If you were wondering how Vladimir Putin’s “mafia state” was involved in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, look no further than the Ukrainian oligarch wanted by the US.
Dmytro Firtash is usually described as a Ukrainian oligarch with admitted ties to organized crime, but he is much more than that. He has direct ties to Russia, and to President Vladimir Putin in particular, and those have only grown since he was arrested five years ago, awaiting extradition to the United States.
Now Firtash is at the nexus of Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s effort to undermine the president’s enemies — and behind Firtash is a whole lot of Russian money and cover.
The events that spawned the impeachment inquiry have shown how Trump uses his perch in the White House to serve personal goals (in this case pressuring the new Ukrainian president to investigate the 2016 election and events related to the upcoming one in 2020). Giuliani’s shadow investigation to serve those goals intersected perfectly with the interests of people with personal grievances in Ukraine, and with Ukrainian Americans in the US long used to hustling to make a quick buck.
Firtash understands those dynamics as well as anyone. He had long been in the sights of US investigators when he was indicted in 2013, charged with leading an international scheme to bribe Indian officials to win the rights to a mining project there and then sell the goods to a US company, reportedly Boeing. But those details, for the purposes of the impeachment inquiry and for understanding Firtash’s role in the world, don’t actually matter. It’s like getting Al Capone on charges of tax evasion.
Firtash was arrested in Austria in 2014, and has been fighting extradition to the US ever since. He swiftly posted 125 million euros ($140 million) in bail and promised not to leave the country. The bail was the highest ever paid in Austria — and he got the funds to cover it via a loan from Russian billionaire Vasily Anisimov, who made his money in metals before switching to property development. Anisimov owns the luxury grounds on which a number of wealthy, well-connected Russian men have built their homes, including Putin’s childhood friend, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg. Anisimov also heads Russia’s Judo Federation — Putin often awards his associates plum spots on Russia’s sports leagues, and judo is his favorite of them all. Anisimov told Reuters, in a massive investigation into Firtash’s Russia ties, that the loan “was a purely business transaction.”
Why the interest from Russia? As one former US official who closely followed Firtash’s case put it: “He knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Firtash built himself up to become a key player in the tug-of-war between Russia and Ukraine. In a State Department cable written in 2008 and publicized in a dump by WikiLeaks, then-ambassador Bill Taylor — who would go on to give explosive testimony in the impeachment inquiry this week — wrote up a meeting with Firtash and said, “he acknowledged ties to Russian organized crime figure Seymon Mogilevich, stating he needed Mogilevich’s approval to get into business in the first place.” Mogilevich, one of Russia’s most powerful organized crime figures and listed as most wanted by the FBI, lives freely in Moscow, under cover of the Kremlin.
When people talk about Russia being a “mafia state,” this is sort of what they mean — if the mob ran wild in the post-Soviet 1990s, in Putin’s era it has been co-opted, and some of its tactics absorbed and deployed by the state. Subsequent court documents filed in the US called Firtash and his associate Andras Knopp — now also living freely in Moscow — ”two upper-echelon associates of Russian organized crime.”
Firtash built much of his wealth and power through RosUkrEnergo, a needless intermediary that inserted itself into the gas trade between Russia and Ukraine. That trade served two purposes for Russia: It fed massive corruption, likely enriching Putin personally, and it was a key tool that Russia would deploy to try to bully Ukraine into doing what the Kremlin wanted.
“This RosUkrEnergo scheme is really as close as you get to Putin himself,” the former US official said. ”It was this massive diversion of gas revenues through this scheme to, on the one hand, Putin's private accounts or those associated with his beneficiaries, and then the pro-Russian Party of Regions on the other hand, not to mention Firtash's own pocket. It all goes back to Putin, and that's why I think he knows where the bodies are buried. This is one of the most audacious frauds probably in Russian history, it's just a cash cow that keeps channeling money back into Putin's pockets but also helps support the whole pro-Putin political architecture in Ukraine.” Firtash has repeatedly denied all accusations against him.
