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Putin’s friend emerges from shadows in Ukraine

Viktor Medvedchuk has an unusually powerful godfather to his daughter: Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. The Ukrainian is also under US sanctions for “threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity” of his country. So why is Mr Medvedchuk involved in negotiations over the future of separatist-held east Ukraine — on Kiev’s side?

Mr Medvedchuk, 62, has long been one of Ukraine’s most divisive and enigmatic political figures. Chief of staff to Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma in the 2000s, Mr Medvedchuk is close enough to Mr Putin to raise deep animosity among many in Kiev.

He has been photographed next to the Russian president at martial arts meetings and a Formula One race in Sochi. In 2012, Mr Putin visited Mr Medvedchuk’s family at their lavish villa in Crimea, where TV pictures showed them clinking champagne glasses. Many suspect him of being Mr Putin’s agent.

Yet Mr Medvedchuk has emerged as a main intermediary between today’s pro-western Kiev government and Moscow — and a potential key to ending the hostilities that started when President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by street protests in 2014 and Russia reacted by annexing Crimea and fomenting the war in Ukraine’s east.

His role underscores the complex relations between the two neighbours-turned- enemies, and the tangled motives and loyalties of many of Ukraine’s political elite.

If peace does break out, an important role may be played by Mr Medvedchuk’s offices in Kiev — which, in a sign of the enmity that the politician has attracted inside his own country, has guards flanking the doors and metal shutters on the windows.

In a 90-minute, rare interview, with the FT, Mr Medvedchuk insists claims by critics that he is secretly representing Russian interests are “absurd”.

“I can and do have relations with . . . Mr Putin, because my relations, in my view, help the interests of Ukraine,” he says, as an office TV plays a Russian state news channel. “I have never concealed such activities.”

He has special permission, he adds, to fly directly between Kiev and Moscow, although both countries have banned direct flights.

Publicly, Mr Medvedchuk is the negotiator on the release of prisoners under the Minsk peace process for eastern Ukraine — whose latest pact was signed in February 2015 but which has yet to bring a lasting end to conflict.

Privately, people familiar with the situation say he is involved in constant backroom negotiations aimed at reconciling the two separatist-controlled regions of the Donbass with the rest of Ukraine.

A lawyer in Soviet Ukraine, Mr Medvedchuk became an MP after independence and got to know Mr Putin through his parliamentary activities. As Mr Kuchma’s presidential chief of staff from 2002 to 2005 he also developed close relations with his opposite number in Mr Putin’s administration: Dmitry Medvedev, now Russia’s prime minister.

Is Mr Medvedchuk a close Putin friend? “Better to ask the president,” he quips. But friends confirm that Mr Putin is godfather to Mr Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter, Daryna — and Mr Medvedev’s wife is godmother.

After Ukraine’s 2005 pro-democracy “Orange” revolution, Mr Medvedchuk left politics to focus on business. But in 2013 his Ukrainian Choice campaign group lobbied vociferously against Mr Yanukovich signing a planned association agreement with the EU and pushed instead for closer economic ties to Russia.

Such activities helped put Mr Medvedchuk on the first US sanctions list of Russian and Ukrainian officials after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

Yet within weeks Mr Medvedchuk was acting as the go-between for Russian-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine and Kiev’s new, pro-western government, since, he says, the separatists refused to talk to Kiev directly. Ukraine’s then acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, had little choice but to accept his role, which was later endorsed by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr Putin.

Mr Medvedchuk concedes the Minsk deal hangs by a thread, blaming both Moscow and Kiev for failing to meet obligations. A way out of the impasse, he suggests, could be for Ukraine’s parliament to pass laws granting limited autonomy to separatist-held regions and hold elections there, conditional on Russia fulfilling its Minsk requirements.

Those include withdrawing Russian troops from Donbass — whose presence Mr Medvedchuk insists is “debatable” — and restoring control of the border with Russia to Ukrainian forces.

Resolving the conflict might also be easier, he concedes, if talks expanded to include the big underlying disputes between Moscow and Kiev—– including the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine must not join Nato.

“Ukraine doesn’t need [Nato],” he declares. “In today’s situation, this will lead to the break-up of Ukraine . . . Ukraine must act in the interests of its development, and [those] don’t include joining Nato and the EU. No one wants us, in either one.”

He insists Ukraine should be a “sovereign, independent” country, but its future lies in rebuilding ties with Russia.

“I’m convinced these will be friendly countries, wonderful neighbours. We were brotherly countries and will be in the future,” he says.

Does he share Mr Putin’s view that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”? He admits he has “discussed” this with the Russian president.

“I hold that we are two peoples,” he says. “But friendly and brotherly peoples.”

Via FT