Like almost every post-Soviet state that sought to make a quick transition to a market economy, Ukraine, too, went through a period of economic free-for-all when, in the name of privatisation, government assets were bought up in a fire sale by a small group of men with ties to the government. Often compared to the ‘robber barons’ of the West, these businessmen exploited poor regulatory oversight and the monopolistic dominance of the erstwhile state-owned enterprises to rapidly enrich themselves. Although comparable to the billionaires of the West in terms of their political influence and financial heft, the tycoons of the former Soviet republics are typically branded as ‘oligarchs’ — a moniker that strips them of the presumed virtues of entrepreneurship while attributing their wealth primarily, if not solely, to rapacious plunder of state resources.
Russia’s Roman Abramovich, the owner of English soccer club Chelsea, is perhaps the planet’s most well-known oligarch. While President Vladimir Putin has the Russian oligarchs on a tight leash, the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs may appear to rival that of the state itself — a scenario complicated by the fact that Ukrainian oligarchs tend to be either pro-Russia or pro-West, depending on their business interests and patronage networks.
For instance, Ukraine’s most powerful oligarch, the 59-year-old Ihor Kolomoisky, is pro-Europe and virulently anti-Russia, while Viktor Medvedchuk is seen as a pro-Russia oligarch. In recent years, both pro-West and pro-Russia oligarchs have aligned with pro-West and pro-Russia politicians, respectively. This also means donating funds and muscle power to their political friends. While this rivalry may have been comparatively innocuous in the rest of Ukraine, in the pro-Russian Donbas region, where the two factions were equally matched, the conflict spiralled out of control, with goons on the payroll of the pro-Russia oligarchs morphing into the armed separatists, while those bankrolled by the pro-West oligarchs formed the nucleus of the private militias (such as the Azov Battalion) fighting for the Ukrainian state. Mr. Kolomoisky’s career exemplifies this divide at the heart of the Ukrainian polity — a divide that both preceded, and according to some, precipitated an increasingly dire confrontation with Russia.
Born in 1963 in the Soviet Ukraine, Mr. Kolomoisky graduated with a degree in metallurgy in 1985, a qualification that served him well in the mad scramble to capture Ukraine’s heavy industries. After he took control of Privat Bank, Ukraine’s largest bank, he set himself up as the country’s leading financier, with interests across industries. In 2016, when a hole the size of $5.5 billion was discovered in the bank’s balance sheet, Ukraine had to nationalise the bank by pumping in $6 billion. It later emerged that Mr. Kolomoisky had been siphoning off bank funds through sham investments in the U.S. He is now under probe by the FBI on money-laundering charges, and is banned from entering the U.S. What’s revealing is that the U.S’s reasons for sanctioning Mr. Kolomoisky extend beyond corruption and fraud charges, with the State Department accusing him of trying to “undermine Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes”.
Indeed, what distinguishes Mr. Kolomoisky from the other oligarchs is not the scale of his financial misdemeanours, which are impressive in themselves, but the ubiquity of his fingerprints in his country’s pivotal political moments. When Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Ukraine barely had 6,000 combat-ready troops, and could not mount a defence. But the same month, as pro-Russia separatists began to take over government buildings in the east, the acting Ukrainian President appointed Mr. Kolomoisky as Governor of Dnipropetrovsk province.
As Governor, Mr. Kolomoisky, dipping into his own wealth, raised a 2,000-strong private militia within months and took the fight to the separatists. He could do it because he was no stranger to the art of using violence to settle differences — having used bands of thugs, football hooligans and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters to intimidate business rivals when he is not using them to physically lay siege to their offices, as he did with the energy company, UkrTransNafta. Apart from funding private militias such as the Dnipro Battalion and the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion — both accused of human rights violations and lauded for resisting the Russian forces — Mr. Kolomoisky has also had success in shaping public opinion through the media platforms that he owns. The comedy show that made Volodymyr Zelensky a household name and propelled him to the presidency, Servant of the People, was produced by Mr. Kolomoisky’s company.
In a twist of double irony, Mr. Zelensky, widely seen as ‘Kolomoisky’s candidate’, and supported by the latter’s media platforms, ran for President on the back of two promises: to cleanse Ukraine of oligarch-driven corruption, and end the war in eastern Ukraine. After he became President, Mr. Zelensky, on the one hand, used his anti-corruption crusade to selectively go after pro-Russian oligarchs such as Mr. Medvedchuk, while on the other, his bid to negotiate peace in eastern Ukraine flew in the face of the Kolomoisky-funded militias’ visceral hatred of the pro-Russia separatists. And as the war continued, with rising civilian casualties, Moscow began to speak of ‘genocide’ in the Donbas, further aggravating relations between the neighbours.
Mr. Kolomoisky, who has a shark tank in his office, and is known to unnerve visitors by feeding the sharks in their presence, has been a parallel power centre in the Ukrainian polity. His involvement in money-laundering, funding of private militias, backing of Euromaidan protests, and later, of Mr. Zelensky, his hatred of Russia, and of Mr. Putin specifically, are all part of the matrix of variables that have had an undeniable role in nudging Ukraine towards instability, if not the war-torn tragedy of the present.