Great wars sometimes start over small offenses. A murdered duke. An angered pope. The belief of a lonely king that his rivals aren’t playing fair. When historians study why armies began gathering in Europe during the plague of 2021, their interest might turn to a teenage girl, the goddaughter of Moscow’s isolated sovereign.
Her name is Daria, a young Ukrainian with a shy smile and big brown eyes. When she was born in 2004, her parents asked their friend Vladimir Putin, then a few years into his reign in Russia, to christen her in the Orthodox tradition they all share. The girl’s father, Viktor Medvedchuk, has been close to Putin for decades. They holiday together on the Black Sea. They conduct business. They obsess over the bonds between their countries and the Western forces they see pulling them apart.
“Our relationship has developed over 20 years,” Medvedchuk told me in a rare interview last spring in Kyiv, near the start of the current standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine. “I don’t want to say I exploit that relationship, but you could say it has been part of my political arsenal.”
Putin could say the same about Medvedchuk. The leading voice for Russian interests in Ukraine, Medvedchuk’s political party is the biggest opposition force in parliament, with millions of supporters. Over the past year, that party has come under attack. Medvedchuk was charged with treason in May and placed under house arrest in Kyiv. Just last month, the U.S. accused him and his allies of plotting to stage a coup with help from the Russian military.
Throughout his 21 years in power, Putin has seen Ukraine as a fraternal nation, tied to Russia by bonds of faith, family, politics, and a millennium of common history. He has spent the past seven years using every tool at his disposal, including coercion and outright invasion, to preserve those ties, as the Ukrainian people increasingly turn toward the West. Short of war, one of the best ways that Putin has to influence Ukraine is through Medvedchuk and his political party. So it should not be surprising that Russia’s military standoff with the West has escalated in step with the crackdown against his friend.
Last February, days after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden, America’s allies in Kyiv decided to get tough on Medvedchuk. The Ukrainian government started by taking his TV channels off the air, depriving Russia of its propaganda outlets in the country. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv applauded the move. About two weeks later, on Feb. 19, 2021, Ukraine announced that it had seized the assets of Medvedchuk’s family. Among the most important, it said, was a pipeline that brings Russian oil to Europe, enriching Medvedchuk and his family—including Putin’s goddaughter, Daria—and helping to bankroll Medvedchuk’s political party.
The first inkling of Putin’s response came less than two days later, at 7 a.m. on Feb. 21. In a little-noticed statement, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the deployment of 3,000 paratroopers to the border with Ukraine for “large-scale exercises,” training them to “seize enemy structures and hold them until the arrival of the main force.” Those soldiers were the first in a military buildup that has since grown to more than 100,000 Russian troops. In their scramble to respond, the U.S. and its allies have sent planeloads of weapons to Ukraine and thousands of troops to secure the eastern flank of the NATO alliance.
The resulting standoff has revived the tensions of the Cold War and pushed Europe to the brink of a major military conflict. In trying to discern Putin’s motives, observers have raised his strategic wish to humble the Americans, divide the Europeans, and restore Moscow’s influence over the lands it controlled before its empire crumbled in 1991. But the roots of the crisis have been overlooked. To understand Putin’s objectives, you have to understand both his personal and political ties to Ukraine, as well as his long-standing aim to bring the nation under his control. When Medvedchuk was placed under house arrest, the Russian leader called the attack on his proxies “an absolutely obvious purge of the political field,” one that threatened to turn Ukraine “into Russia’s antithesis, a kind of anti-Russia.”
Few people have a clearer vantage on Putin’s response than the alleged coup plotter, Medvedchuk. In the year before the crisis escalated, he met with Putin several times at his residence near Moscow, despite the pandemic protocols that have kept the Russian leader isolated from all but his top aides. The question that now fills headlines around the world—What does Putin want?—is not a matter of conjecture for his closest friend in Kyiv.
It took me a while to find Medvedchuk’s office amid the alleys of the city center. The address led to an old apartment block near the end of a steep slope, with no outward sign of its political significance. Behind the unmarked door, a handful of armed guards looked at me in silence. One proceeded to search my bag, demanding to know whether it contained a knife or “any kind of shiv.” Medvedchuk was more cordial. Dressed in a fitted blue suit, he had the look of a Ken doll’s father—stiff, tanned, and manicured, with an angular jaw. Upon entering the conference room, he strutted over to a thermostat and asked, “Are you warm enough?”
