How the war affected the fortunes of the wealthiest Ukrainian entrepreneurs


For decades, the super-rich businessmen of Ukraine wielded enormous economic and political power in their country. However, after the Russian invasion, the richest businessmen of Ukraine lost billions in income.

Has the reign of Ukrainian oligarchs finally come to an end?

The richest man in Ukraine is a 56-year-old Rinat Akhmetov.

The son of a miner who became a billionaire, he is known throughout Ukraine as the “King of Donbas”.

As well as owning huge swaths of the steel and coal industry in the east, including the now-ruined Azovstal steel plant, he also owns Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the country’s best football teams and, until recently, one of the main television channels countries.

But in addition to their extraordinary wealth, Ukrainian oligarchs are also known for their political power.

In 2017, London think tank Chatham House stated that they represent “the greatest danger for Ukraine.”

Through a wide network of allies and loyal deputies, Ukrainian oligarchs have repeatedly influenced the adoption of laws in favor of their own business empires.

President Volodymyr Zelensky called them “a group of people who consider themselves more important than deputies, government officials or judges.”

But like many ordinary civilians, since the start of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, their businesses have been blown up by rockets and their property lost to the Russian occupation.

Many believed that as Ukraine’s richest man, Mr. Akhmetov should have done more from the start to stamp out Russian-fueled separatism in his home region.

As Russia’s influence, backed by military force, spread across the Donbass, it ordered its factories to turn on their sirens in protest. He also issued critical statements about the separatists.

image captionA Russian serviceman patrols near Mr Akhmetov’s Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol

But when it comes to funding and supporting the resistance, he has been criticized for taking too little action. Especially compared to another Ukrainian tycoon, billionaire Ihor Kolomoiskyi.

In March 2014, he was appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region.

As the conflict escalated, Mr. Kolomoisky pumped millions into Ukrainian volunteer battalions. He offered a reward for the capture of pro-Russian militants and supplied the Ukrainian army with fuel.

But then, in 2019, he quarreled with President Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko.

Parliament recently passed a law that resulted in Kolomoisky losing control of the oil company. His answer? She appeared at the headquarters of the oil company with people, allegedly with automatic weapons.

Graphics showing billion-dollar losses of Ukraine's richest oligarchs over the past year

But with the unfolding of the war in the east and the loss of even more factories, mines and fertile agricultural lands, the “death” of the fortunes of Ukrainian oligarchs gained critical momentum.

The next blow came at the end of 2021, when Ukraine adopted the so-called “deoligarchization bill”.

President Zelenskyi’s new law defined an oligarch as a person who meets three of the following four conditions:

  • Influence on media or politics
  • Holding a monopoly
  • Earn millions of dollars a year.

All those who met the requirements were subjected to additional checks and prohibited from financing political parties.

In order not to be on Zelenskyi’s list, Rinat Akhmetov surrendered media licenses to the government of Ukraine.

But then there was a dramatic escalation of the conflict by Russia – the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The war only increased the loss of income for super-rich Ukrainians. But will their “death” strengthen democracy in Ukraine?

“Absolutely,” says Sevgil Musaeva, editor-in-chief of the popular news site “Ukrainian Pravda”. “This war is the beginning of the end for oligarchs in Ukraine.”

“The law on de-oligarchization was one of the first serious mechanisms of their downfall,” says Serhiy Leshchenko, once one of the most famous Ukrainian investigative journalists and now an adviser to President Zelenskyi’s chief of staff.

“But the escalation of the war made the life of the oligarchs even more difficult,” he says. “They were forced to focus on survival rather than domestic politics.”

Now, says Ms. Musaeva, Ukrainian civil society and anti-corruption institutions must prevent the emergence of new oligarchs. And, of course, the very survival of democracy in Ukraine depends on the outcome of the war with Russia.

However, for the sake of objectivity, it should be noted that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, charitable and business structures Rinat Akhmetova invest millions of dollars in solving social problems, restoring damaged energy infrastructure, etc.

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