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A servant of two motherlands: How Ukrainian MP Oleksandr Dubinsky turned into Russian agent “Buratino”

During his short five-year political career, Ukrainian MP Oleksandr Dubinsky managed to become a personal enemy of Petro Poroshenko, Volodymyr Zelensky, Joe Biden and The Insider correspondent Yuriy Matsarsky. Dubinsky is currently being held in custody in Ukraine on charges of treason. Yuriy Matsarsky recounts the MP’s journey from one of the main faces of President Zelensky's team to a Russian agent nicknamed “Buratino.”

In October 2019, my voice recorder broke. It had survived Syria, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, the Arab Spring in Cairo, Fukushima and Kyiv’s Maidan, and it broke while recording a desk interview with the former head of the National Bank of Ukraine, Valeria Hontareva, in a quiet and peaceful London hotel. Only half of the hour-long conversation was saved — half an hour of the interview was lost forever in the jammed machine’s memory. But even the part that survived was enough for me and my editorial team to make quite a powerful enemy in those days.

Let’s digress here and recall what Ukrainian political life was like in fall 2019. Just a few months ago — at the end of May — the country's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, took office, a new parliament was elected in July and began its work in August, with candidates from the pro-presidential Servant of the People party winning 254 of the 450 seats.

At the beginning of the year, this party had no regional branches, no members, no budget, its only asset was a four-square-meter office space donated by a sponsoring lawyer, and by the middle of the year, for the first time in Ukraine’s parliamentary history, a single party had total control over the Verkhovna Rada. All government appointments and dismissals, all bills that did not require a constitutional amendment, could be carried out independently by the “servants” — as more than half of the MPs belonged to the presidential faction.

The Servant of the People party, and with it, the faction of this party that gained unprecedented power, was literally cobbled together. Often it wasn't even based on the principle of loyalty to the incumbent president, but rather on loyalty to the person who formed the party lists in a given region. As a result, Ukraine’s parliament was filled with a large number of random people — as well as those who went into politics to protect their own interests and those of their sponsors, as opposed to those of the people.

Ukraine’s parliament was full of people who went into politics to protect their own interests and those of their sponsors, as opposed to those of the people

The latter can certainly include Oleksandr Dubinsky, a popular TV presenter who worked for the 1+1 channel, owned by companies linked to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. When the oligarch's relations with the fifth president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, finally deteriorated in 2015-2016, it was Dubinskiy who began denigrating the then head of state and members of his team on his shows.

Dubinsky said Poroshenko had allegedly killed his own brother and headed a mafia group in Moldova before entering politics, that Health Ministry chief Ulyana Suprun had devised a scheme to enrich herself under the guise of medical reform, and generally acted in the interests of the West.

But Dubinsky was particularly harsh on the management of the National Bank of Ukraine — the country's central bank. It was in 2016 that the National Bank decided to bankrupt Privatbank, co-owned by Ihor Kolomoyskyi at the time. The decision led to Privatbank's nationalization, causing Kolomoyskyi and his business partners serious financial losses.

It's obvious that after Poroshenko's team left power and strengthened his own “support group” in the Ukrainian Parliament, Ihor Kolomoyskyi decided to finally get even. In 2019, the National Bank even officially claimed that it was under pressure from the oligarch, and directly named MP Dubinsky as spearheading a campaign to harass the state bank. The fact that Valeria Hontareva, who made the decision that led to Privat being nationalized, no longer worked at the National Bank — she had resigned in 2018 and moved to the UK for work — didn't stop the oligarch's team.

In 2019, Ukraine’s National Bank directly accused Dubinsky of harassment on Kolomoyskyi’s orders

After Hontareva moved abroad, unknown assailants burned down her house near Kyiv, set fire to her sister-in-law's car, and she herself was struck and seriously injured by a daredevil driver at a London crossing. Hontareva's ordeal was immediately mocked on the 1+1 channel. The “Evening Neighborhood” (“Vechirniy Kvartal”) show, which was hosted by Volodymyr Zelensky before his election as president, devoted two episodes to the arson of the former central banker's house.

Oleksandr Dubinsky was not left out. Already an MP for the ruling party and one of its main public spokesmen, he claimed that Hontareva herself had planned to burn down her own house in order to receive insurance payments. Dubinsky also promised to seek Gontareva's extradition to her home country on corruption charges, and even teamed up with another MP at the time, Andriy Derkach, to set up a commission to investigate the “international corruption of Ukraine's top officials.” The first top official the MPs promised to take on was the former head of the National Bank.

