Crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Billionaire Bounty-Hunting Club

An oligarch hopes that offering rewards for captured Russians will motivate the public and the troops, but so far all he’s inspired is cynical—and desperate—laughter.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

KIEV, Ukraine—Since the Ukrainian army is not proving very effective against pro-Russian commandos in the East of the country, a prominent oligarch has adopted a strategy from the Wild West. He’s putting out “wanted” notices and offering cash rewards, hoping to inspire more effective action against those uniformed Russian-speaking soldiers without insignia, now known as “little green men,” who’ve been taking over government buildings and scoffing at government orders.

Crowds with backing from separatist commandos captured several Ukrainian armored personnel carriers near Kramatorsk and Donetsk on Wednesday. The Ukrainian government has declared it wants its “counter-terror operations” to be as bloodless as possible, but this was ridiculous. From the very beginning of this strange war the Ukrainian army has been so careful that the separatists have literally chased away tanks using busses. There’s not much question the government forces need more enthusiasm and more, how shall we say, vigor.

Enter Igor Kolomoiskiy, an imposing oligarch and the governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region. In Ukraine and Russia he’s widely remembered for a public exchange of insults with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Rascal,” Putin called Kolomoiskiy. “Schizophrenic,” Kolomoiskiy called Putin.

More recently, he turned his attention to the building occupiers in the eastern part of the country. “I’d like to warn all the little green men,” Kolomoiskiy said, “that, unlike some others, we have balls, and if they try to seize State Security and police buildings [in Dniepropetrovsk], we will shoot to kill. Everybody who wants to make war in our region should know that Dniepropetrovsk will be a second Stalingrad for them, but in that struggle the Ukrainian people will win.” (Stalingrad, of course, was the epic battle of World War II which the Soviets finally won.)

Kolomoiskiy’s new anti-Kremlin ploy is offers specific rewards in hopes cash can turn the tide against the commandos. If the occupiers will get out of the administrative buildings they’re holding, then for each building $200,000 will be contributed to the local community (which the occupiers claim they represent). Anyone turning in an AK assault rifle used by the separatists gets $1,000; a heavier machine gun earns $1,500; a grenade launcher $2,000.

But the most talked-about reward is $10,000 for the capture of a Russian commando.

When photographs hit the Web of a huge billboard in the center of Kiev offering a “profitable proposition”—“$10,000 for a Moskal”—many people thought it was a joke or an advertising gimmick. In fact it was faked for the Internet. But then it went viral. The language was redolent with historical references. “Moskal,” meaning men from Moscow, was a nickname given by Ukrainians to soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army in the 19th century. Today’s Ukrainians use it as rather offensive name for all Russians. Privatbank, which was named as the sponsor of the billboard, is the biggest bank in Ukraine. And, yes, Igor Kolomoiskiy is its owner.

Vasiliy Krutov, head of Ukraine’s counter terrorist operations, has said there could be up to 450 Russian subversives and commandos in just one part of the Donetsk region. If all of them were to be captured, Kolomoiskiy would have to pay out $4.5 millions. And—how do you tell a commando from a Russian-speaking Ukrainian protester? The oligarch tried to clarify things on his Facebook page: “The first $10,000 tranche is finished,” he said. “Catch subversives, but not ‘moskali,’ please.” (That is, not just any old Russian-speakers.)

Among increasingly cynical Ukrainians, the one-man rewards program quickly generated parodies on YouTube along the lines of “Surrender a separatist! The way to grow rich quickly!” A man asks, “Dear, have you fed the children? And the captives?” Someone else claims, “My daughter and I took four Kalashnikovs and now we’re going to a beach resort!” Another: “My father caught two separatists and now I have a new tablet computer!” Or, “Only to the end of this month: deposit a separatist and get up to 12 percent interest.” Ukrainian Facebook is full of pictures showing Russian soldiers with price tags. “What do you see here?” a girls asks as she points at one picture of a commando. “Personally, I see a studio.”

Kolomoiskiy is not alone offering financial incentives.

Sergey Shahov, a well-known businessman and politician from Lugansk rewarded a soldier who was encircled and trapped with his motorcade, but broke out by pulling the safety pin from a grenade and threatening everyone around him. “The soldier performed a real feat of arms,” said Shahov, “so our civil movement ‘People Trust’ awards him a $600 prize.”

The bottom line after all this money is promised and spent? The Ukrainian tragedy is gradually turning into farce. Very bad times are on the horizon, and Ukrainians are hurrying to get in a laugh while there’s still time.