VIENNA, Austria—An indicted Ukrainian oligarch who faces years in an American prison joked about President Donald Trump’s intellect and distanced himself from Paul Manafort’s business dealings in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast at his palatial corporate offices in Vienna.
Dmytro Firtash is a Ukrainian oligarch-in-exile who controls much of the country’s natural gas distribution. He also befriended Manafort, did business with Russia’s state-owned gas behemoth, and became a target of Barack Obama’s Justice Department. He’s been a constant presence in the background of the story of Russian influence in the American elections—but now, he says American influence on Ukraine is the real story.
In recent years, Firtash has found himself at the heart of Ukrainian political fights with geopolitical consequences. The mogul, whose estimated net worth was $500 million in 2014, made his fortune after the Soviet Union’s collapse. He told The Daily Beast he moved from Ukraine to Moscow in the early days after the USSR fell to expand his food business. After making a deal with a group of Turkmen he met at the Rossiya Hotel—a now-demolished structure he described as “Soviet nice”—he traveled to Turkmenistan to try to get them to pay up. According to Firtash, the Turkmen told him they had very little cash but lots of gas. And since Moscow was not centrally managing the gas industry, they weren’t sure how to distribute and sell it. Firtash said that’s how he got started as a gas trader—squeezing his foot into a door that opened to fabulous wealth, extraordinary political power, and, ultimately, indictment.
His gas work also resulted in thick business ties with the Kremlin, including a 50-50 partnership with Russia’s state-backed Gazprom to sell gas in Ukraine. Russia-watchers often cite this as evidence Firtash is a Moscow front. Firtash, meanwhile, claimed Gazprom courted his business because they wanted his expertise in the Central Asian gas trade.
Because of his work in the gas industry, Firtash also met a man who would become one of the globe’s most notorious thugs: Semion Mogilevich, a Russian mob boss who has spent years on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Before he was poisoned in the U.K., ex-Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko claimed Putin and Mogilevich had a “good relationship,” as Business Insider detailed.
“Half of the Soviet Union knows him, everyone knows him,” Firtash said. “He’s from Ukraine. Everyone knows him, I’m not the only one who knows him. As I remember, we met in one gas company, but I don’t want to name it.”
“I’m acquainted with him, I’ve seen him, I know him, but I never had business or anything else with him,” Firtash continued, adding that it “wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to say what gas company Mogilevich worked for.
Firtash’s acquaintance with Mogilevich drew public interest in 2010, when WikiLeaks posted a tranche of stolen State Department cables. One cable, from the American embassy in Kiev, detailed a conversation Firtash had with then-Ambassador Bill Taylor. According to the cable, Firtash claimed that he’d needed Mogilevich’s approval to get started in the gas trade. According to Firtash, the cable was a lie.
Firtash said he didn’t even seek out the State Department meeting that ultimately outed him as an acquaintance of Mogilevich. Instead, he said, a friend persuaded him to overcome his initial reservations and meet with the U.S. ambassador.
He and the ambassador talked for upwards of two hours, he said, and discussed “the moods in Ukraine,” his background, and other benign topics.
“I was fine with it,” Firtash said. “And I forgot this meeting. After some time passed, suddenly WikiLeaks reveals the cable. I could not understand what it was about.”
The cable said Firtash “acknowledged ties to Russian organized crime figure Seymon Mogilevich.” Firtash said someone must have fabricated that, but declined to say whom he blamed for the alleged fabrication.
Reached for comment, Taylor—now executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace—declined to discuss the cable or the meeting. But he defended the State Department.
“We always take good notes,” he said.
Four years later, federal prosecutors in the Northern District of Illinois charged the oligarch with scheming to bribe Indian officials in an effort to secure rights to a titanium mine Boeing was interested in buying. The Justice Department is seeking his extradition from Austria. Firtash’s lawyers note he has never traveled to the U.S. and that a PowerPoint slide calling for bribery was produced by the consulting firm McKinsey, and not Firtash, according to the New York Times.
