By Andrew Cockburn, published on ‘Browsings’, the Harper’s Magazine blog, Aug 13, 2015.
Arriving home from a recent trip to Ukraine, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle reported his joy at witnessing “the Ukrainian people . . . coming together to rebuild their country from scratch.” Ukrainians had, he wrote, moved him with their dreams of joining the European Union, fighting corruption, and rebuilding their shattered economy, inspiring Daschle, now a highly paid lobbyist, to endorse the ominously strengthening Washington consensus on escalating the fighting with “$3 billion in lethal and nonlethal military assistance.”
Daschle’s trip was sponsored by the National Democratic Institute, an affiliate of the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, headed by uber-neoconservative Carl Gershman, who some time ago identified Ukraine as “the biggest prize” for Russia and deployed considerable amounts of the taxpayer dollars at his disposal to securing it for the West. However, it has been Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland who has played the most active role in pursuit of the prize. Therefore, her interventions in Ukrainian politics and the realities of politics and business in that country deserve closer attention than they have so far received.
“Toria” Nuland, as I reported in the January 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, has enjoyed a remarkable career, occupying a succession of powerful positions through changing administrations, despite her close neocon associations over the years both marital—her husband being leading neocon ideologue Robert Kagan—and political, notably as a national-security adviser to former vice president Dick Cheney. In the buildup to the 2008 Russo-Georgia war, for example, Nuland, at the time ambassador to NATO, urged George Bush to accept both Georgia and Ukraine as NATO members. Since Georgia’s then president and neocon favorite, Mikheil Saakashvili, had high hopes of drawing the United States in on his side in the coming conflict, this was a dangerous initiative. Fortunately, Bush, by that time leery of neocon advice, stood firm against her pleas.
Despite her ongoing proximity to power, Nuland attracted little public attention until the leak of an intercepted phone call gave the rest of us a taste of how she operates. Incautiously chatting on her cell on January 28, 2014, with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, as the Kiev street protests against elected Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovych gathered momentum, Nuland and the diplomat mulled over who should now rule the country. Their candidate was “Yats,” the opposition politician Aseniy Yatsenyuk, as opposed to another opposition candidate, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, favored by various European powers. Nuland was determined to keep Klitschko out and, as she infamously remarked on that call, “fuck the E.U.”
However, despite her enthusiasm for Yatsenyuk, Nuland was clearly well aware of who was really pulling the strings in Ukrainian politics: the oligarchs, who had assembled enormous fortunes out of the wreckage of the Soviet economy. Chief among these were those connected to the import of Russian natural gas, on which Ukraine was heavily dependent, most especially Dmitry Firtash, a multimillionaire and key supporter of the government Nuland hoped to displace. This may explain why, at the end of 2013, Firtash found himself the subject of a U.S. international “wanted” notice, charged with attempting to bribe local officials in distant India. He happened to be in Vienna, and a request was accordingly submitted to the Austrian government for his extradition back to the United States to stand trial.
On the day the request was submitted, Victoria Nuland left Washington on an urgent visit to Ukraine. President Yanukovych appeared to be backtracking on a pledge to sign an association agreement with the European Union— the specific “biggest prize” cited by Gershman in a Washington Post op-ed the month before. If Yanukovych were to be persuaded to change his mind, threatening to put his sponsor Dmitry Firtash behind bars was a potent lever to apply. Four days later, Yanukovych signaled he was ready to sign, whereupon Washington lifted the request to shackle his billionaire ally.
A month later, Yanukovych changed course again, accepting a $15 billion Russian aid package. Street protests in Kiev followed, eagerly endorsed by Nuland, who subsequently distributed cookies in gratitude to the demonstrators. Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22, and four days later the United States renewed the request to the Austrians to arrest Firtash. They duly did. Briefly imprisoned, Firtash posted the equivalent of $174 million bail and waited for a court to rule on his appeal against extradition.
Nevertheless, Firtash was still politically powerful enough in Ukraine to decide who should become president. The two leading candidates for the post were Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate-industry oligarch favored by Nuland, and Vitaly Klitschko, the boxer she had schemed to exclude from the premiership. Klitschko was very much under Firtash’s control. Both men flew to the Austrian capital for a meeting with the oligarch, who negotiated a deal in which Klitschko stood down and left the way open for Poroshenko, while Klitschko became mayor of Kiev.
