CHICAGO (AP) - One of Ukraine’s most influential oligarchs and a major player in the sale of billions of dollars in Russian natural gas to Ukraine faces a corruption charge in the United States, the U.S. attorney’s office announced on Friday.
Dmytro Firtash, 48, who was arrested in Vienna earlier this week, has been charged in an “international corruption conspiracy” in Illinois, according to a brief statement from prosecutors. The U.S. government is seeking his extradition, it said.
Prosecutors offered few details, but did say the legal action was not connected to the crisis in Firtash’s homeland. Russia has sent forces into Ukraine’s Crimea region, challenging a pro-European government in Kiev.
“Firtash’s arrest is not related to recent events in Ukraine,” according to the statement, which spells Firtash’s first name as Dmitry.
Firtash controls a conglomerate of companies, called Group DF, but prosecutors didn’t say if the alleged corruption was related to Group DF. They provided no details about the allegations, and no papers on the case have been filed with the U.S. District Court in Chicago.
Austrian authorities arrested Firtash on an American warrant charging him with bribery and other offenses. Austria’s Federal Criminal Office on Thursday declined to identify the suspect in keeping with confidentiality rules. But Group DF later confirmed his arrest.
On Thursday, Group DF also said that Firtash’s arrest is not linked to current tensions in Ukraine but to investigations connected to an investment project dating to 2006. Its statement said the arrest appeared to be a mistake that “will be resolved in the nearest future.”
The criminal office in Austria said Firtash was arrested Wednesday night in Vienna without incident and was being held pending extradition proceedings. The agency said the FBI has been investigating him since 2006.
Firtash was a supporter of fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and a significant figure in the sale of billions of dollars in Russian natural gas to Ukraine through RosUkrEnergo, a trading company he co-owns with Russian state gas company Gazprom.
RosUkrEnergo was the sole supplier of Russian gas to Ukraine until 2009, when it was sidelined as part of an agreement struck to resolve a gas dispute that had cut off supplies to Europe for more than two weeks that winter.
In a diplomatic cable sent in November 2008 made public by WikiLeaks, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor called Firtash “one of Ukraine’s most wealthy and notorious oligarchs” and suggested he had ties to Russian organized crime figure Semyon Mogilevich.
In another cable sent in 2010, Taylor wrote that Firtash “acknowledged ties to … Mogilevich, stating he needed Mogilevich’s approval to get into business in the first place.”
Tim Ash, an emerging markets analyst with Standard Bank in London, on Thursday called the arrest in Vienna a “seismic development,” describing Firtash as one of the top two Ukrainian oligarchs in terms of wealth and influence both in that country and abroad.
In an email earlier this week, he said he thinks the message for Russia is that the West is ready to sanction top pro-Moscow magnates unless the Kremlin moderates its policy toward Ukraine and in particular on the status of Crimea.
With Moscow’s backing, the Crimean peninsula is holding a referendum this weekend on splitting from Ukraine and joining with Russia.
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