Valeria Hontareva saw this as a continuation of a campaign to discredit her and her former central bank colleagues. What’s more, the campaign was being waged not just by an oligarch-controlled journalist, but by an MP from the president's ruling party. That’s what Hontareva spoke about in the interview, half of which has been lost forever. The part about Dubinsky, however, survived. In it, Valeria Gontareva literally says the following: “I think that as long as Dubinsky continues to be associated with this ruling party, it's not going to escape being disgraced. [...] Either they’ll get rid of him, or he’ll be associated with the party's policy.”

The former official went on to say that she considered Dubinsky's remarks and the Vecherniy Kvartal episodes ridiculing her as examples of “fascist propaganda.”

The interview gave Dubinsky an excuse to file a lawsuit for the “protection of [his] honor and business reputation” against the radio station that aired the interview. He also wrote a report on a crime called “obstructing the work of a people's deputy,” which named only one suspect — me.

I don’t know what happened to these lawsuits and statements. The editorial lawyer went to one or two court hearings related to them and advised us to ignore all the claims — he said that the MP just wants to intimidate [us], and not to make it a real criminal case (there were no grounds for one anyway), so it wasn’t worth the time.

Dubinsky, it seems, soon forgot about his claims and switched to his work in the Rada. He was active, but very specific: he tried to sink a bill aimed at limiting the number of amendments that MPs can make by attacking it with endless amendments, and used the same tactic to torpedo the “anti-Kolomoyskyi law” — a bill aimed at preventing the former owners of nationalized banks from taking them back under their control. Dubinsky prepared more than 2,000 amendments to these two bills alone, each of which, according to parliamentary rules, needed to be examined by a specialised committee before MPs put it to a vote.

Oleksandr Dubinsky at a parliamentary session in the Verkhovna Rada
Oleksandr Dubinsky at a parliamentary session in the Verkhovna Rada

And through his rather popular YouTube channel, Oleksandr Dubinsky continued to bash the leadership of the National Bank and defend Kolomoyskyi. Journalists found out that after a closed parliamentary discussion on possible new government appointments, he went to the oligarch and had a long discussion with him.

In early 2020, audio recordings of a conversation between then Prime Minister Alexei Honcharuk and other officials, made in secret from the speakers, were published online, including on Dubinsky's Telegram channel. In the recording, Honcharuk, who left office just two months after the publication of the leak, said that President Zelensky had a “primitive idea” of the way economics work, and then called himself a “complete economic ignoramus.” It soon turned out that these recordings were edited and processed on the same equipment used to record Dubinsky's programs for the 1+1 channel.

Audio recordings of a conversation between then-PM Alexei Honcharuk and other officials, made in secret from the speakers, were published in Dubinsky's Telegram channel

Other scandals involving the MP followed. The State Bureau of Investigation suspected him of having acquired Romanian citizenship [dual citizenship is forbidden in Ukraine, and obtaining a passport of another country can lead to deprivation of Ukrainian citizenship — The Insider]. Dubinsky also tried to push a bill on “foreign agents” — practically copied from a similar Russian law — through the Rada. But all this was nothing compared to a new smear campaign, orchestrated by Dubinsky and the aforementioned Andrii Derkach, targeting U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Derkach and Dubinsky released a recording of conversations between two men whose voices resembled those of Joe Biden and Petro Poroshenko. The men discussed the terms of U.S. aid to Ukraine, with the voice resembling Joe Biden’s demanding preferential treatment for the Ukrainian gas production company Burisma, which had Biden’s son Hunter on its board of directors.

Oleksandr Dubinsky and Andrii Derkach
Oleksandr Dubinsky and Andrii Derkach

Derkach claimed that the tapes were made in 2015-2016, when Petro Poroshenko was president of Ukraine and Joe Biden was vice-president of the United States. The recordings made by the two Ukrainian MPs were picked up by people working for Biden's main rival in those elections — Republican and then-incumbent President Donald Trump — and used as evidence of the Democrat's corruption.

