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The Russian onslaught on Ukraine has come as a shock to billionaires in both countries, but their reactions have been very different. Russia’s big businesses, with a few exceptions, have so far taken almost no part in supporting the war (unless, of course, you don’t count the billionaires that support the Ukrainian side). At the same time, Ukrainian businessmen not only donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but also themselves fight on the front lines.

  • How Ukrainian businessmen are helping

  • How Russian businessmen are (not) helping

  • How Russian business is helping Ukraine

  • Why such a difference?

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How Ukrainian businessmen are helping

Just before Russia invaded, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky gathered members of Ukraine's Forbes list in a meeting and said he expected support from the country's richest people. After that, some of the oligarchs left the country, but many preferred to stay and help their homeland in a difficult time.

According to Alexei Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), some of the people who “are called oligarchs” are “helping, and very actively.” Danilov notes that “some people are helping the army as much as they can, although they don’t post selfies or talk about every vehicle worth 20,000 euros they donate.”

Probably, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council was alluding to former President Petro Poroshenko (estimated personal wealth $0.7 billion as at the beginning of 2022). Since February 24, the Poroshenko Foundation, his Roshen company, and volunteers from the Delo Hromad organization have collected $46 million in aid for the AFU. Among other things, Poroshenko's conglomerate bought 11 Italian MLS SHIELD armored vehicles, small arms, radios, first aid kits assembled according to NATO standards, and a unique medevac robot. The former president plans to finance the supply of Spartan armored personnel carriers, Oshkosh M1070 army tractors and drones.

The richest man in Ukraine, businessman Rinat Akhmetov (estimated personal wealth $4.3 billion as of September 2022) donated more than 3 billion hryvnas (about $100 million) for military needs and humanitarian projects during the war. In particular, Rinat Akhmetov’s and Vadim Novinsky's mining and metallurgical group Metinvest donated 21,000 helmets, over 110,000 body armor kits, 500 drones, 1,600 thermal imagers, 266 vehicles and heavy equipment units and 500,000 tons of fuel to the Armed Forces, Territorial Defense units, National Guard and other security agencies.

And this despite the fact that during the war Akhmetov lost his two main metallurgical assets – the ruined Mariupol Azovstal plant and the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works. Akhmetov's agricultural holding HarvEast lost about 80% of its land due to the partial occupation of the Donetsk region and the mining of fields in the Kyiv region.

Akhmetov's partner Vadim Novinsky (estimated personal wealth $1.3 billion as of September 2022), the main owner of the Smart Holding investment group, has donated more than 200 million hryvnas ($5 million) to charity. The aid mostly consists of medical equipment and medicines, food, and the organization of refugee transportation. Curiously enough, Novinsky was a Russian citizen until 2011, but today that does not prevent him from supporting Ukraine in the war.

Ex-president Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law Victor Pinchuk (estimated personal wealth $2 billion as of September 2022) donated $45 million through family foundations and the Interpipe company. The money was spent on armored vehicles, ammunition and equipment, communication facilities, drones, tactical first aid kits and also on supplying the hospitals located in the front-line zones and intended for treating the wounded.

Dmitry Firtash (estimated personal wealth $0.4 billion as of the beginning of 2022), founder of Group DF (his main investments are in nitrogen, titanium and gas businesses), despite his long-term residence abroad, did not stay on the sidelines either. In the first three months of the war, Group DF transferred 308 million hryvnias ($10 million) to support the AFU, the military defense units and refugees. Most of the money was spent on the special fundraising account of the National Bank of Ukraine, humanitarian aid, purchase of medicines, and the arrangement of bomb shelters.

Hennadiy Butkevich (estimated personal wealth $0.5 billion as at the end of 2021), co-founder of the largest Ukrainian grocery chain ATB, spent 300 million hryvnas ($10 million) on armored and unarmored cars and drones, food kits and medicines, direct aid to medical institutions and charitable organizations, among other things.

Alexander and Galina Geregi (estimated personal wealth $0.5 billion as of early 2022), the founders of the country’s largest Epicenter construction hypermarket chain, spent more than 300 million hryvna ($10 million) on the needs of the AFU and the Defense Ministry. The company operates a network of 57 humanitarian warehouses and provides AFU troops with uniforms, footwear and warm clothes.

Yuri Kosyuk (estimated personal wealth $0.8 billion as at the end of 2021), the majority shareholder of one of the biggest European poultry producers, MHP, provides aid consisting of his company’s products. During the six months of the war, Kosyuk supplied 12,600 tons of chicken meat worth 668 million hryvnas (about $20 million) to the military, refugees and hospitals.

In total, according to the calculations by the Ukrainian Forbes as of May 2022, more than 30 of the richest businessmen in Ukraine helped the Armed Forces and/or civilians affected by the hostilities. The total amount of aid was estimated at $200 million. It is noteworthy that they do not limit themselves to financial support. Some Ukrainian businessmen themselves go to war.

The owner of the agro-industrial company Agrotrade, Vsevolod Kozhemyako (estimated turnover of the businesses he controls was $100 million as at the end of 2021), returned to his native Kharkiv from Austria in the first days after the invasion, formed the Charter battalion and became its commander. The Charter battalion is a voluntary formation of the local community; Kozhemyako and his several businessmen friends undertook to maintain and equip the battalion personnel.

Andrey Onistrat, a well-known Ukrainian banker, also recently decided to go to the front. He had been serving in territorial defense since the start of the war, but in September he joined AFU’s active service. He says he will return to business only after the fighting is over.

