Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash: ‘Putin will go further. What will Europe do then?’

Does the Financial Times pay for the heavies? It’s a scorching, dry Vienna day, the air aromatic with linden, and I’m walking to lunch.

Ten metres forward, at the different facet of the road, casing our fellow pedestrians, is the primary of Dmitry Firtash’s bodyguards. Another walks at the back of us. We’ve descended from Firtash’s workplaces within the Palais Bloch-Bauer (as in Adele, of the Klimt portrait) and, having squeezed previous his gleaming Maybach, we’re on our option to Ali’s Grill, a Turkish ocakbaşi eating place simply down the road.

Firtash is a typical. “Everything is simply done, but it’s done well — nothing is spoiled,” he says as we stroll in. He hardly leaves the workplace earlier than the early hours of the morning, so this, he provides puckishly, “is my kitchen”. 

The tale of Ukraine’s present tragedy can’t be informed with out Dmitry Firtash. And certainly, for his critics, would possibly no longer have came about with out Dmitry Firtash: a multibillionaire industrialist who made his fortune buying and selling gasoline with Russia, the lifeblood and poison of Ukraine for the rustic’s 30 years of independence; a powerbroker whose personal legal professional described him in court docket as a “kingmaker . . . who can and does influence election results”; and now, an exile of 8 years in Vienna, pursued by means of america Department of Justice.

For many Ukrainians, Firtash is at the start the person who bankrolled the go back to the presidency in 2010 of Viktor Yanukovych, corrupt myrmidon of Vladimir Putin, spurring the Maidan revolution and, after it, Russia’s crushing retribution. But, as any individual who has scratched the skin of japanese European historical past is aware of, hardly is anything else rather so black and white.

As we sit down down in Ali’s — a large, ethereal, diner-like position with an incongruous mash-up of bricks, fretwork, pleather and enormous chandeliers for decor — I’m questioning in regards to the invoice. The FT, after all, can pay. But. There are 5 within the entourage that has shepherded Firtash and me down the road. So do I pick out up the tab for the desk by means of the window the place Firtash and I’ve simply sat down, or everybody else’s too?

Black tea in small Turkish ince belli glasses arrives. We can take care of the invoice when it comes.

Firtash, 57, has trim silver-grey hair and is dressed in a broad-lapelled, smartly adapted go well with with a sombre military tie, either one of obtrusive high quality. He is softly spoken and pensive — no longer given to overstatement or aggression — and has a dependancy of opening his sentences with both a “Look . . . ” or a rhetorical “Why? Because . . . ”, which, slightly or no longer, casts him as a person with numerous explaining to do.

We chat just a little about what he does or doesn’t omit about Ukrainian meals. But my first actual query is an easy one: did he see the battle coming? “Right up until the last moment,” he says, taking a sip of his tea, “I was certain it wouldn’t happen.” The night time earlier than, he says: “I told my colleagues at 11pm: ‘Putin won’t invade, because if he does it will be the beginning of the end for him. It will be the end of his regime.’” 

Our starters arrive. A waitress brings a tray of small silver meze plates for us to make a choice from. Firtash enthusiastically urges me to take my pick out. I opt for a collection of dips — kuru cacık (yoghurt and cucumber), patlıcan söğürme (a salad of roasted aubergine) and abagannuş (aubergine dip), then the çiğ köfte (small patties of uncooked spiced red meat) as a wild card. There are heat flatbreads, charred from the grill.

So did he misunderstand who Putin used to be, I ask, hoping to tweak his vainness.

“To understand [Putin], you need to understand the history of Russia,” he says. “What is Russia? Russia is 1,000 years of war. Somebody has invaded them or they have invaded somebody.” 

It’s a artful flourish however it reasonably dodges my query, and the purpose I’m riding in opposition to, which is why he, Dmitry Firtash, used to be comfy profiting so handsomely from his relationships with Russia for see you later, if the writing used to be all the time at the wall about his belligerent neighbour?

Firtash got here from a modest background in western Ukraine. As a tender guy, discharged from military carrier, he started an entrepreneurial profession, buying and selling foodstuffs in Moscow. Before too lengthy, he’d forged his internet wider and used to be operating a trade promoting powdered milk and different such merchandise to former Soviet states in central Asia. Soon, Firtash used to be accepting reasonable Turkmen herbal gasoline as cost. The arbitrage used to be extra special. He piped the gasoline throughout Russia and offered it into Ukraine. With Putin’s upward thrust, on the other hand, Firtash’s function as a key intermediary within the transit of power to Ukraine put him within the highlight. And so started a few years of entanglement with the Kremlin’s energy video games.