The story of his friendship with Putin, he said, goes back to the early years of Putin’s presidency. Medvedchuk was chief of staff to Putin’s counterpart in Kyiv, and they often met at official functions. At the time, Russia had all the influence it wanted in Ukraine. Its economy depended on Russia for cheap gas and cheaper loans, and its leaders had no intention of joining any Western alliances.
To strengthen their bond with the Russian leader, Medvedchuk and his wife, a famous news anchor in Ukraine, asked Putin to be the godfather of their newborn. They have stayed close ever since. In one interview on Russian state TV, Medvedchuk recalled how Putin doted on Daria, bringing her a bouquet of flowers and a teddy bear, when he visited the Medvedchuks at their villa in Crimea.
Their friendship only grew closer after 2014, when a revolution tore their countries apart. Protesters built an encampment on Kyiv’s central square that winter, demanding Ukrainian leaders fight corruption and integrate with the West. More than two months of clashes with police ended on a frigid February morning, when security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens of them in the streets.
The regime collapsed the following day. Its leaders fled across the border to Russia, and as their political party fell apart, so did the machinery of Russian influence over its neighbor. “There is no legitimate authority in Ukraine now,” Putin fumed in a speech at the Kremlin that spring. “No one to talk to.” The revolution, he claimed, was nothing more than a U.S.-backed coup, and he responded by ordering his troops to invade. After swiftly taking over Crimea, Russian forces moved into the coal-mining heartland of eastern Ukraine, installing separatist puppet regimes in two of its biggest cities.
Read more: The Man Putin Fears
As Ukraine fought back in the east, its capital became a political battleground. The remnants of the pro-Russian establishment set out to build new parties in Ukraine, each vying for the old regime’s voters. “We knew Putin does not want chaos and war in Ukraine in the long term,” says an adviser to one of the Ukrainian oligarchs who funded these parties. “He wants a protectorate, a loyal government, like he had before.” Russia’s allies in Kyiv wanted the right to run for office, to buy up industries, and to control TV networks. As the Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin explained it to me at the time: “This would be our compromise. Russia would have its own soloists in the great Ukrainian choir, and they would sing for us.” Under that arrangement, he added, “We would have no need to tear Ukraine apart.”
The U.S. was not open to that kind of deal, and the Obama Administration took a hard line against Russia’s operatives in Kyiv. Many of them were sanctioned right after Russia invaded in March 2014; Medvedchuk was at the top of the blacklist. Still, by the end of 2018, the pro-Russian parties achieved a breakthrough in Ukraine, forming an alliance called Opposition Platform—For Life. Backed by billionaires sympathetic to Moscow, they owned three television networks in Ukraine. And their party’s chairman was Putin’s old friend Medvedchuk.
During elections held the following year, Ukraine voted in a new President, an actor and comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky. His popularity derived from a hit sitcom called Servant of the People, in which he starred as a fictional President. Three months later, Zelensky’s political party won a majority in parliament. But Medvedchuk’s faction came in second place, making it the biggest opposition force in the country. “Millions of citizens voted for us,” Medvedchuk told me. “Putin gave a promise to protect them.”
Medvedchuk’s TV channels worked to weaken the new government. “They were eating into the electoral base, just destroying Zelensky,” says the President’s first national security adviser, Oleksandr Danyliuk. The networks were especially relentless in attacking the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its failure to secure vaccine supplies from Western allies. When Russia released its own vaccine in August 2020, Medvedchuk, his wife, and their daughter Daria were among the first to get it. They then flew to Moscow to talk to Putin. It was the first public meeting the Russian leader had with anyone—unmasked, on camera, and without social distancing—since the pandemic began. Their talks that day resulted in a deal for Russia to supply Ukraine with millions of doses of its vaccine, and to allow Ukrainian labs to produce it free of charge.
When Medvedchuk brought the offer to Kyiv, the government rejected it. So did the U.S. State Department, which accused Russia of using its vaccine as a tool of political influence. But as the death toll mounted in Ukraine—and no vaccine shipments arrived from the West—voters turned away from Zelensky in droves. By the fall of 2020, his approval ratings fell well below 40%, compared with over 70% a year earlier. In some polls taken that December, Medvedchuk’s party was in the lead.
Zelensky grew especially concerned about the party’s television channels, which he condemned as messengers of Russian propaganda. When he decided to take those channels off the air last February, it was not only a defensive move, says Danyliuk, his former security adviser. It was also conceived as a welcome gift to the Biden Administration, which had made the fight against international corruption a pillar of its foreign policy. As Danyliuk put it, the decision to go after Putin’s friend “was calculated to fit in with the U.S. agenda.”