Ukraine meanwhile was in chaos. The revolution that had brought anti-Russian nationalists to power in Kiev was highly unwelcome in the Russian-speaking east, not to mention Moscow. Vladimir Putin capitalized on this to engineer the return of Crimea to Russian rule, and it appeared possible that he would similarly absorb eastern Ukraine. By April 2014, Russian-backed separatists had taken control of the Donbass, the steel and mining region, and were advancing westward toward the next big industrial center, Dnipropetrovsk, the domain of another oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky had built his multibillion dollar financial base partly thanks to his mastery of “raiding,” the local version of mergers and acquisitions, involving methods that would make even the most hardened Wall Street financier turn pale. According to Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, who has made a special study of the practice, “there are actual firms in Ukraine . . . registered with offices and business cards, firms [that specialize in] various dimensions of the corporate raiding process, which includes armed guys to do stuff, forging documents, bribing notaries, bribing judges.”
Rojansky describes Kolomoisky as “the most famous oligarch-raider, accused of having conducted a massive raiding campaign over the roughly ten years up to 2010,” building an empire based on banking, chemicals, energy, media, and metals, and centered on PrivatBank, the country’s largest bank, holding 26 percent of all Ukrainian bank deposits. At some point, Kolomoisky’s business practices raised enough eyebrows in Washington to get him on the visa ban list, precluding his entry into the United States.
In April 2014, as the separatists advanced, Kolomoisky mobilized his workforce into a 20,000-man private army in two battalions, Dnipro-1 and Dnipro-2, and stemmed the tide. According to Wilson Center director Rojansky, Kolomosiky is “perceived as the bulwark and the reason why the whole Novorossiya project [Putin’s plan to absorb most of eastern Ukraine] broke down at the border of the Donbass.”
Stopping Putin in his tracks would clearly have earned the master raider merit in the eyes of policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals, which may just explain how it was that while Firtash was under the shadow of the U.S. indictment, no one made too much of a fuss at the disappearance of an estimated $2 billion in IMF aid for Ukraine that speedily exited the country via Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank.
The international financial agency had rushed the money to Ukraine in April, in response to what IMF managing director Christine Lagarde called a “major crisis.” She went on to hail the government’s “unprecedented resolve” in developing a “bold economic program to secure macroeconomic and financial stability.” Over the next five months the international agency poured the equivalent of $4.51 billion ($2.97 billion in “Special Drawing Rights”—the IMF’s own currency) into the National Bank of Ukraine— the country’s central bank. Much of this money was urgently needed to prop up the local commercial banks. In theory, the IMF appeared to require direct supervision of how the Ukrainian banks used the aid. In fact, it appears the banks got to select their own auditors.
As the largest bank, Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank stood to garner the largest share of the international aid. Published estimates put this share as high as 40 percent. Despite the torrent of cash, the banks’ situation did not improve; nine months into the program, the IMF announced: “As of end January 2015 . . . the banking system’s capital adequacy ratio stood at 13.8 percent, down from 15.9 percent at end-June.” Where had the money gone?
Although we hear much about corruption in countries such as Ukraine in general terms, a precise, detailed accounting of the means by which an impoverished country has been stripped of precious assets is not usually easy to come by. In this case however, thanks to investigative work by the Ukrainian anticorruption watchdog group Nashi Groshi (“Our Money”), we can actually watch the process by which the gigantic sum of $1.8 billion was smoothly maneuvered offshore, in the first instance to PrivatBank accounts in Cyprus, and thence into accounts in Belize, the British Virgin Islands, and other outposts of the international financial galaxy.
The scheme, as revealed in a series of court judgments of the Economic Court of the Dnipropetrovsk region monitored and reported by Nashi Groshi, worked like this: Forty-two Ukrainian firms owned by fifty-four offshore entities registered in Caribbean, American, and Cypriot jurisdictions and linked to or affiliated with the Privat group of companies, took out loans from PrivatBank in Ukraine to the value of $1.8 billion. The firms then ordered goods from six foreign “supplier” companies, three of which were incorporated in the United Kingdom, two in the British Virgin Islands, one in the Caribbean statelet of St. Kitts & Nevis. Payment for the orders—$1.8 billion—was shortly afterwards prepaid into the vendors’ accounts, which were, coincidentally, in the Cyprus branch of PrivatBank. Once the money was sent, the Ukrainian importing companies arranged with PrivatBank Ukraine that their loans be guaranteed by the goods on order.