In 2017, federal prosecutors working on Firtash’s case called him “an upper-echelon associate” of Russian organized crime, as The Chicago Tribune reported. Firtash’s lawyers called the claim innuendo and noted that the Justice Department didn’t make any such allegation when it indicted him.
Last month brought a welcome development for the oligarch: Austria’s procurator general, who reports to its Minister of Justice and works with its supreme court, took Firtash’s side in the latest twist of his extradition dispute. According to The Kyiv Post, the official raised concerns that an Austrian court that backed the extradition did not assess whether American authorities targeted him for political reasons.
Firtash has been staying in Austria since 2014, when Austrian authorities arrested him on America’s behalf. His relative freedom within the country is thanks to an assist from a Russian billionaire named Vasily Anisimov, who helped him post his bond—a cool $174 million. Anisimov is on the Treasury Department’s 2018 so-called “Putin List” of oligarchs who found good fortune under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, as CNN notes. When he bailed out Firtash, it raised eyebrows. But Firtash told The Daily Beast it was just business.
“Anisimov was looking to invest in my business prior to my arrest in Vienna,” he said. “About that time, we were negotiating the terms of that investment. When I was arrested, and they didn’t allow me to pay bail with my own money, I sent my lawyers to Anisimov and suggested that he post bail for me, allowing me to leave the Austrian jail, and then we would finalize some negotiations and sign documents so that he’d get a share in one of my businesses as a collateral.”
Besides his own legal problems, Firtash blames malign American influence for harming his country and facilitating what he calls the debasement of his fellow Ukrainians. He zeroes in on two people: Victoria Nuland, the former State Department official who became a top bête noire of the Kremlin by pushing for Ukraine to grow closer to the West and move away from Russian influence; and Joe Biden, who visited Ukraine frequently as vice president and praised its anti-Russian protests.
But Firtash didn’t stiff-arm all Americans; he had a friendly relationship with Paul Manafort, whom he called successful and smart.
“He had his own consulting business handling political PR and communications,” Firtash told The Daily Beast. “He worked in that field for years and was very successful, and very smart. I think he had a strong understanding of this business. He brought Yanukovych victory three times.”
Viktor Yanukovych, a Russia-friendly Ukrainian politician for whom Manafort worked, became the country’s president but fled to Russia in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution. Another leaked State Department cable said Firtash had sway over a faction of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which Manafort worked for and which saw its clout grow in the years leading up to Yanukovych’s first election.
“He was very well situated in Ukraine,” Firtash said of Manafort. “He interacted with a lot of people, knew a lot of people. And I knew him well.”
Firtash said he last spoke to Manafort before Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted Manafort for a host of crimes, including tax-dodging by the millions, covert lobbying of foreign governments, and money laundering. Manafort pleaded guilty to a number of counts, and judges in two federal jurisdictions sentenced him to serve seven and a half years in prison.
Firtash said that though he and Manafort would talk over coffee or tea, they never did business together. The two did discuss a deal to invest in New York’s famed Drake Hotel, he said, and NBC News cited legal documents saying Firtash put money in escrow in preparation for a deal.
But he disputed that second detail.
“Never, not a cent,” he said. “No kind of contracts, I never paid any money. It was just a conversation and a proposal that we studied and then rejected. If it had suited us, we would have gone with the project. But it didn’t suit us.”
Firtash said he wasn’t the only oligarch whose business Manafort courted.
“He helped various businessmen, lobbied them, and they bought or sold things in America,” he said, declining to name names.
“He knew Ukraine well,” he continued. “He had a whole office in Kiev with translators. He had a big office with a lot of people.”
While Firtash viewed Manafort as a savvy operator, he seems to detest Biden. And he criticized Ukrainians’ response to a speech the former vice president gave on Dec. 9, 2015 to the country’s parliament. In the speech, Biden praised the Maidan protests, criticized the oligarch class, and promised the United States would stand with Ukraine against Russian incursions. The audience applauded throughout.
