In the three decades that have passed since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has, by and large, adjusted to capitalism; but it remains a tough place to do business.
It wasn’t long before a new class of tough, moneyed industrialists soon emerged, making their mark on Russia and beyond; the oligarchs. And in a country the size of Russia, sitting on one of the largest natural resource reserves in the world, it is no surprise that many amassed unimaginable wealth in the energy, metals and minerals industries.
In Russia, as in many other countries, the wealthier you are, the more politically exposed you become. However, in Russia, this also means the more likely you are to find yourself on the wrong side of those who can quickly make things very difficult indeed, and it is here, where Ukraine comes in.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, saw the creation of a new movement; Novorossiya, or New Russia, that serves to assist the separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Such is the importance of the Novorossiya, that one common motive among many of Russia’s prominent figures is to buy Kremlin protection by financing the movement.
Many an oligarch has come and gone, made his millions and then fallen foul with the Kremlin. It is commonly believed that supporting the movement in Ukraine presents the opportunity to win back favour with the powerhouse inside the Kremlin and for any previous misdeeds to be conveniently forgotten or ignored. The widely held belief being that providing aid, in whatever way, to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), is a sure-fire way to avoid prosecution and ensure a favourable outcome to any ongoing court cases.
The most prominent, or perhaps even blatant, attempt at this is Ruslan Rostovtsev. A Russian coal tycoon who has financed the separatist movement in Donetsk; his businesses re-export coal from the Donbass region. According to Ukrainian sources speaking off the record, Rostovtsev’s European investments, operated through Cyprus and Switzerland, are utilised as a means to represent the DPR across the continent. Such is the success of his efforts, he has received a ‘recognition award’ from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Donetsk, for his “significant contribution to strengthening international relations and a positive image of the Republic in the international arena.”
Ruslan Rostovtsev is currently facing court cases in multiple jurisdictions, at home in Russia and also in the favoured Russian oligarch courtroom of Cyprus; related in part to his mining businesses amid an ongoing dispute with his former business partner Alexander Shchukin. Seeking favour with the Kremlin in this way is just one way that Rostovtsev and many other Russian businessmen try to seek a sympathetic verdict to these cases.
Rostovtsev is not alone. Konstantin Malofeev, dubbed ‘Putin’s Soros’ is a wealthy financier whose funds are often mentioned as one of the principal supporters of the two break-away republics; Donetsk and Luhansk, provided under the guise of humanitarian aid. His ties to strategic individuals in Ukraine and the Kremlin have at some point or another, seen him placed on the EU and US sanctions lists over the past five years.
While we may look on in dismay and disbelief, Russia is in fact no different the West. These wealthy businessmen often with political ambitions or a grudge to bear, work with the more subversive arms of a state to pursue a mutually advantageous goal. One need only look to the current White House administration for an example where one party has allegedly colluded with another to secure a mutually beneficial outcome for themselves, albeit on an international and potentially illegal scale.
But, what effect, if at all, have these politically and financially motivated games of chess had on the pawn that is Ukraine? In January this year, Kiev’s parliament officially recognised the Russian annexed parts of Ukraine as occupied territory, a decision that has been condemned by Moscow, calling it a preparation for a new war.
Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting across the region, with more estimates of between 2-3 million displaced civilians. International institutions do not recognise the Donetsk People’s Republic nor is it awarded any legitimacy by any government other than Russia. However, tacit approval of Russia, in the form of concrete political action or international military support to assist Ukrainian forces has led to a stalemate in which civilians, too young, old or poor to leave, as always, bear the brunt.
Until then, this low grade, but brutal non-war will quietly drag on, funded and supported by those loyal to the Kremlin’s grandiose plans to revive the Russian Empire, who; it seems, are willing to go to any lengths to secure their own futures by denying the people of Eastern Ukraine any chance of their own.