CRF Blog

The Oligarch in the Gilded Cage

by Bill Hayes

In The Oligarch in the Gilded Cage, a Bloomberg Businessweek feature story, Robert Kolker looks at the case of Dmitry Firtash, a wealthy Ukranian and former partner of Paul Manafort.

Outside of a John le Carré novel, there may be no more perfectly embroiled middleman than Firtash. Russia and the former Soviet republics have more than a few embattled oligarchs, but only one stands accused of being the missing link between Vladimir Putin and the Trump administration. Last summer, in the thick of the U.S. presidential campaign, a host of news reports noted that Firtash, a Ukrainian natural gas magnate, was the onetime business partner of Donald Trump adviser Paul Manafort, the Washington political operative who’d worked in Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s Russia-friendly kleptocratic president. (Yanukovych, for his part, appeared in the explosive, unverified opposition research dossier on Trump that went public just before the inauguration: He was the Ukrainian politician who was said to have assured Putin that no one would ever trace alleged cash payments to Manafort back to the Russian president.)

But the connection to Manafort, and Manafort’s connection to Trump, represent just the latest alleged entanglement for Firtash. There are the reports that, as a 50-50 partner in Ukraine’s natural gas business with Russia’s state-run Gazprom, he made his billions as Putin’s handpicked surrogate. There are the accusations, leveled by the U.S. Department of Justice, that Firtash benefited from an association with one of the world’s most powerful organized crime figures, Semion Mogilevich, who has appeared on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Then, paradoxically, there are the warm friendships Firtash has cultivated with members of the British Foreign Office and the praise he’s received from cultural figures such as the French author and public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. (“Frankly speaking,” Lévy tells me, “I do not believe all the terrible things I read about him.”)

Finally, there’s the criminal case Firtash is facing in the U.S. — a case with an imminent court date that, given the seemingly never-ending stream of allegations about the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia, is sure to be seen as a foreign policy test. The three-year-old indictment, out of a federal court in Chicago, accuses Firtash of plotting a bribery scheme to set up a $500 million titanium business in India, with Boeing as a potential client. (The deal never happened.) Firtash was arrested in Vienna in March 2014, three weeks after Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution ousted Yanukovych from office. But almost right away, an Austrian judge took the unusual step of denying the U.S. government’s extradition request, which he described as possibly politically motivated: “The aim was clearly to prevent [Firtash] from undermining the political interests of the U.S.,” the judge wrote at the time, “and with his arrest [he] was to be removed from Ukrainian politics.” Firtash was known to have supported Yanukovych, whom the U.S. opposed. [more]