There could also be the query of organised crime. It has dogged Firtash for the previous 15 years — in large part, consistent with Firtash, because of the efforts of his political enemies in Ukraine. The declare — by no means confirmed, and persistently denied — used to be that Firtash took a leg up into gasoline buying and selling with the assistance of Semyon Mogilevich, a godfather of the Russian mob. How else may he have long past from trucking dried milk to central Asia to being the facility at the back of the Ukrainian presidency, his detractors ask? The hearsay used to be turbocharged by means of the leak of a US diplomatic cable wherein Firtash informed Washington’s ambassador in Kyiv, William Taylor, that he had “needed and received” permission from Mogilevich to behavior positive components of his trade.

The account Firtash offers is extra nuanced. Organised crime used to be endemic throughout Ukraine on the time he used to be atmosphere out — even achieving into the Ukrainian executive. So sure, he have been conscious about Mogilevich — everybody in Ukrainian trade used to be — however he had by no means been his trade spouse.

During our lunch, a lot of Firtash’s account of his 20 years or so on the very centre of Ukrainian trade and tool is the same attraction for context. “I have no secrets,” he says with exasperation. “I spent years answering for every action I take in my life.”

We keep relating to Russia, and foresight. Firtash recounts a story from 2006. He used to be chair of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine — the rustic’s robust chamber of commercial — and the pro-European Viktor Yushchenko used to be Ukraine’s newly elected president. Yanukovych used to be his top minister.

Yushchenko had referred to as Firtash, Yanukovych and a small workforce of senior ministers to a gathering. He sought after Ukraine to enroll in Nato, he mentioned, and he wanted their give a boost to. Yanukovych balked on the perception. Yushchenko, unwell of excuses, misplaced his mood: “He turned to us and said: ‘Remember this moment, because while we still have time, and Russia is still regaining its strength, we can do this. But if we don’t join Nato soon, and Russia gets stronger, eventually they will invade.’ Then he looked at Yanukovych and said: ‘This is going to be on your head.’” Yanukovych, Firtash says, stormed out.

I ask about his personal place, then and in different Kyiv backroom offers over time. Firtash’s reaction is that he’s “a businessman, not a politician”.

Along with fellow oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Firtash changed into the primary backer of the pro-Russian Yanukovych — resulting in his victory within the 2010 presidential elections. The explanation why he subsidized Yanukovych, Firtash says, used to be not anything in any respect to do with Russia, or geopolitics. It used to be all on account of Yulia Tymoshenko.

The waitress involves transparent the meze, which we’ve dispatched between us. No faster are our plates long past than an enormous platter of grilled meat is put down in entrance folks. There are fantastically uncommon lamb cutlets, fats singed from a fierce warmth, glistening items of red meat fillet, loins of red meat and quite a lot of köfte. Three-quarters of this, I already know, will cross to waste at the altar of Ukrainian-British politeness. I assist myself to a unmarried, succulent chop.

To maximum observers within the west, Tymoshenko is observed in sure phrases, because the pro-EU reformer, heroine of the Orange revolution, who fought valiantly in opposition to Ukraine’s slide backwards in opposition to Moscow. She served as Yushchenko’s top minister, changing the recalcitrant Yanukovych, after which, in 2010, she ran for the presidency.

But Firtash sees issues another way. For years he have been locked in a sour business and political battle with Tymoshenko, herself a former power multi-millionaire referred to as the “gas princess”. She had already succeeded, in 2009, in smashing Firtash’s money cow: RosUkrEnergo, a Swiss-domiciled partnership with Gazprom that offered Turkmen gasoline to Ukraine’s Naftogaz (by the use of Gazprom’s pipes), incomes massive margins. (Her personal deal — negotiated at once with Gazprom and Putin — abolished the intermediary however ended up hugely expanding the cost of gasoline for Ukrainians.)

Had Tymoshenko change into president in 2010, Firtash believes, his companies would were stripped from beneath him. Supporting Yanukovych would possibly were cynical however it indubitably used to be no longer as a result of Putin ordered him to take action, Firtash says.

Firtash recommends a pistachio-studded and gently spiced köfte for me to check out, his favorite. All of the beef is excellently carried out. The lamb particularly is fantastically candy. The something I’m much less fascinated with is the pint of salty kefir that has been served along the meal — even though Firtash, who doesn’t drink alcohol, turns out to heartily experience his.