But the foreign suppliers invariably reported that they could not fulfill the order after all, thus breaking the contracts, but without any effort to return the money. Finally, the Ukrainian companies filed suit, always in the Dnipropetrovsk Economic Court, demanding that that foreign supplier return the prepayment and also that the guarantee to PrivatBank be cancelled. In forty-two out of forty-two such cases the court issued the identical judgment: the advance payment should be returned to the Ukrainian company, but the loan agreement should remain in force.
As a result, the loan of the Ukrainian company remained guaranteed by the undelivered goods, while the chances of returning the advance payments from foreign companies remain remote. “Basically this transaction of $1.8 bill[ion] abroad with the help of fake contracts was simply an asset siphoning [operation] and a violation of currency legislation in general,” explained Lesya Ivanovna, an investigator with Nashi Groshi in an email to me. “The whole lawsuit story was only needed to make it look like the bank itself is not involved in the scheme . . . officially it looks like PrivatBank now owns the products, though in reality [they] will never be delivered.”
Thanks to the need to use the economic court as a legal fig leaf, the scheme operated in plain view. “There were no secret sources,” Ivanovna told me. “We found this story while monitoring the court decisions registrar. It’s open and free to search, so we read it on a daily basis.” Other companies had used the same mechanism, she pointed out. “The major difference of this case is its immensity.”
Despite this brazen raid on Ukraine’s dwindling assets, no one in authority seemed to care very much. Ivanovna’s group joined with an anticorruption NGO, Anti-Corruption Action Center (ANTAC), in a request to the Ukrainian General Prosecutor Office to open a criminal proceeding, but with no result. ANTAC’s legal director, Antonina Volkotrub, tells me that there is currently no official investigation of the transactions, though her group has sued the prosecutor to start a criminal investigation.
Kolomoisky himself has however run into a small spot of bother with authorities. In March of this year he launched his most bold raid yet, sending a hundred armed “lawyers” to seize physical control of Ukrnafta, the principal Ukrainian oil company, and UkrTransNafta, which controls almost all oil pipelines in the country. This was a direct threat to the authority of Poroshenko, the oligarch/president, who enlisted ambassador Pyatt, Nuland’s phone-mate, in a deal to remove his rival from the scene. “My understanding is that part of the deal whereby Kolomoisky gave up his attempt to take over control of Ukrnafta and UkrTransNafta and gave up governorship of Dnipropetrovsk and gave up having his pawn in control of Odessa,” Rojansky told me, “was that the U.S. ambassador came in as an intermediary guarantor and said if you do these things, we will take you off the visa bad list.” So it came to pass. Kolomoisky flew unmolested to the United States, where he is reported to have been spending a lot of time watching basketball games, and with no one asking awkward questions about what happened to all that IMF money. (Nuland’s friend Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who had worked so hard to draw the United States into conflict with Russia, took over the governorship of Odessa in late June 2015, with the United States paying his staff’s salaries.)
As for Firtash, the State Department has been less forgiving. In April this year, a Vienna court presided over by Judge Christoph Bauer finally got around to hearing Firtash’s appeal against the extradition request in the Indian bribery case. In a daylong hearing, a crowded courtroom received a fascinating tutorial on the inside story of recent Ukrainian political events, including the background to Washington’s on-again, off-again with the Firtash extradition requests according to the status of Ukraine’s E.U. negotiations, not to mention Firtash’s role in the Poroshenko-Klitschko negotiations. Firtash’s lawyers argued that the case had little to do with bribery in India and everything to do with United States meddling in Ukrainian politics. The judge emphatically agreed, handing down a withering verdict, stating that “America obviously saw Firtash as somebody who was threatening their economic interests.” He also expressed his doubts as to whether two anonymous witnesses cited by the United States in support of its case “even existed.” The State Department announced it was “disappointed” in the verdict and maintained its outstanding warrant for Firtash, should he leave Austria and travel to some country with a legal system more deferential to U.S. demands.
Complex realities such as those related here do not intrude on official Washington pronouncements, where all is black and white, and the party line shifts inexorably closer to endorsing U.S. military engagement in the Ukrainian quagmire. At least we should know who is taking us there.
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Game on: East vs West, again, by Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s Magazine, January 2015
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