Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash: ‘Putin will go additional. What’s going to Europe do then?’
Does the Monetary Instances pay for the heavies? It’s a scorching, dry Vienna day, the air aromatic with linden, and I’m strolling to lunch.
Ten metres forward, on the opposite aspect of the road, casing our fellow pedestrians, is the primary of Dmitry Firtash’s bodyguards. One other walks behind 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 restaurant simply down the road.
Firtash is an everyday. “Every thing is just achieved, but it surely’s achieved properly — nothing is spoiled,” he says as we stroll in. He hardly ever leaves the workplace earlier than the early hours of the morning, so this, he provides puckishly, “is my kitchen”.
The story of Ukraine’s present tragedy can’t be instructed with out Dmitry Firtash. And certainly, for his critics, may not have occurred 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 nation’s 30 years of independence; a powerbroker whose personal lawyer described him in court docket as a “kingmaker . . . who can and does affect election outcomes”; and now, an exile of eight years in Vienna, pursued by the US Division of Justice.
For a lot of Ukrainians, Firtash is at first the person who bankrolled the return to the presidency in 2010 of Viktor Yanukovych, corrupt myrmidon of Vladimir Putin, spurring the Maidan revolution and, after it, Russia’s crushing retribution. However, as anybody who has scratched the floor of japanese European historical past is aware of, hardly ever is something fairly so black and white.
As we sit down in Ali’s — a giant, ethereal, diner-like place with an incongruous mash-up of bricks, fretwork, pleather and big chandeliers for decor — I’m questioning in regards to the invoice. The FT, after all, pays. However. There are 5 within the entourage that has shepherded Firtash and me down the road. So do I choose up the tab for the desk by 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 are able to take care of the invoice when it comes.
Firtash, 57, has trim silver-grey hair and is carrying a broad-lapelled, neatly tailor-made go well with with a sombre navy tie, each of apparent high quality. He’s softly spoken and pensive — not given to overstatement or aggression — and has a behavior of opening his sentences with both a “Look . . . ” or a rhetorical “Why? As a result of . . . ”, which, pretty or not, casts him as a person with a variety of explaining to do.
We chat a bit about what he does or doesn’t miss about Ukrainian meals. However my first actual query is a straightforward one: did he see the battle coming? “Proper up till the final second,” he says, taking a sip of his tea, “I used to be sure it wouldn’t occur.” The night earlier than, he says: “I instructed my colleagues at 11pm: ‘Putin received’t invade, as a result of if he does will probably be the start of the tip for him. It is going to be the tip of his regime.’”
Our starters arrive. A waitress brings a tray of small silver meze plates for us to select from. Firtash enthusiastically urges me to take my choose. I am going 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 beef) as a wild card. There are heat flatbreads, charred from the grill.
So did he misunderstand who Putin was, I ask, hoping to tweak his self-importance.
“To know [Putin], you should perceive the historical past of Russia,” he says. “What’s Russia? Russia is 1,000 years of battle. Someone has invaded them or they’ve invaded someone.”
It’s a intelligent flourish but it surely considerably dodges my query, and the purpose I’m driving in the direction of, which is why he, Dmitry Firtash, was comfy profiting so handsomely from his relationships with Russia for thus lengthy, if the writing was all the time on the wall about his belligerent neighbour?
Firtash got here from a modest background in western Ukraine. As a younger man, discharged from military service, he started an entrepreneurial profession, buying and selling foodstuffs in Moscow. Earlier than too lengthy, he’d forged his web wider and was working a enterprise promoting powdered milk and different such merchandise to former Soviet states in central Asia. Quickly, Firtash was accepting low-cost Turkmen pure gasoline as fee. The arbitrage was phenomenal. He piped the gasoline throughout Russia and bought it into Ukraine. With Putin’s rise, nonetheless, Firtash’s function as a key intermediary within the transit of vitality to Ukraine put him within the highlight. And so started a few years of entanglement with the Kremlin’s energy video games.
There’s additionally the query of organised crime. It has dogged Firtash for the previous 15 years — largely, in accordance with Firtash, because of the efforts of his political enemies in Ukraine. The declare — by no means confirmed, and constantly denied — was 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 gone from trucking dried milk to central Asia to being the facility behind the Ukrainian presidency, his detractors ask? The hearsay was turbocharged by the leak of a US diplomatic cable wherein Firtash instructed Washington’s ambassador in Kyiv, William Taylor, that he had “wanted and obtained” permission from Mogilevich to conduct sure parts of his enterprise.
