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UKRAINE

Sanctioned Ukraine tycoon stuck in Austria seeks to support war effort

Sanctioned by Ukraine in the past over his close ties to Russia, Dmytro Firtash, one of the country's wealthiest citizens, made international headlines this week for saying he is sheltering hundreds of Ukrainians in his chemical factory. Firtash was arrested by Austrian authorities in March 2014 and has since been in Vienna fighting extradition to the United States.

Dmytro Firtash, one of Ukraine's most influential oligarchs attends a trial on April 30, 2015 in Vienna.
Dmytro Firtash, one of Ukraine's most influential oligarchs attends a trial on April 30, 2015 in Vienna. Photo: Samuel Kubani/AFP

“This war is completely pointless and cannot be justified in any way, it only brings suffering and misery on all sides. This humanitarian tragedy is intolerable,” the 57-year-old said in a statement on his company’s website.

A one-time ally of ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Firtash, who is currently in Austria and fighting extradition to the US on bribery accusations, has a controversial history.

Providing refuge

In June 2021, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree imposing sanctions on Firtash, including the freezing of his assets and withdrawal of licences from his companies, after accusing him of selling titanium products to Russian military companies.

But now some 800 civilians, including 200 factory workers, have taken refuge in the bunkers of the Azot chemical plant, owned by Firtash’s Group DF, in Ukraine’s strategic eastern city of Severodonetsk, the tycoon’s lawyer Lanny Davis said this week.

Russian troops have been pushing for control of the key city over the past weeks as part of their effort to conquer eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “is never going to come out victorious… No matter what happens, Russia will lose,” Firtash said in an NBC News interview in April.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Firtash’s Inter has also joined the pool of several main Ukrainian news channels, which broadcast news 24/7 and fully reflect the official position of the Ukrainian authorities.

Before the invasion, Inter, one of the largest Ukrainian national TV channels, was considered pro-Russian.

Firtash insists he has always been pro-Ukrainian, telling NBC that he was “never pro-Russian”.

“But you have to understand that I am a businessman. And my goal is to earn money. That’s my job,” he said in the interview.
 
Wanted by the US

Firtash is also wanted on bribery and racketeering charges in the United States. In the case, Indian officials allegedly received $18.5 million in bribes to secure titanium mining licences in 2006.

The United States argues it has jurisdiction because the conspiracy involved using US financial institutions, travel to and from the US, and use of US-based communications — computers, telephones, and the internet.

Firtash, who denies the charges and says he is the victim of a smear campaign, was detained in Austria in March 2014. He had to pay bail of 125 million euros ($130 million) — reportedly a record high for Austria — and has since not been able to leave the country.

READ ALSO: Ukrainian billionaire Firtash wants to end exile in Austria

Austria’s supreme court ruled in 2019 that he could be extradited. But Firtash is still fighting the extradition and can remain in Austria while court proceedings continue.

In an interview with CNN in May, Firtash said he had requested prosecutors to be allowed to return to Ukraine while the war is going on — but his request was denied.

He has also been accused of being involved in alleged efforts by Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and a personal lawyer of former US president Donald Trump, to dig up dirt on Joe Biden before he became president, but Firtash denies ever having met with Giuliani.

Born in a village in western Ukraine, Firtash’s father was a diver and his mother an accountant, and for additional income the family grew tomatoes. Firtash began his business career by organising commodity trading in Ukraine and Russia.

READ ALSO: Austrian ex-minister who danced with Putin quits Russian oil company Rosneft

In 1993, he established business ties in Central Asia and organised the supply of consumer goods in exchange for natural gas.

In 2004, he set up a joint venture with Russia’s Gazprom to supply natural gas from Central Asia to Ukraine and other European countries.

Three years later, Firtash set up Group DF, growing it into a business empire, employing some 100,000 people.

The group is involved in energy, chemicals, media, banking and property in Ukraine and other countries.

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ENERGY

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

In recent months, there have been fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the winter season. The good news is that gas storage facilities are filling up, but by how much? Here's an update.

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the EU imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, there have been concerns in Austria about the domestic energy supply.

The biggest worry is that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming heating season, which could quickly become a crisis when coupled with skyrocketing energy prices.

On Tuesday (August 16th), the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity is now 60 percent full. This is already a significant improvement from early April, when reserves were just over 10 percent full.

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve. 

READ ALSO: Where are energy prices going up (again) in Austria?

But the Wiener Zeitung reports that there are questions over where the gas has come from as Gazprom has reduced deliveries to Austria’s OMV (the partially-state owned energy company) by two thirds.

Where is the gas coming from?

Christoph Dolna-Gruber, an energy advisor at the Austrian Energy Agency, said the origin of the gas “is not explicitly known”.

For example, from October 2022 to September 2023, OMV has secured additional natural gas supplies of 40 TWh from Norway and the Netherlands, reports the Wiener Zeitung.

The Austrian Federal Government has also secured 20 TWh of gas from two tenders, of which 8.5 TWh has been confirmed by the Ministry of the Environment to be from non-Russian sources.

However, the gas storage operators do not publish data on customers and contractual partners, so the origin is not in the public domain.

The extra 20 TWh of gas will be owned by the state but it is still unclear how it will be “handled” (e.g. for domestic use or for redistribution outside of Austria).

FOR MEMBERS: Why (and when) double-digit inflation is set to hit Austria

How much gas can Austria store?

The capacity of Austria’s gas storage facilities is 95.5 terawatt hours (TWh) or 8.6 billion cubic metres. The gas is stored underground in depleted natural gas reservoirs at a depth of between 500 and 2,300 metres.

Austria’s gas storage facilities are located in Haidach, Aigelsbrunn, Auerbach (the facility is known as 7-Fields), Puchkirchen, Haag, Tallesbrunn and Schönkirchen. All of the facilities are in Salzburg or Lower Austria.

OMV manages 26 percent (25.3 TWh) of Austria’s natural gas storage volume and the rest is divided between RAG, Uniper Energy and Astora.

The Haidach storage facility was previously managed by Gazprom and Astora, but the agreement with Gazprom came to an end earlier this month after Gazprom stopped making deliveries.

Since August 1st, Haidach has been managed by Astora and RAG. 

READ ALSO: Vienna forced to dim street lighting and cancel some Christmas illuminations

How much does Austria rely on Russian gas?

Prior to the war, Austria relied on Russia for 80 percent of its total gas consumption. This has reduced in recent months but Austria is still heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supply.

And following Gazprom’s announcement on Tuesday that gas prices could rise by up to 60 percent in the coming months for European customers, Austrian residents should expect further increases to their gas bills this winter.

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