Ali’s Grill
Operngasse 14, 1010 Vienna

Patlıcan söğürme (aubergine salad) €6.90
Abagannuş (aubergine and tahini dip) €6.90
Kuru cacık (yoghurt and cucumber dip) €6.90
Hummus €6.90
Çiğ köfte (spiced uncooked red meat patties) €7.90
Saslik €25
Tavuk siş (hen kebab) €18
Ali’s fıstıklı (lamb and red meat kebab with pistachios) €22
Küşleme (lamb kebab) €28
Kuzu pirzola (lamp chops) €27
Kefir x2 €7
Sparkling water €6.90
Turkish espresso x2 €7
Baklava x2 €12 
Total €188.40

Mopping my plate with a work of flatbread, I probe additional, feeling that that is all somewhat too exculpatory. Does he no longer really feel his politicking ended up compromising the sovereignty of Ukraine?

“As a businessman, I make money, that’s what I do . . . ” he pauses. “But yes, as a Ukrainian and a human being — yes, there were probably mistakes, and I should agree and acknowledge those.

“I understood what [some] Ukrainian politicians were doing,” he says. “I understood it was not right. But I supported them.” 

His alliance with Yanukovych became bitter nearly as quickly because it have been struck, he issues out — even earlier than the Maidan. He bristles at other people wondering his patriotism. Until the outbreak of battle he had 110,000 Ukrainians operating for him, he says. And, not like lots of his wealthy friends, he provides, he has invested nearly all the cash he’s made again into Ukraine, growing Ukrainian jobs.

He shrugs, with some feel sorry about, at what came about the entire similar in his years as one in every of Ukraine’s maximum robust males. “When you have this situation, when you are operating in Ukraine, as it was then, morals are not necessarily front and centre of everything you do.” 

For years, after all, Russia’s coverage in opposition to its neighbour used to be geared toward precisely growing this type of ethical limbo. The days of political ambiguity in Ukraine are for now, a minimum of, over. While Firtash believes this can be a excellent factor — the fewer trade and politics combine, the easier, he says — it is probably not solely to his favour.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is ramping up his plans for the “deoligarichisation” of Ukraine, wherein he has made transparent he intends to restrict the affect of guys reminiscent of Firtash within the nation’s public existence. Firtash, in the meantime, stays an exile, because of america extradition warrant in opposition to him in a case associated with alleged bribery over an Indian titanium mine. After a brief stint in a Vienna jail ended by means of the biggest bail ever posted in Austria, €125mn, his legal professionals have effectively spent 8 years preventing US government at the grounds that their case is political. Austria is, nonetheless, Firtash’s gilded cage: leaving it makes him at risk of much less exacting extradition regimes and to US marshals.

Regardless of criminal possibility, Firtash’s recognition within the west stays at all-time low. In the United Kingdom, a spell of lobbying between 2007 and 2014 — all over which era he changed into a big donor to Cambridge college, arrange the British Ukrainian Society and cast hyperlinks in parliament — has made many deeply suspicious of his motives. Whether you notice a plot to infiltrate the British established order or a politically susceptible oligarch on the lookout for an insurance plans, is as much as you. In Firtash’s personal rationalization to the Wall Street Journal in 2014: “I can’t just be the place where people throw darts.”

We flip again to the battle itself — which has additionally carried out lots to decrease Firtash’s empire. I ask if he thinks america and Europe will have to be sending Kyiv extra guns. Without a blip of hesitation he says sure. “The Americans, the British and all Ukraine’s allies need to understand one thing. You cannot be half pregnant . . . It’s all in or all out. This ‘we can’t give you this, but we might give you this’ is nonsense.

If the west does not defend Ukraine now, Firtash says, “what is to stop Putin from going further? Because he will go further. When he invades the Baltic states, what will Europe do then? He will go as far as he feels he can — unless he is stopped he will continue.” 

The meat now long past, we order a spherical of Turkish coffees and a few baklava to move with them. This afternoon Firtash will flip his consideration to seeking to get grain out of Ukraine. His silos dangle 3mn tonnes of it. In May, he controlled to export simply 50,000 tonnes.

The international meals disaster, he says — talking additionally as one of the crucial global’s greatest nitrate fertiliser makers — goes to get a lot, a lot worse. The grain value, he predicts, would possibly come on the subject of doubling. “Putin will do anything he can to manipulate the situation globally,” Firtash says. Including famine, I ask? “Yes. Anything.”

Last week, Russia and Ukraine signed a deal to reopen the Black Sea to grain shipments, but if I spoke to Firtash, he perceived to have little or no religion in any agreements Russia would possibly signal.

We end our coffees. Firtash, it seems, has already paid for his entourage, with out me even noticing. As we get able to depart, I recall a line in an older interview wherein Firtash tells his interlocutor that you simply will have to pass judgement on a person by means of his enemies. Nodding to the safety element, I ask . . . who’re yours?

“I wouldn’t say I have long-term enemies. There are just people with long-term interests who manifest themselves as enemies every now and again,” he says, breaking out into a smile.

Sam Jones is the FT’s Switzerland and Austria correspondent  

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