentators from closed pro-Russian TV channels, local council deputies from "OPZZH," and political technologists accused of treason and separatism. Key members of this group include Volodymyr Skachko, Yuriy Dudkin, Denys Zharkikh, and others.

By the end of 2023, " Other Ukraina" had established a Serbian "branch," prompting the Embassy of Ukraine in Belgrade to formally protest to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, demanding an end to the organization's activities.

It appears that Putin, who refuses to recognize Ukraine's sovereignty, is supporting the creation of a fake Ukrainian government in exile, which he can use to construct imaginary "fraternal" Russian-Ukrainian relations. Meanwhile, Medvedchuk, serving as a figurehead in this endeavor, is afforded another opportunity for political resurrection.

So why does Russia use old recognizable actors, even though they are discredited?

Putin's reliance on long-standing confidants highlights his desire for loyalty, control, and stability within his inner circle. Trusted allies are seen as more predictable and easier to manage compared to newcomers who may pursue their own agendas or ambitions. By surrounding himself with familiar faces, Putin maintains a tighter grip on power and ensures unyielding compliance with his directives.

Moreover, those close to Putin have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, as it represents their last chance to remain in power. A change of leadership in Russia would likely result in them losing their positions and potentially facing legal consequences. Their value to Putin lies in their steadfast adherence to his ideals rather than introducing innovative or reformist approaches. With Putin in power for over 20 years, his strategy focuses on declaring the continuity of his grassroots cadre to prevent anyone from appearing too "fresh" compared to himself.

The Putin regime provides a second political life to "downed pilots" by utilizing their past legitimacy for its purposes. This includes former presidents, ex-parliamentarians, and leaders of previous opposition parliamentary factions. The strategy banks on the (albeit diminished) popularity of these "exes," their status, and their consistent loyalty to Moscow. This approach may not deceive a Ukrainian audience that understands the political context, but it can resonate within Russia, where titles and statuses often carry more weight than specific names. Additionally, it may also appeal to international audiences that prioritize formal titles over the fact that these individuals are entirely discredited among Ukrainians.

Illistration by Natalia Lobach

NGO “Detector Media” has been working for our readers for over 20 years. In times of elections, revolutions, pandemics and war, we continue to fight for quality journalism. Our experts develop media literacy of the audience, advocate for the rights of journalists, and refute Russian disinformation.

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