February in Ukraine began with another “day of long knives” – a series of searches of officials and well-known public figures. Investigators also came to the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky (nickname Benya), who is accused of involvement in the embezzlement of a billion dollars. According to one version, Zelensky’s team is preparing to extradite the businessman to the United States, where he faces many years in prison. The first step was taken last year, when the Ukrainian passport was taken away from the oligarch. Izvestia understood what was happening.
How did the searches go?
Employees of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the Economic Security Bureau (BEB) came with a search to Igor Kolomoisky on February 1. Investigative actions are connected with fraud in the companies Ukrnafta and Ukrtatnafta (the first is the largest oil producing company in Ukraine, the second is the largest oil refinery).
According to a press release from the SBU, ten criminal episodes are being investigated. Among them are the withdrawal of large consignments of oil products to affiliated companies, tax evasion, the creation of bad debts from factories. All this, according to the SBU, led to the depreciation of the assets of Ukrtatnafta and Ukrnafta. The total amount of theft is estimated at 40 billion hryvnia ($1.08 billion).
Investigators also came “to the addresses of the likely storage of oil products in different regions of Ukraine” and to other leaders of Kolomoisky’s financial and industrial group. Their names, however, are not mentioned. “The top management of Ukrtatnafta has been informed of suspicions of committing criminal offenses,” the SBU said in a statement.
What is Kolomoisky famous for?
Over the past decade, Igor Kolomoisky has experienced several ups and downs. In 2013-2014, he supported the Maidan, thanks to which, after fleeing the country of Viktor Yanukovych, he strengthened his position in the Ukrainian government. The oligarch himself took the post of governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region, his close associates controlled the Zaporozhye, Odessa and Kharkov regions. The tycoon consistently fought for the triumph of the new government: he equipped nationalist battalions, terrorized the opponents of the Maidan. And he grew rich uncontrollably on tenders, energy schemes and state support of his Privatbank.
Soon the Maidan power was strengthened, and the oligarch turned from an ally into a competitor. President Petro Poroshenko achieved the nationalization of Privatbank, tried to put Ukrnafta and Ukrtatnafta under his control. In the spring of 2015, there was a noticeable spark in Kyiv – Kolomoisky brought the Dnepr-1 battalion into the city, took over the offices of his companies. US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt had to defuse the situation personally. He persuaded the oligarch to stop resistance and leave the post of governor. Kolomoisky had to agree and leave the country.
After that, he lived in Israel and Switzerland, and in 2019 made an impressive comeback. His media and PR resources first created the image of the people’s president, and then brought cinema to life: actor Vladimir Zelensky, without any political experience, won a crushing victory in the presidential election. In the same year, Kolomoisky was able to get to the Verkhovna Rada up to 70 deputies personally devoted to him.
It seemed that life was good. The oligarch began to win court cases and profitable tenders, and obtained discounts on electricity for his enterprises. At that time, he often talked with journalists and did not hide his good mood. “We correspond on WhatsApp (owned by Meta, recognized as extremist in the Russian Federation): chuckles and chuckles, we’re joking,” the tycoon said about relations with Zelensky.
The rise, however, was followed by a new fall. On the one hand, dependence on the “political father” weighed heavily on Zelensky. On the other hand, the rise of the oligarch did not suit the Americans. Those, in principle, set their sights on replacing the Ukrainian rich with transnational corporations. And there were special claims to Kolomoisky. Washington felt the competition for influence on Zelensky. According to a number of testimonies, it was Benya who organized the scandalous wiretapping of the conversations of Petro Poroshenko and Joseph Biden.
As a result, the political influence of the oligarch began to decline. The post of head of the presidential office was lost by his close associate Andrei Bohdan, the controlled deputies were reoriented to the Zelensky team. Financial interests also suffered. The government imposed high duties on the import of electricity, Kolomoisky’s enterprises were in the red. The Verkhovna Rada adopted a law that effectively banned the re-privatization of Privatbank.
Later, new problems arose. In 2021, Zelensky proposed creating a register of oligarchs, while the Ministry of Justice said that Kolomoisky fits the definition. “I would not want, of course, to be a black sheep and be on the list alone. But by and large, I’m already used to it, now they’ll officially add it to the register. I’ll sew a suit and our Oligarch star on it,” he said.
In parallel, in the United States, Kolomoisky became a defendant in criminal cases of money laundering, Washington imposed sanctions against the oligarch. “He engaged in corrupt practices that undermined the rule of law and Ukrainians’ faith in democratic institutions, including using his political influence and official authority for personal gain,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
After the start of the Russian military operation, Kolomoisky faced new difficulties. Taking advantage of martial law, the government of Ukraine nationalized Ukrnafta and Ukrtatnafta. And the oligarch’s media empire actually ended up under the control of the president’s office – TV channels were forced to broadcast a single telethon about Ukraine’s successes in the fight against Russia. At the end of 2022, Kolomoisky’s fortune was halved – instead of $1.9 billion, he now has $850 million.
What will happen next
In all seriousness, Ukraine is discussing the possibility of extraditing Kolomoisky to the United States, where he could be sentenced to a long prison term. Ukrainian legislation prohibits the extradition of citizens to foreign states. But work is in full swing. Last summer, Kolomoisky was stripped of his Ukrainian passport (but not citizenship yet). Sergei Leshchenko, an adviser to the office of the President of Ukraine, directly spoke out a possible scenario. “It is better to give it to America. Let her quickly conduct a judicial investigation and dot the i’s. He will sentence him, if he sees fit, to imprisonment, and the confiscated money will be transferred to the Ukrainian people, ”Leshchenko said.
Experts assess Kolomoisky’s prospects differently. “The probability of his extradition to the United States is not zero, he has long been in the field of view of certain American departments. This will be a good indicator of the state of Ukraine. If they give him away, it means that Zelensky does not decide anything at all. They won’t extradite them – after all, the country retains a minimum subjectivity, ”political analyst Alexander Dudchak tells Izvestia.
Leading researcher at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Oleg Nemensky says Kolomoisky is not in danger. “I consider searches to be a show, a contract. Kyiv is staging a fight against corruption, including against the oligarchy. Creates a picture for its own public and Western countries. Washington is really concerned about the theft of aid it sends to Ukraine. But Kyiv is desperately defending itself, with all the informational noise, it does not take real steps, ”the expert notes.
He adds that the country’s authorities take tough measures only against those who threaten the Zelensky regime. “Kolomoisky, with all his minuses, remains his own for the ruling group, which means he doesn’t have to worry,” Nemensky believes.