Throughout the ensuing military crisis, the U.S. has had no ambassador in Kyiv. The last one, Marie Yovanovitch, was fired in April 2019 after she ran afoul of President Trump’s campaign to extract political favors from Ukraine. Trump wanted the Ukrainians to investigate the Biden family, and he froze military aid to Kyiv as a means of pressure. The resulting scandal led to Trump’s first impeachment in the House, and it left the U.S. embassy in Kyiv hollowed out and demoralized.
“My chain of command went to sh-t,” says Suriya Jayanti, who was then a senior diplomat at the embassy. “We just disappeared.” That did not change, she says, after Biden took office last year. His top foreign policy staff was focused on confronting China, she says, and they tended to see Russia as a nuisance to be managed or ignored. “His team didn’t care about Russia,” Jayanti told me in Kyiv last fall, shortly before she resigned from government. “And they didn’t want to hear about Ukraine.” Only in recent days, nearly a year into the crisis, did Biden pick a new ambassador to Kyiv, who has not yet been installed.
A senior U.S. official tells TIME that Ukraine has always been a top priority for the Administration: “There has been very extensive and almost constant focus on Ukraine from day one.” When the Zelensky government decided to go after Medvedchuk, the U.S. welcomed it as part of Ukraine’s struggle to “counter Russian malign influence,” the official said. The methods used in this struggle have been novel and controversial. Rather than working through the justice system, Zelensky has imposed sanctions against Ukrainian tycoons and politicians, freezing their assets by decree.
This strategy, which the government calls “de-oligarchization,” has targeted many of Zelensky’s domestic opponents and, in particular, their television channels. The U.S. has avoided criticizing the crackdown, not wanting to “micromanage” what Ukraine was doing, said the senior U.S. official. But in the case of Medvedchuk, the U.S. embassy cheered Zelensky on. “We support Ukraine’s efforts to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity through sanctions,” the embassy said in a tweet last February, the day after the sanctions froze Medvedchuk’s assets.
The party leader was furious. “This is political repression,” Medvedchuk told me. “All my bank accounts are frozen. I can’t manage my assets. I can’t even pay my utility bills.”
In April, as Russian forces assembled at the border, Zelensky traveled to the front lines to meet his troops, and invited me to come along. Military helicopters got us most of the way to the trenches, but the last few hundred paces required a hike through the mud with a handful of soldiers and bodyguards. One of them lugged a big machine gun, with boxes of shells latched to his belt.
The President spent the day talking to his troops, dining with them, and handing out medals. Considering the number of Russian tanks poised to invade from across the nearby border, he seemed remarkably upbeat. We spent the night near the garrison, and he arrived at the mess hall for breakfast in a track suit, fresh from a morning jog through the war zone.
On the flight back that day, we talked about Medvedchuk and his TV networks, and whether it seemed wise in hindsight to shut them down. Zelensky made no apologies. “I consider them devils,” the President told me. “Their narratives seek to disarm Ukraine of its statehood.” As the Kyiv skyline appeared through the window and the plane began to descend, Zelensky grew upset. “Al Capone killed a lot of people, but he got locked up over his taxes,” he told me. “I think these TV channels killed a lot of people through the information war.”
Some of his advisers, especially in the intelligence community, were less enthusiastic about the move against Medvedchuk. “At least he’s the devil we know,” one retired spy chief told me in Kyiv, agreeing to discuss the issue on condition of anonymity. Since Russia first started the war in 2014, Medvedchuk has served as one of the lead negotiators in numerous rounds of peace talks, often winning the release of prisoners of war. “He has direct access to Putin,” the spy chief told me. That kind of access is rare, he says, and it has made Medvedchuk an effective mediator.
Zelensky was not moved by such arguments. On May 12, about a month after our trip to the front lines, Ukrainian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Medvedchuk. Prosecutors alleged that he had profited from the Russian occupation of Crimea, and they charged him with treason. A court ordered him to remain under house arrest pending trial, cut off from his voters and prevented from attending sessions of parliament.
U.S. law enforcement went after his allies. Oleh Voloshyn, a prominent member of Medvedchuk’s party, was greeted by the FBI when he arrived in Washington last July. Two agents approached him at Dulles International Airport and asked to have a word in private, away from his wife and infant son, who were traveling with him. Voloshyn, who serves as Medvedchuk’s envoy in the West, spent the next three hours answering the agents’ questions. “They took my cell phone,” Voloshyn told me of the incident, which has not been previously reported. “And they took all the information from my cell phone.”