Businessman and cyber athlete Alexander Kokhanovsky, who recently bought the Dnipro Hotel in central Kyiv with his partners for 1.1 billion hryvnas (almost $30 million), enlisted in a volunteer unit after the Russian attack and then joined the AFU and, in his own words, almost died near Izyum in spring 2022.

How Russian businessmen are (not) helping

There is nothing similar to the enthusiasm of their Ukrainian colleagues in the Russian business community.

The most active player in the war is “Putin's chef” and the owner of the Wagner PMC Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had been convicted of robbery and involving minors in criminal activities. Prigozhin has a history of traveling around the penal colonies, where he openly recruits prisoners to the front. Prigozhin has repeatedly mentioned he is ready to support the Russian Armed Forces both “ideologically” and financially, and called on wealthy Russians to donate “at least 50% of their wealth to support the special operation.” However, “Prigozhin's money” is in fact the money of the Ministry of Defense, because he earned it by gaining the opportunity to provide food to the Defense Ministry's without competition, and, as the FSB and IC counterintelligence found out, he has been spending much less than he had declared, and his poor performance led to a series of poisonings in the ranks of the Ministry of Defense. The money of the Defense Ministry, which ended up in his pockets, Prigozhin now spends on criminals he sends to the front. However, judging by the complaints of the mercenaries, not all of them have received the money they were promised, and not in the amounts that were promised.

Another Russian businessman, Gennady Timchenko (estimated personal wealth $21 billion as of September 2022), also maintains a private military company called Redut. Until recently, Redut was engaged in the protection of the Stroytransgaz facilities in Syria, and its fighters had arrived in Ukraine long before the Wagner PMC. Timchenko earned most of his money via exclusive access to government contracts, obtained through years of friendship with Vladimir Putin.

Both Prigozhin and Timchenko can hardly be called businessmen in the full sense of the word. All of Prigozhin's business is based on government contracts, while Timchenko's entrepreneurial success is due to his close relationship with Vladimir Putin.

There is, however, the “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, the founder of the odious TV channel Tsargrad TV. “We can help financially. There are appropriate foundations that collect everything needed for our victory, for example, the ONF (United People’s Front), with which Tsargrad actively cooperates. It provides various army units with what they need,” he recently said in an interview with his TV channel. The amount of aid Malofeyev provided was not reported, but the source of his funds is known: partly it is money stolen from the state bank VTB (the corresponding criminal case against him was closed in 2014 after he began financing the invasion of Ukraine), and partly money stolen from users of the Wex cryptocurrency exchange.

How Russian business is helping Ukraine

Paradoxically, first-rank Russian oligarchs are more willing to help Ukraine than Russia. Co-owner of Alfa Group and Lvov native Mikhail Fridman (personal wealth $13.3 billion as of September 2022) condemned the war and said he would transfer $10 million to Ukrainian refugees through a personal charity fund. Friedman's investment company, LetterOne, announced in March 2022 that it would donate $150 million to “victims of the war in Ukraine.” The generous gestures did not save the billionaire from EU and British sanctions.

In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that Mikhail Fridman was ready to donate $1 billion to Ukraine, hoping that would help ease the sanctions. However, Fridman himself has denied any selfish motives.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (personal wealth $8.7 billion as of September 2022) also fell under sanctions. In March, he participated in unsuccessful attempts to bring Moscow and Kyiv to the negotiating table, and in July he played a key role in the “grain deal” between Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.

In May, the British authorities allowed Abramovich to sell the Chelsea soccer club for 4.25 billion pounds on the condition that 2.5 billion will be frozen in Abramovich's account in an English bank in order to give it to a fund to help war victims in Ukraine. According to some reports, the money is still in the businessman's account.

Support for Ukraine in one form or another is also being provided (or promised) by Alisher Usmanov's longtime partner in high-tech investments, Yuri Milner (estimated personal wealth $7.3 billion as of September 2022), former owner of Uralkalii Dmitry Rybolovlev (estimated personal wealth $6.6 billion as of September 2022) and former owner of Tinkoff Bank Oleg Tinkov (estimated family fortune $0.6 billion as of September 2022).

In May, the Associated Press, citing its sources, wrote about discussions between Western governments and unnamed Russian oligarchs about the possibility of “paying off sanctions”: donating part of their fortunes to rebuild Ukraine and getting rid of legal hurdles in return. To all appearances, so far the negotiations have ended in nothing, but the willingness to conduct them speaks volumes.

Why such a difference?

Russian business is part of the global financial infrastructure. According to estimates, Russia's wealthiest citizens hold $1 trillion worth of assets offshore, more than the entire Russian population has inside the country. Putin's reckless military gamble, due to the existing formal (and informal) sanctions, has created a prohibitive level of legal risks for the offshore wealth of the oligarchs from Russia, who obviously still expect to get rid of their toxic status sooner or later, and therefore have been avoiding any direct or indirect participation in the war. This applies not only to those who have gone abroad and now have been receiving, if the Financial Times is to be believed, persistent calls from the Kremlin with suggestions to return home, but also to those who remain in Russia. At least 21 Russian businessmen are suing the EU, trying to have the sanctions imposed after the start of the war lifted.

But for Ukrainian big businesses, there’s no cost in supporting the national armed forces and fully participating in the fight against Russian aggression; on the contrary, it is an obvious investment in the future with a considerable potential return when it comes to rebuilding the country.

Co-written by Vyacheslav Epureanu

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