“I was ashamed just to look at this, it was so repulsive,” Firtash said. “He was behaving as the boss, the owner, the chief—it was just horrible.”
Michael Carpenter, a foreign policy adviser to Biden during his time as vice president, fired back at Firtash.
“I’ll take Vice President Biden’s record of standing for Ukrainian democracy, helping the country reassert its sovereignty, and supporting its fight against corruption over Dmytro Firtash’s record on those three issues any day,” Carpenter told The Daily Beast.
Firtash blamed the Americans for the Maidan revolution which deposed Yanukovych. He refers to it as “the uprising,” calls it a Western-fomented coup, and said Americans basically started running the country after the revolution. And he said it scared the Russians into invading the Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine.
And he also telegraphed pure contempt for the Ukrainians who flocked to Trump’s inaugural festivities. A number of powerful Ukrainians, including the former chief of staff for Yanukovych, attended the events, and their presence has reportedly drawn the attention of federal prosecutors.
“It’s hard for me to say who of the Ukrainians didn’t go,” Firtash said. “It was like a parade of such crazies who, for money, wanted to go… I don’t know what they expected there in America, what they went there for. It’s hard for me to explain. I would have just stopped having respect for myself. Some of them were hanging out way back by the bathrooms trying to take photos.”
“What a nightmare,” he added. “I’m really ashamed of Ukrainians. They went there like crazy people. They paid money for it. What they did there, I don’t understand. What did they need with Trump or that dinner—I think it’s just madness.”
He added that the Ukrainians only went because they wanted to try to impress the incoming Trump administration.
“It’s not because they love Trump or think he’s a great politician,” he said. “They don’t give a damn.”
“They all believed Clinton would win, so they all started kissing up in that direction, but then Trump suddenly won,” he continued.
“So that you understand, the Ukrainian embassy [in the U.S.] was working completely for Clinton’s headquarters,” Firtash claimed. “Our embassy in America was working completely for Clinton. So of course when Clinton lost and Trump won, then the Ukrainian president, the government, the lawmakers, all shaken up, rushed to America to show off [to Trump]. It’s very simple.”
Federal investigators are scrutinizing whether foreign nationals illegally funneled money to the Trump inaugural committee. And Sam Patten, an American lobbyist, pleaded guilty last year to violating federal lobbying laws. He also admitted to helping a Ukrainian oligarch get inauguration tickets.
“Do I need Trump? Hell no,” Firtash said. “I watched on TV and it was clearer to me than if I had been in that hall.”
Then he waxed sarcastic.
“I, of course, understand that he’s a world philosopher and he’ll give such an epic speech that you need to record it and remember it forever,” he said. “Unfortunately he only made it to the third grade, he can’t even talk. He has no education.”
Trump is fond of noting that he attended the Wharton School of Business.
Asked to expound on his view of Trump’s intellect, Firtash said businessmen think differently from politicians.
“Trump is a businessman, a person who went bankrupt four times,” he said. “That’s not easy; he was worming his way out of trouble all the time. In that sense, he’s pretty crafty, capable enough of making decisions and getting things done. But I can’t say that he’s too smart. That I cannot say.”
Firtash also claimed Trump has been harder on Putin than Obama was, including by pushing for Europe to buy more American natural gas, and that relations between the U.S. and Russia have worsened under his presidency. (Bloomberg has predicted that the natural gas dynamics in Europe will enrich both Russia and the U.S.) And he praised Trump’s broad focus on the American economy.
“From the pragmatic point of view, he’s doing the right thing,” he said.
Is Putin manipulating him?
“Bullshit,” Firtash replied. “It’s just the Mogilevich fairytale, Part 2.”
Update: After publication, Firtash’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said in a statement regarding his client’s comments on Biden: “Mr. Firtash has indicated that he never used the word ‘detest,’ nor is that an accurate description of his feelings towards Vice President Biden. He does say disagrees with Mr. Biden and other US policymakers who believe it is appropriate for American leaders to attempt to interfere in Ukraine’s sovereign rights as to who to arrest or who to elect in democratic elections.”