Rinat Akhmetov Ukraine
Rinat Akhmetov. Photo by FC Shakhtar.

I decided to take a look at the behavior of the richest man of Ukraine from Donetsk, businessman Rinat Akhmetov when I saw a Facebook post of Yuri Butusov. He’s an editor at the Censor news website. He said that the Donetsk-based oligarch asked in Kyiv for the state protection because he is afraid of personal security. Mr. Butusov is a reliable source because he is close to the members of the “Ukraine’s Iron Lady” Yulia Tymoshenko‘s political team, many of whom are members of the interim government. Butusov desperately added that it’s a shame for the billionaire to ask for state protection, because he did nothing to protect Ukraine’s state and, in particular, his Donbas region from the Russian invasion.

Butusov’s commentary makes sense. Contrary to Ukrainian-Israeli business oligarch of Jewish descent Igor Kolomoisky, who guarantees security in the central Dnipropetrovsk region and financially supports Ukrainian anti-terror forces, Rinat Akhmetov left his home city, as he said “till the crisis will end”. It’s remarkably, that Akhmetov kept a low profile during all the crisis from November 2013, including early spring when armed Russian mercenaries infiltrated his eastern region stirring up the separatist movements.

His inaction looks surreal, because according to the public myth he ultimately controls the whole Donbas and nothing could happen there without his consent. Only once the journalist of Novaya Zageta paper from Moscow Yulia Latynina saw Akhmetov in April when he forced the leader of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) separatist group Denis Pushilin to meet the former Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Several times pro-European ‘EuroMaidan’ movement tried to ask the Ukrainian billionaire where is his future: in Moscow-led Customs Union of post-Soviet republics or in the European Union. In December 2013, a group of activists came to his multi-million mansion in Donetsk to say that he’s responsible for sponsoring Victor Yanukovych’s dictatorship which led to violence against peaceful demonstrators in Kyiv. Akhmetov called them liars.

Then pro-European activists painted the walls of Akhmetov’s shopping mall in downtown Kyiv with the questions “Did you betray or sell Donbas?”, “Are you with Ukraine or Kremlin?”, and “Want to make money? First make peace!”. The ashamed billionaire ordered to cover the questions with a large Ukrainian flag.

ZUM Kyiv Rinat Akhmetov
Photo by Censor.net

Akhmetov went to the public only when the separatist referendum in Donbas failed on May 11, and Putin didn’t recognize its results. So, is the inaction of the richest men of Ukraine coincidental?

It seems for me that a Donetsk-based oligarch with billions of dollars in a back pocket tries to play his own game to secure the unlimited control over Donbas – no matter for him under Russian or Ukrainian rule. His close economic ties to Russia didn’t let him to stand up for integrity of Ukraine in the beginning of the crisis. But when he realized that his business empire may face severe international sanctions and Putin withdraws Russian army from the border, he declared that he’s for united Ukraine and against separatist DPR.

On May 14, he said that both Donbas scenarios of DPR and joining Russia are unacceptable. Instead, he supported new government proposal to change the Ukraine’s constitution to secure more power for the regional authorities.

In the next TV appearance Akhmetov looked angry. He went to the air after the street fight with casualties between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian counter-terrorism forces happened in Mariupol, an industrial city at Azov sea shore. The oligarch sent a signal that he’s for Ukraine’s integrity, but members of DPR (at that time the organization was officially declared as terroristic) are “pundits who would never intimidate people of Donbass.”

Meanwhile, after Rinat Akhmetov started to hide in his Kyiv luxury house, another civil activist Yuri Lutsenko wrote on his Facebook that the groups of Chechen militants in Donbas are “mercenaries of Akhmetov and his Lux criminal gang.” I can’t fully trust Yuri Lutsenko without any prove, despite he was an activist at the EuroMaidan in Kyiv. His social network commentary appears to me as a try to switch attention from the appearance of other separatist leaders who may bring eastern Ukraine in Putin’s hands more effectively. By the way, Lutsenko’s comment ends with a revolutionary message in Yulia Tymoshenko’s style which strangely resonates with messages of DPR: “All our attention should be exactly on Akhmetov and his friends. They should lose the stolen property and state posts they bought”, he wrote.

Kremlin Ceremony Annexation of Crimea
Ceremony of Crimea annexation in Kremlin. Photo by RIA Novosti, Alex Nikolsky

An initial Putin’s scenario in Eastern Ukraine was to annex 2 eastern regions in the same way as Crimea: by hands of local pro-Russian businessmen. Rinat Akhmetov seemed to play exactly this historical role, as Kremlin supposed. But combination of external and internal factors didn’t let Putin to celebrate one more land-grabbing victory. For instance:

  • People of Donbas is surprisingly more patriotic than of Crimea
  • Police and army were quickly mobilized, regaining control over most of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
  • 2-month time frame till presidential elections allowed locals to realize (with help of counter-propaganda from Ukrainian media) that separatists are the mix of Russian mercenaries and local criminals.
  • In comparison to shady business of chief Crimean separatist Sergey Aksionov, Rinat Akhmetov’s industrial empire is a transparent asset built by western managers and integrated into the Western markets. 

Putin’s May defeat in Donbas because Akhmetov didn’t play the pre-designed role doesn’t immediately mean that Russia will leave Ukraine in peace. That’s why Rinat Akhmetov may be afraid of personal security. The appearance of another subversive mercenary armed groups like “Battalion East” and “Russian Orthodox (Church) Army”, as well as activities of Putin’s relative and pro-Russian politician Victor Medvedchuk together with Party of Regions’ member Oleg Tsariov demonstrates new Kremlin scenario. But the output of this latest scenario also depends on how far Ukrainians will allow Putin to proceed.

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