Rinat Akhmetov’s Intervention Means Kyiv Government Will Have to Negotiate With Him

What does it mean?  Thousands of steelworkers and other employees of Ukraine’s biggest business empire are now patrolling several cities in southeastern Ukraine, working with local police to oppose further violence by Russian-backed secessionist militias.

However effective this initiative turns out to be, it represents the first concrete intervention in the conflict by the Donetsk business magnate Rinat Akhmetov. His estimated $12 billion fortune makes him Ukraine’s wealthiest man – and southeastern Ukraine’s most influential actor amid the fight between Russia and Ukraine for control of the region.

Reports in the New York Times and Washington Post suggest that Akhmetov’s laborers are helping to calm the city where their patrols began – the Donetsk province port of Mariupol. If that holds, it will serve as an indirect and limited act of support for the government in Kyiv – one that could perform it the essential service of permitting calm voting in Ukraine’s presidential election nine days from now.  Still, the industrial workers’ intervention stops short of outright support for the government, and tends to position Akhmetov as an independent player who is prepared to ally with the government on his own terms, which are not yet clear.

Akhmetov insists that the Donbas (or Donetsk Basin), as the southeast is known, should remain within a “unified” and “strong” Ukraine, but one in which the central government hands significant powers to the provinces. (See our May 15 blog post on Akhmetov’s background and his positioning in this conflict.)

While both his declaration this week and his deployment of workers to calm city streets are welcome steps for a still-weak, interim government in Kyiv, an account of the events in Mariupol on a local website includes more signs that Akhmetov’s initiative is more directly for his own protection than for that of the Ukrainian state or government.

The account, on the Mariupol commercial website www.0629.com.ua (named for Mariupol’s telephone dialing code within Ukraine), cites the community relations department of Akhmetov’s company Metinvest, saying that more than 32,000 people have called a hotline to volunteer to patrol the city’s streets. The article describes a community coming together – 10,000 workers from Mariupol’s steel and metals factories, 8,000 volunteers from the universities and educational institutions – to protect itself against the violence of Russian-supported urban guerrillas, but also against any entry by Ukraine’s army.

According to the article, the volunteer brigades are led by Yuriy Zinchenko, general director of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, a Metinvest plant that began the patrols on May 12.  “We didn’t expect such a huge response,” Zinchenko says. “Not only able-bodied men responded, but also many retirees, women, students – people who may have different views but are united around one wish. They want to see peace and order on the streets of their city. We don’t want shooting, we don’t want war, we will protect our city from criminals by ourselves.”

The Metinvest-tinged story then quotes the head of another local Metinvest plant, Azovstal.  General Director Enver Tskitishvili echoes Zinchenko: “We see how people have united around a common idea. They support order in our city and don’t want military intervention in the city, they don’t want weapons, barricades.”

This is all a clear message to Kyiv, as well as to the people of Donbas. The Metinvest initiative is not national-patriotic, but local-tribal. It continues an emphasis on Donbas exceptionalism. If the government police were unable to maintain order, the Donbas miners and steelworkers will do so.

Akhmetov’s demonstration of alignment with Kyiv is the best news the Ukrainian government has had in Donbas since Moscow prodded the secessionist uprising to life in early April. The next question is exactly what price he will demand in return.

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council; James Rupert is the council’s managing editor.