In a statement on Jan. 20, the U.S. government leveled an astonishing series of allegations against Voloshyn and Medvedchuk. It claimed that they are part of an ongoing Kremlin plot to install a puppet government in Ukraine, propped up by a Russian military occupation. “Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” said the statement from the U.S. Treasury Department, which imposed sanctions on Voloshyn and other alleged plotters.
When we spoke by phone the following day, Voloshyn had already pulled his money out of the bank and was preparing to leave Kyiv with his family. “Maybe Serbia,” he says of his destination. “Maybe Russia.” He told me he has no intention of taking power in Ukraine with help from the Russian military, and said the aim of his party was always to win power peacefully—either through elections or, as Voloshyn put it, a diplomatic “compromise” between the Russia and the West. “There is no third option,” he says. “Russia either gets the influence it wants by peaceful means, or it gets it by force.”
With Medvedchuk sidelined and his party in retreat, the Kremlin has no clear path to influence over Ukraine through politics, and that raises the temptation to use hard power, Voloshyn told me. “You have to understand,” he says. “There are hawks around Putin who want this crisis. They are ready to invade. They come to him and say, ‘Look at your Medvedchuk. Where is he now? Where is your peaceful solution? Sitting under house arrest? Should we wait until all pro-Russian forces are arrested?’”
Nearly 12 months since it began, the crisis in Ukraine has become far bigger and more dangerous than any political grudge. In early December, as over 100,000 Russian troops stood at the border with Ukraine, Biden held a call with Putin to defuse the tensions. According to the White House, the President offered to hear out all of Russia’s “strategic concerns,” opening the door to a far more sweeping set of talks. It was a breakthrough for Putin to get a U.S. President to engage with him on the future of the NATO alliance, which Putin has long described as the main threat to Russian security.
The response from Russian diplomats smacked of an old negotiating tactic: start high. They demanded a written guarantee from the U.S. that Ukraine would never join NATO. They also told the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from Eastern Europe, retreating to positions they held before Putin took power. As the lead Russian envoy put it ahead of talks in January, “NATO needs to pack up its stuff and get back to where it was in 1997.” Rather than defusing the standoff, Biden’s overture allowed Russia to air a long list of grievances against the West, unleashing what one Kremlin insider in Moscow described to me as “an enormous pile of pent-up tensions.”
As the talks progressed through January, Russians came to believe they had the upper hand as long as they could keep up the military pressure on Ukraine. “It’s the perfect time to make some trades, to get sanctions removed, to talk about security concerns,” says the Kremlin insider, who agreed to discuss the negotiations on condition of anonymity. “The logic is simple,” the source adds. “If we don’t put a lot of fear into them, we will not get to a clear solution, because that’s just how the Western system works. It’s very hard for them to reach a consensus on something. All those moving parts, all those checks and balances, each one pulling in different directions. So the aim is to present a threat of such massive consequences that it forces everyone on that side to agree.”
The gambit appears to be failing. The U.S. has rejected Russia’s core demands out of hand, and prepared a raft of sanctions that would cut much of the Russian economy off from the rest of the world. “The gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,” says a senior Administration official.
Biden has begun to warn Ukraine and other allies that a Russian invasion looks imminent. Over 8,500 U.S. troops were put on high alert in January, prepared to deploy to Eastern Europe alongside naval ships and warplanes. The State Department ordered nonessential staff and family members to leave the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, it said, out of “an abundance of caution.”
It is far from clear whether peace talks can bring Europe back from the brink of war, or what Putin might consider a face-saving compromise. Under the Kremlin’s pandemic protocols, the Russian leader has been more isolated during this crisis than at any point in his career. In early January, when he would normally celebrate Orthodox Christmas among the crowds at a Russian cathedral, the Kremlin issued footage of the President alone with a priest, solemnly holding a candle in the chapel of his private residence. “Very few people can speak to him now,” the Kremlin insider told me. “The world inside his head is only his own.”
In Kyiv, Putin’s friend is even more isolated. Stripped of its main TV channels and beset by criminal charges, Medvedchuk’s party has been sinking in the polls. Medvedchuk remains under house arrest, with a tracking device affixed to his ankle and police officers stationed outside his home. His daughter’s security was such a concern that he declined to say anything about her whereabouts. But one of his associates told me that Daria remains in Kyiv, surrounded by private security guards. The main concern, the associate said, is kidnapping. “But yes, she’s still here.”
—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Simmone Shah/New York; and Brian Bennett, W.J. Hennigan, and Nik Popli/Washington