Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash: ‘Putin will go further. What will Europe do then?’
Does the Financial Times pay for the heavies? It’s a hot, dry Vienna day, the air fragrant with linden, and I am strolling to lunch.
Ten metres ahead, on the other side of the street, casing our fellow pedestrians, is the first of Dmitry Firtash’s bodyguards. Another walks behind us. We’ve descended from Firtash’s offices in the Palais Bloch-Bauer (as in Adele, of the Klimt portrait) and, having squeezed past his gleaming Maybach, we are on our way to Ali’s Grill, a Turkish ocakbaşi restaurant just down the street.
Firtash is a regular. “Everything is simply done, but it’s done well — nothing is spoiled,” he says as we walk in. He rarely leaves the office before the early hours of the morning, so this, he adds puckishly, “is my kitchen”.
The story of Ukraine’s current tragedy cannot be told without Dmitry Firtash. And indeed, for his critics, might not have happened without Dmitry Firtash: a multibillionaire industrialist who made his fortune trading gas with Russia, the lifeblood and poison of Ukraine for the country’s 30 years of independence; a powerbroker whose own lawyer described him in court as a “kingmaker . . . who can and does influence election results”; and now, an exile of eight years in Vienna, pursued by the US Department of Justice.
For many Ukrainians, Firtash is first and foremost the man 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. But, as anyone who has scratched the surface of eastern European history knows, rarely is anything quite so black and white.
As we sit down in Ali’s — a big, airy, diner-like place with an incongruous mash-up of bricks, fretwork, pleather and huge chandeliers for decor — I am wondering about the bill. The FT, of course, pays. But. There are five in the entourage that has shepherded Firtash and me down the street. So do I pick up the tab for the table by the window where Firtash and I have just sat down, or everyone else’s too?
Black tea in small Turkish ince belli glasses arrives. We can deal with the bill when it comes.
Firtash, 57, has trim silver-grey hair and is wearing a broad-lapelled, neatly tailored suit with a sombre navy tie, both of obvious quality. He is softly spoken and pensive — not given to overstatement or aggression — and has a habit of opening his sentences with either a “Look . . . ” or a rhetorical “Why? Because . . . ”, which, fairly or not, casts him as a man with a lot of explaining to do.
We chat a little about what he does or doesn’t miss about Ukrainian food. But my first real question is a simple one: did he see the war coming? “Right up until the last moment,” he says, taking a sip of his tea, “I was certain it wouldn’t happen.” The evening before, 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 choose from. Firtash enthusiastically urges me to take my pick. I go for a selection 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 raw spiced beef) as a wild card. There are warm flatbreads, charred from the grill.
So did he misunderstand who Putin was, I ask, hoping to tweak his vanity.
“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 clever flourish but it somewhat dodges my question, and the point I am driving towards, which is why he, Dmitry Firtash, was comfortable profiting so handsomely from his relationships with Russia for so long, if the writing was always on the wall about his belligerent neighbour?
Firtash came from a modest background in western Ukraine. As a young man, discharged from army service, he began an entrepreneurial career, trading foodstuffs in Moscow. Before too long, he’d cast his net wider and was running a business selling powdered milk and other such products to former Soviet states in central Asia. Soon, Firtash was accepting cheap Turkmen natural gas as payment. The arbitrage was phenomenal. He piped the gas across Russia and sold it into Ukraine. With Putin’s rise, however, Firtash’s role as a key middleman in the transit of energy to Ukraine put him in the spotlight. And so began many years of entanglement with the Kremlin’s power games.
There is also the question of organised crime. It has dogged Firtash for the past 15 years — largely, according to Firtash, thanks to the efforts of his political enemies in Ukraine. The claim — never proven, and consistently denied — was that Firtash took a leg up into gas trading with the help of Semyon Mogilevich, a godfather of the Russian mob. How else could he have gone from trucking dried milk to central Asia to being the power behind the Ukrainian presidency, his detractors ask? The rumour was turbocharged by the leak of a US diplomatic cable in which Firtash told Washington’s ambassador in Kyiv, William Taylor, that he had “needed and received” permission from Mogilevich to conduct certain elements of his business.
The account Firtash gives is more nuanced. Organised crime was endemic across Ukraine at the time he was setting out — even reaching into the Ukrainian government. So yes, he had been aware of Mogilevich — everyone in Ukrainian business was — but he had never been his business partner.
During our lunch, much of Firtash’s account of his two decades or so at the very centre of Ukrainian business and power is a similar appeal for context. “I have no secrets,” he says with exasperation. “I spent years answering for every action I take in my life.”
We stay on the subject of Russia, and foresight. Firtash recounts a tale from 2006. He was chair of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine — the country’s powerful chamber of business — and the pro-European Viktor Yushchenko was Ukraine’s newly elected president. Yanukovych was his prime minister.
Yushchenko had called Firtash, Yanukovych and a small group of senior ministers to a meeting. He wanted Ukraine to join Nato, he said, and he needed their support. Yanukovych balked at the notion. Yushchenko, sick of excuses, lost his temper: “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 own position, then and in other Kyiv backroom deals over the years. Firtash’s response is that he is “a businessman, not a politician”.
