Powerful in Ukraine, stranded in Austria for the past three years, and wanted by US authorities on bribery charges, Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash is no stranger to intrigue. On Tuesday his case took yet another turn as a Vienna court ordered his extradition to the US – and he was taken into custody on a European arrest warrant by Austrian police just hours later, according to The Guardian.
The prosecutor’s office said the arrest was not to do with the US warrant, but due to supplementary information received from Spanish authorities, raising the possibility the oligarch may be extradited to Spain rather than the US.
Firtash denies the bribery charges and has always argued they are politically motivated – Washington’s way of removing him from the Ukrainian political playing field at a sensitive time.
The case has taken on an extra dimension of geopolitical interest because the businessman is a one-time partner of Paul Manafort, formerly Donald Trump’s campaign manager.
Firtash, who brokered gas deals with the Kremlin over many years, was arrested just weeks after the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych from power. He was released after putting up €125m (£105m) bail, and has been marooned in Vienna ever since.
In 2015, an Austrian judge refused the extradition request, agreeing with Firtash’s lawyers that the charges were politically motivated. The judge, Christoph Bauer, said in the surprise ruling that the initial extradition request was an attempt to weaken Yanukovych by removing one of his main allies from Ukraine.
The Guardian saw emails from the FBI to Austrian authorities which appeared to suggest US policy on whether or not to move against Firtash fluctuated depending on the political situation in Ukraine.
Speaking before Tuesday’s verdict, Firtash’s lawyer, Dieter Böoehmdorfer, reiterated the accusation that the US was driven by politics in the case.
“We must not allow Austria to become a stooge for the political world power the USA,” Böoehmdorfer told the court.
But a court statement summarising Tuesday’s appeal ruling said: “The crimes Firtash is accused of have no political character.”
While the Obama administration had little time for Yanukovych and believed Firtash to be a negative and possibly pro-Russian influence on Ukrainian politics, Firtash’s links to Manafort could provide him with powerful allies in Trump’s administration.
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign in August. He is one of a number of Trump associates to come under scrutiny for ties to Russia or Ukraine. Although he has no formal role in the new administration, Manafort is known to still take a keen interest in Ukrainian affairs.
In addition to his work for Yanukovych, Manafort also worked with Ukrainian oligarchs, including Firtash. In 2008, a group including Manafort and Firtash negotiated an $895m (£718m) deal to buy a New York hotel, which they wanted to redevelop as a mall and spa, according to filings from an unrelated lawsuit. The court filings include memos of meetings Firtash and Manafort attended in Kiev. The deal eventually fell through.
Firtash is Ukraine’s 16th richest man, with an estimated wealth of $251m (£202m) as of 2016, according to Forbes Ukraine.