Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Bureau has arrested the former deputy chairman of a Ukrainian bank at the heart of an FBI criminal investigation as he attempted to fly abroad in the latest sign Kyiv is taking steps to tackle corruption and lawlessness.
Volodymyr Yatsenko was detained at Boryspil Airport in Kyiv on February 22 after investigators forced the pilot of the private jet he was traveling on to land, the bureau announced in a tweet.
Yatsenko, who was on his way to Vienna after reportedly being tipped off about his arrest, was charged with the embezzlement of funds at PrivatBank, once the nation’s largest lender.
More arrests of management could follow, the Kyiv Post reported.
The FBI is investigating the two owners of PrivatBank -- Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Hennadiy Boholyubov -- in connection with accusations that more than $5 billion was stolen from the lender through fraudulent loans and that the money was then laundered.
In a move that made international headlines, Ukraine was forced to nationalize PrivatBank in 2016 and pump more than $5 billion into the lender in order to stave off its bankruptcy.
The United States accuses Kolomoyskiy and Boholyuobov of using some of the laundered proceeds to buy assets in the United States ranging from metals companies to commercial properties with the help of two American associates based in Miami.
The Justice Department last year filed three civil forfeiture lawsuits in a Florida court against a U.S. real estate holding controlled by the two tycoons and run by the associates.
However, a judge agreed last week with a Justice Department request to temporarily suspend the civil forfeiture proceedings amid concerns it could harm the criminal investigation against the Ukrainian businessmen and their two American partners.
“Allowing [the tycoons] to conduct discovery would expose the identities of witnesses who have provided and will provide information and testimony in both the civil forfeiture actions and the criminal investigation,” the Justice Department said in its February 19 filing.
“If that occurs, the confidential informants may cease providing information, and, to the extent they are not reachable through process in the United States, they may make themselves unavailable for future testimony. Potential sources of information who have not yet been interviewed by the government would likely be deterred from coming forward.”
The tycoons deny the accusations and neither Ukraine nor the United States has filed criminal charges against them.
Kolomoyskiy is one of the most influential tycoons in Ukraine and the U.S. government’s investigation into his activities is being closely followed.
The billionaire owns key media, energy, and metals assets and is believed to have outsized influence over the administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Kolomoyskiy’s TV stations backed Zelenskiy’s successful presidential bid.
The United States, one of Ukraine’s biggest backers financially and militarily, has repeatedly expressed concern about oligarchic influence over the nation’s government and economy.
Washington has also complained about the lack of investigations into corrupt tycoons and officials and has tied some aid to improvements in judicial reform.
The arrest of Yatsenko, who was flying on a private plane owned by Kolomoyskiy, is the latest in a series of moves by Kyiv to tackle cases that resonate with the United States.
Zelenskiy last week approved sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk, a tycoon and lawmaker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk was sanctioned by the United States in 2014 for undermining democracy in Ukraine.
On February 2, Zelenskiy sanctioned three television stations believed to be owned by Medvedchuk. In late January he announced an investigation into Ukrainian individuals accused of interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
The moves come after President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20. Biden knows Ukraine well, having served as the point man to Kyiv while serving as vice president from 2009 to 2017.
Political analysts say Zelenskiy is seeking to win over the Biden administration after a difficult relationship with the Trump administration caused by the 2019 impeachment investigation.