Curiously, Biden's entourage admitted that these conversations had indeed taken place between the politicians, but that the recording presented by Derkach and Dubinsky had been heavily edited and was completely devoid of its original meaning. Petro Poroshenko said that the publication of the edited conversations played into the hands of Ukraine's enemies, as it made Ukraine look unfavorable to both Democrats and Republicans.

It also raised the question of how Derkach and Dubinsky managed to obtain a recording of two high-ranking politicians, who even congratulate each other on their birthdays in closed, protected communications. Derkach claimed that he got the recording from investigative journalists who asked not to reveal their names. Few believed him — such was his reputation.

Derkach, a graduate of the Moscow Higher School of the KGB, a former adviser to Ukraine’s traitorous Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, a former member of the faction of the pro-Russian Party of Regions, the author of a book titled “Ukraine — Russia: The Trial of Friendship,” and one of the main lawyers of the Moscow-controlled Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, he was more likely to receive the recording from his Russian colleagues from the FSB than from Ukrainian journalists. This was the version that Ukrainian society leaned towards at the time, in 2020. But even then, this assumption remained just an assumption.

For a while, the release of the recordings made Derkach and Dubinsky some of the most prominent players in world politics: the leaders of the two countries were forced to react, U.S. counterintelligence called the publication of the recordings interference in the U.S. elections, and the HQs of the main candidates were forced to rewrite their campaign plans.

For a while, the release of the recordings made Derkach and Dubinsky some of the most prominent players in world politics

In September 2020, Andrii Derkach was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for attempting to influence the presidential election. Curiously, three Russians from Yevgeny Prigozhin's entourage were on the same list.

By the end of the year, under pressure from anti-corruption campaigners, the General Prosecutor's Office opened a case against Derkach and Dubinsky on suspicion of treason. And, as it turned out, not in vain. In March 2021, the U.S. National Intelligence Council published a report on foreign interference in U.S. elections mentioning Derkach. By then, some four months after the election, President-elect Joe Biden had been sworn in, and a coup attempt organised by Donald Trump’s supporters had been thwarted. Nothing stood in the way of the release of this document. It told the world that Derkach had acted in the interests of Russia and that Vladimir Putin was directly aware of his actions.

According to the intelligence findings, Andrii Derkach was one of the key players in the operation to undermine Joe Biden, whom the Russian authorities didn't want at the head of the U.S. For some reason, Dubinsky wasn’t mentioned in the report.

After the publication of the document, Ukraine imposed sanctions against Andrii Derkach. At the same time, he remained an independent MP in the Verkhovna Rada. He even attended parliamentary sessions until the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022. After that, Derkach disappeared, and is yet to be found. Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), however, discovered that the fugitive MP headed a network of Russian agents, uniting the heads of private security companies. These firms were to act as a “fifth column” and help the occupiers gain control of Ukraine.

Again, there was no mention of Dubinsky. By then, however, his best days were behind him. The U.S. sanctions were followed by the removal of his Facebook page, which had tens of thousands of followers (he soon started a new one, but it is nowhere near as popular as the banned one), and an equally popular YouTube channel, which the MP used to spread conspiracy theories and utter nonsense, such as calls to default and not pay a penny to foreign creditors, stories about Americans building laboratories in Ukraine to produce biological weapons, or claims about “Glory to Ukraine” (“Slava Ukraini”) being a Nazi slogan. The U.S. sanctions were followed by sanctions from Ukrainie. The National Bank even warned financial institutions that it was not safe to do business with Oleksandr Dubinsky as his money might be illegally obtained.

By then, Dubinsky had so much money that wondering where it came from was far from inconsequential. In 2019, shortly after the parliamentary elections, journalists revealed Dubinsky’s family as the owners of 24 apartments, 17 cars and other goods totaling $2.5 million. When asked about the origin of this wealth, the MP replied that he had earned it all with his journalistic talent. He then laughed and said that the expensive cars did not belong to him, but to his retired mother.

In 2019, shortly after the parliamentary elections, journalists revealed Dubinsky's family as the owners of 24 apartments, 17 cars and other goods totaling $2.5 million

For a while he was forgiven both his defiance and his unexplained million-dollar income, but in 2021 his luck ran out. President Volodymyr Zelensky organized a purge of his faction, getting rid of MPs who were more in line with Kolomoyskyi than with himself. Dubinsky, who had been asked several times to leave the president's party voluntarily, was finally expelled by a faction-wide vote.

