For weeks, they fended off Russian assaults, holed up in an enormous metal mill below barrages of missiles and mortars. And when the Ukrainian troops defending the Azovstal plant lastly surrendered in Could 2022, the mill had been decreased to rubble and twisted steel.

The combating at Azovstal, within the besieged metropolis of Mariupol, was a signature moment in the early months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

It was additionally a significant setback for Ukraine’s richest man, the plant’s proprietor.

With the destruction of Azovstal, the proprietor, Rinat Akhmetov, misplaced an industrial jewel accounting for one-fifth of Ukraine’s metal output — a multibillion-dollar loss that dealt a extreme blow to his longtime grip on the Ukrainian financial system.

Mr. Akhmetov’s case underlines how the conflict, by ravaging Ukrainian industry, has curbed the facility of the nation’s so-called oligarchs, tycoons who’ve lengthy reigned over the financial system and used their wealth to purchase political affect, specialists say.

Within the conflict’s first 12 months, the full wealth of the 20 richest Ukrainians shrank by greater than $20 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Mr. Akhmetov took the largest hit, shedding greater than $9 billion. He’s one in all solely two billionaires left in Ukraine, down from 10 earlier than the conflict, in accordance with The New Voice of Ukraine newspaper.

Now, the Ukrainian authorities plan to make use of their wartime powers to attempt to make a clear break with the oligarchs. The goal is to cut back their affect over the financial system and politics, and to prosecute those that engaged in corrupt practices, carrying via on insurance policies that President Volodymyr Zelensky had promised to pursue earlier than the invasion.

“They’re weak, and it’s a singular alternative to attain justice by way of how the nation must be run,” Denys Maliuska, Ukraine’s justice minister, stated in an interview.

Rinat Akhmetov in 2014. Credit score…Thomas Trutschel

The Ukrainian authorities say that these efforts are about rebuilding a postwar nation that’s extra democratic and affluent, and that additionally they present that they’re fighting corruption, an important step to safe help from Western allies.

The crackdown may get rid of affect shopping for, however it could additionally cut back pluralism in Ukrainian politics and sideline a few of Mr. Zelensky’s opponents. Earlier than the conflict, one of many highest-profile investigations of a businessman was in opposition to Mr. Zelensky’s chief political rival, former President Petro O. Poroshenko, who made a fortune within the sweet enterprise. Mr. Poroshenko has prevented criticism of Mr. Zelensky because the begin of the conflict, as an alternative portraying himself as a loyalist ready to fight for his country.

Some critics additionally say the wartime focus of energy across the authorities might give rise to a brand new oligarchy, and analysts say that oligarchs nonetheless retain important levers of affect.

“Oligarchs have all of the assets they should get their affect again,” Mr. Maliuska stated. “The chance continues to be current.”

Like different Ukrainian tycoons, Mr. Akhmetov made his fortune within the Nineteen Nineties, when newly impartial Ukraine transitioned to a market financial system that noticed profitable state-owned property privatized cheaply. He took over Soviet-era coal and metal vegetation and constructed a enterprise empire that additionally included main stakes in agriculture and transportation.

Dmytro Goriunov, an economist on the Kyiv-based Middle for Financial Technique, stated oligarchs had been a significant impediment to Ukraine’s financial improvement, hampering competitors via monopolies. Earlier than the conflict, they managed greater than 80 % of industries like oil refining and coal mining, according to a study he cowrote.

Specialists say Ukrainian oligarchs used their earnings to affect politics and the judiciary, in addition to to purchase or launch tv channels to form public opinion.

Mr. Akhmetov as soon as owned as much as 11 channels and supported Viktor Yanukovych, the previous pro-Russia president whom Ukrainians ousted in 2014.

Not like in Russia — the place oligarchs have largely fallen in step with the Kremlin below coercion or for self-interest — rivalries amongst Ukrainian tycoons and their help of a wide-range of politicians have given Ukraine’s media and political panorama higher selection.

Their giant industrial and agricultural corporations have additionally pushed the financial system, using tons of of 1000’s of individuals and attracting international funding.

However Daria Kaleniuk, the manager director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Motion Middle, stated the oligarchs’ stakes in enterprise, politics and the information media had created a “vicious circle” the place most levers of energy have been below their management, fueling corruption.

When Mr. Zelensky was elected president in 2019 — with the support of a magnate, Ihor Kolomoisky — he promised an all-out assault on the oligarchs. However his efforts, which included overhauling the judiciary and cracking down on corrupt public officers, “didn’t considerably lower the affect of the oligarchs at the moment,” Mr. Maliuska stated.