The account Firtash offers is extra nuanced. Organised crime was endemic throughout Ukraine on the time he was setting out — even reaching into the Ukrainian authorities. So sure, he had been conscious of Mogilevich — everybody in Ukrainian enterprise was — however he had by no means been his enterprise companion.
Throughout our lunch, a lot of Firtash’s account of his 20 years or so on the very centre of Ukrainian enterprise and energy is the same enchantment for context. “I’ve no secrets and techniques,” he says with exasperation. “I spent years answering for each motion I absorb my life.”
We keep as regards to Russia, and foresight. Firtash recounts a story from 2006. He was chair of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine — the nation’s highly effective chamber of enterprise — and the pro-European Viktor Yushchenko was Ukraine’s newly elected president. Yanukovych was his prime minister.
Yushchenko had referred to as Firtash, Yanukovych and a small group of senior ministers to a gathering. He wished Ukraine to affix Nato, he mentioned, and he wanted their help. Yanukovych balked on the notion. Yushchenko, sick of excuses, misplaced his mood: “He turned to us and mentioned: ‘Bear in mind this second, as a result of whereas we nonetheless have time, and Russia continues to be regaining its energy, we will do that. But when we don’t be a part of Nato quickly, and Russia will get stronger, ultimately they’ll invade.’ Then he checked out Yanukovych and mentioned: ‘That is going to be in your head.’” Yanukovych, Firtash says, stormed out.
I ask about his personal place, then and in different Kyiv backroom offers through the years. Firtash’s response is that he’s “a businessman, not a politician”.
Together with fellow oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Firtash turned the principle backer of the pro-Russian Yanukovych — resulting in his victory within the 2010 presidential elections. The explanation he backed Yanukovych, Firtash says, was nothing in any respect to do with Russia, or geopolitics. It was all due to Yulia Tymoshenko.
The waitress involves clear the meze, which now we have dispatched between us. No sooner are our plates gone than an enormous platter of grilled meat is put down in entrance of us. There are superbly uncommon lamb cutlets, fats singed from a fierce warmth, glistening items of beef fillet, loins of pork and varied köfte. Three-quarters of this, I already know, will go to waste on the altar of Ukrainian-British politeness. I assist myself to a single, succulent chop.
To most observers within the west, Tymoshenko is seen in optimistic phrases, because the pro-EU reformer, heroine of the Orange revolution, who fought valiantly in opposition to Ukraine’s slide backwards in the direction of Moscow. She served as Yushchenko’s prime minister, changing the recalcitrant Yanukovych, after which, in 2010, she ran for the presidency.
However Firtash sees issues otherwise. For years he had been locked in a bitter business and political battle with Tymoshenko, herself a former vitality magnate generally known as the “gasoline princess”. She had already succeeded, in 2009, in smashing Firtash’s money cow: RosUkrEnergo, a Swiss-domiciled partnership with Gazprom that bought Turkmen gasoline to Ukraine’s Naftogaz (by way of Gazprom’s pipes), incomes large margins. (Her personal deal — negotiated immediately with Gazprom and Putin — abolished the intermediary however ended up vastly growing the value of gasoline for Ukrainians.)
Had Tymoshenko grow to be president in 2010, Firtash believes, his companies would have been stripped from underneath him. Supporting Yanukovych may need been cynical but it surely definitely was not as a result of Putin ordered him to take action, Firtash says.
Firtash recommends a pistachio-studded and gently spiced köfte for me to strive, his favorite. The entire meat is excellently achieved. The lamb particularly is superbly candy. The one factor I’m much less eager on is the pint of salty kefir that has been served alongside the meal — although Firtash, who doesn’t drink alcohol, appears to heartily take pleasure in his.
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
Çiğ köfte (spiced uncooked beef patties) €7.90
Tavuk siş (hen kebab) €18
Ali’s fıstıklı (lamb and beef kebab with pistachios) €22
Küşleme (lamb kebab) €28
Kuzu pirzola (lamp chops) €27
Kefir x2 €7
Glowing water €6.90
Turkish espresso x2 €7
Baklava x2 €12
Mopping my plate with a chunk of flatbread, I probe additional, feeling that that is all barely too exculpatory. Does he not really feel his politicking ended up compromising the sovereignty of Ukraine?
