Putin Gets Personal in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin's battle of words with a Ukrainian oligarch demonstrates the extent to which Russia's conflict with Ukraine is personal for him.
Don't call Vladimir Putin short. Photographer: Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

There is an absurd subplot in the very serious conflict between Russia and Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin is publicly trading insults with Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyy, recently appointed governor of the industrial Dnepropetrovsk region by Ukraine's interim government.

According to the most recent version of Forbes' global rich list, Kolomoyskyy is the 828th richest person in the world, with a fortune of $2.1 billion. The flamboyant and contentious magnate, one of the pillars of Dnepropetrovsk's powerful Jewish community, owns a disparate pool of assets in the mining, steel, oil, airline, fertilizer and petrochemical industries. His Privatbank is the biggest in Ukraine. Kolomoyskyy earned the trust of the revolutionary government that came to power after president Viktor Yanukovych's flight to Russia by firmly opposing separatism in the pro-Russian east of the country.

"In my native region of Dnepropetrovsk separatism will not stand," Kolomoyskyy told Censor.net. "Separatism will not stand in a single southeastern region of our country." The billionaire then lashed out against the mayor of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov, Gennady Kernes, who tried to set up a pro-Russian organization called the Ukrainian Front. "You will get the moral right to lead a front into battle when you start working on your own combat readiness and not just riding a bike," said Kolomoyskyy, who knows Kernes well. "God forbid you should look in the eyes of the mothers of sons who may not come back from the front line you're organizing."

The threat seemed to work: Kernes abandoned the Ukrainian Front idea and hastily declared that he was willing to serve the new government. Kolomoyskyy, for his part, received the governorship, which didn't make him any more diplomatic. On Monday, he lambasted Putin as a "schizophrenic shorty." "I cannot understand how Ukrainians and Russians can make war," he said, referring to Putin's threat of military intervention in Ukraine. "He is totally out of touch, completely crazy."

Putin, who measures 5 feet 7 inches, is said to be touchy about his stature and in general disinclined to forget personal insults. During a news conference today, he tore into Kolomoyskyy with particular venom. "This is just a unique crook," Putin said, alleging that Kolomoyskyy had reneged on a contract with Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich after receiving several billion dollars in payment. "So now this crook is made governor and sent to Dnepropetrovsk. Of course people are not happy."

Kolomoyskyy, indeed, first befriended and then fought with Abramovich, whom Forbes ranks the 137th richest person in the world with a $9.1 billion fortune and Bloomberg puts in 71st place with $14 billion. The Ukrainian sold the Russian five Ukrainian factories making coke and steel for about $2 billion, half in cash and half in shares of Abramovich's Russian steelmaker, Evraz. Kolomoyskyy soon became unhappy with Evraz's stock market performance, claimed loudly that it was being mismanaged, and started selling off the stock, finally reducing his share from almost 10 percent to just over 2 percent. There was, however, no theft of Abramovich's billions: The Russian still owns the Ukrainian factories, and is not in the habit of letting anyone cheat him.

Putin's tirade against the Ukrainian oligarch demonstrates the extent to which his actions in Ukraine are personal. He doesn't like the current government and specific people in it. He isn't going to let them call him a dwarf and a madman with impunity. And since Putin is not just a touchy Russian but also the president of a nuclear power, this is bad news for Ukrainians in general.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.