Then got here Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

As Moscow’s assaults targeted on Ukraine’s east and south, the nation’s industrial heartland, lots of the oligarchs’ factories have been decimated.

In Mariupol, Mr. Akhmetov’s two big steelworks, together with Azovstal, have been destroyed. So was the nation’s largest oil refinery, in central Ukraine, which was owned by Mr. Kolomoisky. As we speak, fierce fighting around the eastern city of Avdiivka has compelled Europe’s largest coke plant, one other of Mr. Akhmetov’s properties, to close.

“My companies have been affected probably the most by the conflict,” Mr. Akhmetov stated in written responses to questions. His wind and thermal energy vegetation have been “uncovered to fixed Russian missile and drone assaults,” and his metal and coke vegetation have been “severely broken or briefly occupied,” he stated.

Mr. Akhmetov’s metal and mining group Metinvest misplaced almost a 3rd of its property within the conflict’s first 12 months, in accordance with the Middle for Financial Technique. Mr. Kolomoisky’s oil property shrank by two-thirds.

Nevertheless it was maybe the oligarchs’ political affect that was hardest hit.

Within the early days of the conflict, because the nation rallied behind its president, oligarchs had little alternative however to place apart their political agendas and assist with the conflict effort.

Then, Mr. Zelensky signed a decree merging all cable information right into a single program meant to counter Russian disinformation and increase morale — depriving oligarchs with media arms of an important device of affect. This system has been denounced as a way for the government to stifle criticism.

And by the summer time of 2022, many tycoons had relinquished possession of their media companies to adjust to a regulation handed earlier than the conflict to curb their energy. The regulation states that any particular person assembly three out of 4 standards — participation in politics, important media affect, possession of a enterprise monopoly or wealth of at the very least $70 million — will likely be designated an oligarch and barred from shopping for privatized state property and funding political events.

Mr. Akhmetov handed over the licenses for his tv and print media to the state in July 2022. “I’m not an oligarch within the authorized sense of the phrase now,” he stated.

Because the conflict went on, Ukrainian authorities forged a wider web of their prosecution of oligarchs.

In September, the police arrested Mr. Kolomoisky on suspicion of fraud and money laundering, and he has since been held in custody. The authorities are additionally attempting to extradite Kostyantin Zhevago, a Ukrainian oligarch, from France on fraud fees, and one other one, Dmytro Firtash, for embezzlement. Mr. Akhmetov shouldn’t be going through private authorized proceedings.

“For many years, it was unimaginable to have an oligarch in a pretrial detention middle,” stated Mr. Maliuska, the justice minister. “Now, it is a actuality.”

Mr. Maliuska acknowledged that “the facility of the state is greater” through the conflict, facilitating efforts to interrupt free from the oligarchs’ management over the financial system. However he added that Ukraine’s present crackdown was additionally aimed toward incomes anti-corruption credentials which can be key to securing much-needed Western help.

The European Union, as an illustration, agreed to open accession talks for Ukraine final month however has pressured the necessity to construct “a reputable observe report of investigations, prosecutions and remaining court docket choices in high-level corruption circumstances.”

It stays unclear how that can have an effect on the powers of the oligarchs.

Mr. Goriunov, the economist, stated Ukraine remained depending on lots of the oligarchs’ companies. Mr. Akhmetov’s power holding, DTEK, accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s thermal coal manufacturing.

Mr. Akhmetov, in his written feedback, stated he meant to play a job within the nation’s postwar reconstruction. “As the largest Ukrainian investor, SCM is not going to sit on the sidelines,” he stated, referring to his holding firm.

Some in Ukraine additionally worry the oligarchs will likely be changed by a brand new oligarchic system rising from the wartime focus of energy across the authorities.

Valeria Gontareva, who was Ukraine’s central financial institution governor from 2014 to 2017, stated she was involved concerning the seizure of oligarchs’ property through the conflict and the way authorities officers would possibly use them for private achieve.

In late 2022, Mr. Kolomoisky’s oil refinery and Mr. Zhevago’s firm AvtoKrAZ, which makes heavy vehicles, have been nationalized in what the authorities stated was a technique to safe very important navy provides. However some actions, such because the seizure of Mr. Zhevago’s shares in mining plants, have been contentious and criticized as unjustified.

“It’s state capitalism,” Ms. Gontareva stated. “Now the menace shouldn’t be the previous oligarchs, however the brand new ones who profit from the conflict via the redistribution of property and enterprise segments.”

Ms. Kaleniuk, of the Anti-Corruption Motion Middle, concurred. “Within the battle in opposition to dragons,” she stated, “we have now to be cautious to not change into dragons ourselves.”

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