By Maximilian Hess*
(FPRI) — The Kremlin’s influence over political and business networks is everywhere these days, or so it would seem. Russian-style disinformation, corruption, and military doctrines are regularly discussed in the U.S. press. These stories often appear incredible. Yet, individuals like Dmytro Firtash, one of the most powerful billionaire oligarchs in Ukraine, demonstrate that one can avoid justice by working political networks and bringing influential individuals on his payroll. The West has long criticized such actions in Russia and Ukraine, But Firtash also demonstrates that such practices are not only found in Kyiv and Moscow.
Firtash is a particularly controversial oligarch. For nearly six years, the U.S. Department of Justice has sought his extradition from Austria on corruption charges. Firtash’s reputation stems from his role in fixing Ukrainian gas markets to the Kremlin’s advantage—helping to ensure that Moscow kept a tight grip on its neighbor in the pre-Euromaidan era.
Acting through the firm RosUkrEnergo, a joint venture between Firtash and Russia’s state gas giant Gazprom, Firtash not only aided the Kremlin’s political agenda, but also enriched himself in the process. The firm paid discounted prices for Russian gas imports, while passing major mark-ups onto the Ukrainian government. Firtash thus became a billionaire at the expense of Ukraine’s budget. This wealth gave him the spring board to do business not just in Ukraine, but around the globe, even after allegedly admitting ties to infamous Russian organized crime boss Semyon Mogilevich.
Firtash’s ties to the Kremlin enabled his wealth and ultimately caused him to become ensnared in a fight with U.S. prosecutors. Firtash was arrested in Vienna in March 2014, just days after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, on U.S. charges that he bribed government officials in India in order to secure a titanium investment intended to supply parts for Boeing. Firtash has fought the case tooth and nail, arguing the timing of his indictment demonstrates it was politically-motivated—Austrian law prohibits extradition under such circumstances. Numerous Austrian courts have heard and issued rulings both in Firtash’s favor and ordering his extradition. Austria’s Supreme Court finally approved the extradition this June, with the Justice Ministry swiftly approving the move. However, a lower-level court ruled that Firtash’s attempts to re-open the case must be heard. His extradition is therefore once again in limbo. Crucially, he has not been alone in the fight.
Firtash already had a strong network of Russian and Ukrainian businessmen and politicians to call on. One Russian oligarch, for instance, paid Firtash’s 125-million-euro bail after his assets were frozen. Yet, rather than rely on these ties, Firtash has cultivated a new suite of allies in Austria. These individuals are far more influential west of Vienna’s Landstrasse, where Firtash has been renting a palatial home.
The former Hapsburg capital celebrates its imperial past. Its balls attract Hollywood royalty, members of waning aristocratic houses, and political arrivistes. Austria’s neutrality in the Cold War helped it become a hub of espionage, and such activity has continued even after the Soviet Union’s fall.
Firtash may have been outraged at the U.S. extradition attempts, but Vienna served him well as a new base. If Paris is a city of lights, Vienna is a city of organizations. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries set up shop in Vienna in 1965. When the Soviet Union and the West united to create the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1973, it too found a home in Vienna. After Firtash arrived in Vienna, he too quickly set up an organization, launching the “Agency for the Modernization of Ukraine” in March 2015.
The organization promised to release a new agenda for reforming Ukraine within 200 days, and it dutifully did so. The agenda aimed to “modernize the country,” including trade, economic reforms, and political changes. Left unsaid was how this was supposed to be enacted, and the plans went nowhere. The agency’s true agenda seems to be far more self-interested—it serves to bring influential European politicos onto Firtash’s payroll.
The two heaviest hitters hired by Firtash’s organization were former German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck and Austria’s former Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance (2011-14) Michael Spindelegger. Others subsequently joined the team. Karl-Georg Wellmann, who served as an MP for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) for 12 years, came onboard to balance out Steinbruck, once a leading light in Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). Two former Polish prime ministers, Waldemar Pawlak and Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, were then hired, as were ex-French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Peter Mandelson, once seen as the éminence grise behind British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The list goes on.
Stacking the agency with political heavyweights was not Firtash’s only effort to turn his wealth into political capital. He also hired Austria’s former Justice Minister Dieter Böhmdorfer, of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), as one of his lawyers. Firtash’s legal team has also included Lanny Davis, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton who subsequently worked for President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen before his mea culpa to Congress last May. Davis was on Firtash’s payroll as recently as this June.
Firtash’s time in Austria has not been quiet. He has continued to remain active in Ukrainian politics, in part through his television network, Inter. In some cases, his role has been more overt. For example, he reportedly helped broker an alliance between ex-heavyweight world-champion boxer Vitali Klitschko and Petro Poroshenko . The pair were seen as frontrunners for the presidency, but Klitschko endorsed Poroshenko, who would go on to be elected president, just days after meeting with him and Firtash in Vienna.
Locally, he has been keen to stay out of the Austrian papers unless to fight his extradition. In November 2014, for instance, local Austrian media reported that a group of Hungarian businessmen sent a hit squad after the Ukrainian oligarch. Firtash barely acknowledged the claims.
Some have argued that the U.S. Department of Justice’s attempt to extradite Firtash is politically motivated. This is the base argument of Firtash’s legal team. But Spain too has sought the oligarch’s extradition, along with that of Hares Youssef, a Syrian-Ukrainian businessman who allegedly helped Firtash launder money. That case demonstrates just how difficult it is to secure extradition. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies has previously linked Youssef to a scheme to ship arms to South Sudan in 2007. Yet, an Austrian court rejected Spain’s extradition demand for Youssef and Firtash in 2017. This November, a Spanish judge suspended the process. The pair had different approaches to fighting the charges, however. Youssef’s only public presence in recent years has been publishing a handful of jejune blog posts in the Odessa Review magazine. On the other hand, Firtash has made the fight against his potential extradition extremely public. Youssef may now be joining this effort—on October 22, a website was registered in Youssef’s name. Firtash is also again curating an influential rolodex.
Part of Firtash’s new effort involves a new legal team, starring Victoria Toensling and her husband, Joseph DiGenova. Often seen defending President Donald Trump on Fox News, the pair briefly helped defend Trump amid Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election and again featured heavily in the House Intelligence Committee’s recent impeachment report. Firtash once again did not stop there: he also met with since-indicted businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were working with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to simultaneously advance Trump’s personal agenda and seek business opportunities in Ukraine. Firtash even told the New York Times that he hired Toensing and DiGenova on the understanding that they could secure Giuliani’s help. Giuliani has admitted that he contacted Firtash’s legal team, though he publicly denounced the Ukrainian oligarch just last year.
Firtash has already proven that he will do whatever it takes to avoid extradition, whether by hiring politically connected lawyers or bringing politicians and their allies directly onto his payroll. Even if Firtash is extradited, however, he has already begun mining U.S. political networks and bringing influential individuals onto his payroll. Austrian courts must still decide whether Firtash will be sent to face U.S. justice, but he is already exporting the practices he has employed in Moscow, Kiev, and Vienna.
*About the author: Maximilian Hess is a Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the Head of Political Risk Analysis and Consulting at AKE International in London, where he also heads the Europe and Eurasia desks.
Source: This article was published by FPRI