Dubinsky immediately went from being a fervent supporter of the president to being one of his most implacable enemies. It went so far that the MP declared himself a victim of Zelensky's secret intrigues — the president had apparently framed him by slipping him the unfortunate recording of Poroshenko's conversation with Biden.

After the outbreak of the full-scale war, Dubinsky remained in Ukraine. He was almost invisible in the Rada — during the first year of the invasion, he skipped over 60% of the sessions, but continued his war with the President’s Office and the Western world on social media. Having moved almost entirely to Telegram, Dubinsky continued there what he had done on the services where he was banned — he defended the Moscow Patriarchate Church, accused the West of unleashing the war, and talked about the allegedly widespread anti-Semitic sentiment in Ukraine. In general, he worked very much in line with Russian propaganda.

And if investigative journalists are not mistaken, Oleksandr Dubinsky may also be involved in a large-scale corruption scheme to purchase overpriced medical equipment for hospitals and diagnostic centres in the Kyiv Region — the same region where he until recently headed the regional department of Zelensky’s Servant of the People.

Each of the above episodes is enough to turn all the suspicions and accusations against Dubinsky into concrete actions by law enforcement agencies. But they came after Dubinsky only when he travelled abroad illegally and helped other men of military age to leave Ukraine. Martial law was imposed in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale Russian invasion, which restricts the right to travel for those subject to mobilization and military service. A man of military age in Ukraine cannot simply go abroad — he must have a good and valid reason to do so.

Permission to travel is granted in exceptional cases. For example, to receive medical treatment or to accompany a seriously ill relative. Last summer, MP Dubinsky, who volunteered to take his sick father abroad, was granted such a permit. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that Dubinsky's trips with his father did not coincide in time or destination, making it clear that his actions could be considered a serious offence.

Investigators working on his case soon discovered that Dubinsky had helped his wife's brother leave the country, when he had no right to do so. The number of criminal cases involving the scandalous MP grew almost by the week, but he remained at large and was not even expelled from the Verkhovna Rada until the middle of November. The authorities came for him on November 13 — and they didn't come with questions about his illegal trips abroad and strange Telegram posts. They came with handcuffs and accusations of treason.

The SBU believes that Oleksandr Dubinsky is a member of a criminal organization whose actions are “aimed at shaking up the domestic political situation” and “discrediting the country's leadership.” According to the SBU, the Russian General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) is behind the organization. The press conference at which the “Biden” and “Poroshenko” recordings were revealed was used as evidence of the organization's activities and of Dubinsky in particular (the investigation documents indicate that he used the call sign “Buratino” with his Russian handlers).

The SBU believes that the whole story of the recordings — their illegal acquisition, editing and publication — was inspired by the Russian security services to weaken U.S. support for Ukraine, with the two MPs knowingly cooperating with the aggressor state in exchange for financial rewards. According to the SBU report, the “Buratino” group received at least $10 million from the Russians.

A court has placed Dubinsky under arrest for the duration of the investigation. If found guilty of treason, Dubinsky may face 12 to 15 years in prison. If the court finds that the “Buratino” group continued to act in Russia's interests after martial law was imposed, he could face life behind bars.

If the court finds that Dubinsky continued to act in Russia's interests after martial law was imposed, he could face life behind bars

“Buratino” himself maintains that he has nothing to do with the charges against him and insists that the case was fabricated by the presidential administration to get rid of one of Zelensky's most outspoken critics.

Meanwhile, the president’s team is writing off the Oleksandr Dubinsky scandal as a “failed experiment.” Oleksandr Korniyenko , the First Deputy Chief of the Verkhovna Rada, claimed that when the party lists for 2019 were being drawn up, Servant of the People decided to include popular bloggers, and it was by this “blogger quota” that Dubinsky found himself in party. Korniyenko blames himself for not kicking Dubinsky out in time, even allowing him to become head of the Kyiv regional party organization.

Incidentally, Oleksandr Dubinsky is still formally an MP, and his personal page remains on the Verkhovna Rada website. The page of his former colleague Andrii Derkach has been taken down. He was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship by presidential decree, along with that of Viktor Medvedchuk, Taras Kozak and Renat Kuzmin, members of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform — For Life, who fled to Russia after the start of the invasion. This automatically deprived him of his parliamentary status.

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