Along with fellow oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Firtash became the main backer of the pro-Russian Yanukovych — leading to his victory in the 2010 presidential elections. The reason he backed Yanukovych, Firtash says, was nothing at all to do with Russia, or geopolitics. It was all because of Yulia Tymoshenko.
The waitress comes to clear the meze, which we have dispatched between us. No sooner are our plates gone than a huge platter of grilled meat is put down in front of us. There are beautifully rare lamb cutlets, fat singed from a fierce heat, glistening pieces of beef fillet and various köfte. Three-quarters of this, I already know, will go to waste on the altar of Ukrainian-British politeness. I help myself to a single, succulent chop.
To most observers in the west, Tymoshenko is seen in positive terms, as the pro-EU reformer, heroine of the Orange revolution, who fought valiantly against Ukraine’s slide backwards towards Moscow. She served as Yushchenko’s prime minister, replacing the recalcitrant Yanukovych, and then, in 2010, she ran for the presidency.
But Firtash sees things differently. For years he had been locked in a bitter commercial and political war with Tymoshenko, herself a former energy magnate known as the “gas princess”. She had already succeeded, in 2009, in smashing Firtash’s cash cow: RosUkrEnergo, a Swiss-domiciled partnership with Gazprom that sold Turkmen gas to Ukraine’s Naftogaz (via Gazprom’s pipes), earning huge margins. (Her own deal — negotiated directly with Gazprom and Putin — abolished the middleman but ended up vastly increasing the price of gas for Ukrainians.)
Had Tymoshenko become president in 2010, Firtash believes, his businesses would have been stripped from under him. Supporting Yanukovych might have been cynical but it certainly was not because Putin ordered him to do so, Firtash says.
Firtash recommends a pistachio-studded and gently spiced köfte for me to try, his favourite. All of the meat is excellently done. The lamb in particular is beautifully sweet. The one thing I am less keen on is the pint of salty kefir that has been served alongside the meal — though Firtash, who doesn’t drink alcohol, seems to heartily enjoy 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 raw beef patties) €7.90
Tavuk siş (chicken kebab) €18
Ali’s fıstıklı (lamb and beef kebab with pistachios) €22
Küşleme (lamb kebab) €28
Kuzu pirzola (lamb chops) €27
Kefir x2 €7
Sparkling water €6.90
Turkish coffee x2 €7
Baklava x2 €12
Mopping my plate with a piece of flatbread, I probe further, feeling that this is all slightly too exculpatory. Does he not 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 turned sour almost as soon as it had been struck, he points out — even before the Maidan. He bristles at people questioning his patriotism. Until the outbreak of war he had 110,000 Ukrainians working for him, he says. And, unlike many of his rich peers, he adds, he has invested almost all of the money he’s made back into Ukraine, creating Ukrainian jobs.
He shrugs, with some regret, at what happened all the same in his years as one of Ukraine’s most powerful men. “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, of course, Russia’s policy towards its neighbour was aimed at exactly creating such a moral limbo. The days of political ambiguity in Ukraine are for now, at least, over. While Firtash believes this is a good thing — the less business and politics mix, the better, he says — it may not be entirely to his favour.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is ramping up his plans for the “deoligarichisation” of Ukraine, in which he has made clear he intends to limit the influence of men such as Firtash in the country’s public life. Firtash, meanwhile, remains an exile, thanks to the US extradition warrant against him in a case related to alleged bribery over an Indian titanium mine. After a short stint in a Vienna prison ended by the largest bail ever posted in Austria, €125mn, his lawyers have successfully spent eight years fighting US authorities on the grounds that their case is political. Austria is, nevertheless, Firtash’s gilded cage: leaving it makes him vulnerable to less exacting extradition regimes and to US marshals.
Regardless of legal risk, Firtash’s reputation in the west remains at rock bottom. In the UK, a spell of lobbying between 2007 and 2014 — during which time he became a major donor to Cambridge university, set up the British Ukrainian Society and forged links in parliament — has made many deeply suspicious of his motives. Whether you see a plot to infiltrate the British establishment or a politically vulnerable oligarch in search of an insurance policy, is up to you. In Firtash’s own explanation to the Wall Street Journal in 2014: “I can’t just be the place where people throw darts.”
We turn back to the war itself — which has also done plenty to diminish Firtash’s empire. I ask if he thinks the US and Europe should be sending Kyiv more weapons. Without a blip of hesitation he says yes. “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 gone, we order a round of Turkish coffees and some baklava to go with them. This afternoon Firtash will turn his attention to trying to get grain out of Ukraine. His silos hold 3mn tonnes of it. In May, he managed to export just 50,000 tonnes.
The global food crisis, he says — speaking also as one of the world’s largest nitrate fertiliser makers — is going to get much, much worse. The grain price, he predicts, might come close to 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 when I spoke to Firtash, he seemed to have very little faith in any agreements Russia might sign.
We finish our coffees. Firtash, it turns out, has already paid for his entourage, without me even noticing. As we get ready to leave, I recall a line in an older interview in which Firtash tells his interlocutor that you should judge a man by his enemies. Nodding to the security detail, I ask . . . who are 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 grin.
Sam Jones is the FT’s Switzerland and Austria correspondent
This article has been amended since first publication to reflect the fact that pork was not served as part of the grilled platter of meat.