A pair of oligarchs is taking charge in eastern Ukraine

Rinat Akhmetov (center) in his element.
Rinat Akhmetov (center) in his element.
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
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In an underreported turn of events, two Ukrainian oligarchs appear to have taken control of important strongholds in chaotic eastern Ukraine, where the momentum until now has favored pro-Russian forces.

The shift is most dramatic in the bastion of steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. Over the last three days, a growing number of steelworkers in Akhmetov’s employ have fanned out in the Donetsk region cities of Mariupol and Makeyevka, and forced out pro-Russian activists who previously held the streets. Faced with the show of force (paywall) by the laborers, the pro-Russians have scattered. The steelworkers are patrolling Mariupol’s streets today.

A change is also apparent in Dnipropetrovsk, an industrial city governed by banking oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who is paying bounties of $1,500 for the confiscation of rifles and $10,000 for “terrorists.” There, it is pro-Ukraine activists in charge.

It is not clear whether the shift is spreading, as there is almost no reporting on it. The major US papers have buried the story on their websites, and almost nothing is on Twitter. But to the extent that the momentum takes hold, the development seems important.

After the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in March, the new political leaders in Kyiv sought to calm eastern Ukraine by installing oligarchs as governors. Until now, these business titans—in particular Akhmetov—had largely sat on the fence. But this week Akhmetov spoke out in favor of a unified Ukraine.

One possibility is that Akhmetov’s turn pivots off of a softer tone from Moscow. Aides to Russian president Vladimir Putin have stopped pushing for May 25 presidential elections to be cancelled and threatening to cut off Ukraine’s natural gas supply. That raises the question of whether Putin has gotten cold feet at the prospect of an utterly destabilized Ukraine on his doorstep.

The news is not all positive for Kyiv, though. Akhmetov was Yanukovych’s chief patron, and one does not become an oligarch by being a nice person. And it makes the central government highly dependent on the oligarchs’ goodwill, which isn’t a recipe for strengthening the country’s institutions. But it is among the first breaks for the Ukrainian leadership since Russia went into Crimea in March.