“He’s a power broker with close links to the Kremlin, who used to be the proxy to one of the most dangerous criminals in the world, who is interested to keep Ukraine closer to Russia,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the head of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, a leading NGO in Kyiv. “The people whom he represents — those people in the Kremlin — are very much trying to block his extradition to the US, as he’s still needed as a proxy to manage some important assets.” Among those is a plant in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. “In order to operate such a plant in Crimea, you need the blessing and cover of Russians and the Kremlin,” Kaleniuk said.
The flood of impeachment news has swirled around Firtash from the beginning, starting with Giuliani and his merry cast of Ukrainian and Ukrainian American characters. It was an affidavit for his case, written by fired prosecutor Viktor Shokin and published by John Solomon in the Hill, that fed Giuliani’s conspiracy theory that the Ukrainian had been fired for investigating Joe Biden’s son. Then, it emerged that the oligarch fired his longtime lawyer Lanny Davis, because he represented Trump’s (now remorseful) former lawyer Michael Cohen, and replaced him with two lawyers close to the president and Giuliani, Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing. That hire, according to the Washington Post, was suggested by Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, who has pleaded not guilty to four counts of campaign finance violations. Parnas, a key player in Giuliani’s drive to get information on Democrats from Ukrainian officials, was working for Firtash’s legal team as a translator, a fact that seems to go unremarked upon, although it makes little sense that a man who spent enormous amounts of money and energy working his way into US political circles and private jets, and ran dozens of businesses in his lifetime, would take work as a translator.
A spokesperson for Firtash’s legal team declined to comment on how Firtash and Parnas met — though he said it happened in June, one month before diGenova and Toensing signed on. Parnas, and Giuliani associate Igor Fruman, who also pleaded not guilty, were en route to Vienna when they were arrested. DiGenova told the Wall Street Journal at the time that it was unconnected to Firtash’s case; CNN reported Wednesday that the two men were telling people they were heading there to set up an interview for Sean Hannity with Shokin. To cap it all off, Firtash this summer also hired Mark Corallo, who acted as spokesperson for Trump’s private defense team during the Mueller investigation.
Meanwhile, Parnas and Fruman were pushing for leadership changes at the Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz, to which Firtash still owes a massive debt. Outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry was pushing for a leadership shake-up there as well.
These connections make sense when you consider Firtash’s, and the Kremlin’s, ultimate goal — to prevent his extradition to the US, and some retention of his wealth and power. Some former US officials and agents who spoke to BuzzFeed News believe the US would likely seek to mine Firtash for information about Putin. There are constant rumors of a plea bargain. But Firtash reportedly rejected an approach to cooperate with the Mueller investigation.
“I think Firtash would rather spend decades in an American prison than give up dirt on Putin because I think if he did, that would be the end of him and he knows it,” one former official said. (On top of that, the US has a history of jailing high-profile Russian targets, like arms dealer Viktor Bout, who refuse to spill.)
Much of the discourse around Trump’s ties to Russia and the Mueller investigation was misguided — seeking a smoking gun, or a backroom deal, that would reveal a secret plot between Trump and Putin to bring the unlikely candidate to power, when in fact much of that wooing was done out in the open. Two years into his presidency, Trump’s character and governing style was fully revealed — transactional, narcissistic, power-hungry, obsessed with vengeance. That is the type of person whom Firtash, the ultimate power broker and a man who grew wealthy managing the interests of some of the most powerful people in the world, knows how to deal with.
“What the Ukrainians are better than the American at is connecting the dots, because Americans say, look, for me to connect the dots, I need a call from that guy to that guy. It doesn't work that way,” a second former US official said. “It's all very behind the scenes, very few written communications, a lot of phone calls, a lot of get on a plane and fly out for a 20 minute meeting and fly back home. Come to Vienna, we'll have dinner, things like that,” the former official said. “You have to think like they do and not like we do.”