“As a businessman, I earn money, that’s what I do . . . ” he pauses. “However sure, as a Ukrainian and a human being — sure, there have been most likely errors, and I ought to agree and acknowledge these.
“I understood what [some] Ukrainian politicians had been doing,” he says. “I understood it was not proper. However I supported them.”
His alliance with Yanukovych turned bitter nearly as quickly because it had been struck, he factors out — even earlier than the Maidan. He bristles at individuals questioning his patriotism. Till the outbreak of battle he had 110,000 Ukrainians working for him, he says. And, not like lots of his wealthy friends, he provides, he has invested nearly the entire cash he’s made again into Ukraine, creating Ukrainian jobs.
He shrugs, with some remorse, at what occurred all the identical in his years as considered one of Ukraine’s strongest males. “When you have got this case, when you’re working in Ukraine, because it was then, morals are usually not essentially entrance and centre of every little thing you do.”
For years, after all, Russia’s coverage in the direction of its neighbour was geared toward precisely creating such an ethical limbo. The times of political ambiguity in Ukraine are for now, not less than, over. Whereas Firtash believes it is a good factor — the much less enterprise and politics combine, the higher, he says — it will not be solely to his favour.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is ramping up his plans for the “deoligarichisation” of Ukraine, wherein he has made clear he intends to restrict the affect of males similar to Firtash within the nation’s public life. Firtash, in the meantime, stays an exile, because of the US extradition warrant in opposition to him in a case associated to alleged bribery over an Indian titanium mine. After a brief stint in a Vienna jail ended by the most important bail ever posted in Austria, €125mn, his legal professionals have efficiently spent eight years combating US authorities on the grounds that their case is political. Austria is, however, Firtash’s gilded cage: leaving it makes him weak to much less exacting extradition regimes and to US marshals.
No matter authorized threat, Firtash’s repute within the west stays at all-time low. Within the UK, a spell of lobbying between 2007 and 2014 — throughout which era he turned a serious donor to Cambridge college, arrange the British Ukrainian Society and solid hyperlinks in parliament — has made many deeply suspicious of his motives. Whether or not you see a plot to infiltrate the British institution or a politically weak oligarch seeking an insurance coverage coverage, is as much as you. In Firtash’s personal clarification to the Wall Avenue Journal in 2014: “I can’t simply be the place the place individuals throw darts.”
We flip again to the battle itself — which has additionally achieved loads to decrease Firtash’s empire. I ask if he thinks the US and Europe ought to be sending Kyiv extra weapons. And not using a blip of hesitation he says sure. “The People, the British and all Ukraine’s allies want to grasp one factor. You can’t be half pregnant . . . It’s all in or all out. This ‘we will’t offer you this, however we’d offer you this’ is nonsense.
If the west doesn’t defend Ukraine now, Firtash says, “what’s to cease Putin from going additional? As a result of he’ll go additional. When he invades the Baltic states, what’s going to Europe do then? He’ll go so far as he feels he can — except he’s stopped he’ll proceed.”
The meat now gone, we order a spherical of Turkish coffees and a few baklava to go along with them. This afternoon Firtash will flip his consideration to making an attempt to get grain out of Ukraine. His silos maintain 3mn tonnes of it. In Could, he managed to export simply 50,000 tonnes.
The worldwide meals disaster, he says — talking additionally as one of many world’s largest nitrate fertiliser makers — goes to get a lot, a lot worse. The grain worth, he predicts, would possibly come near doubling. “Putin will do something he can to control the state of affairs globally,” Firtash says. Together with famine, I ask? “Sure. Something.”
Final week, Russia and Ukraine signed a deal to reopen the Black Sea to grain shipments, however after I spoke to Firtash, he appeared 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 prepare to go away, I recall a line in an older interview wherein Firtash tells his interlocutor that you must choose a person by his enemies. Nodding to the safety element, I ask . . . who’re yours?
“I wouldn’t say I’ve long-term enemies. There are simply individuals with long-term pursuits who manifest themselves as enemies each on occasion,” he says, breaking out into a smile.
Sam Jones is the FT’s Switzerland and Austria correspondent
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