In the latest twist in an already bizarre saga, one which has roped in Russiagate theorists and pitted a former Austrian minister against US prosecutors, Austria’s caretaker government approved the extradition of Ukrainian oligarch Dimitri Firtash to the United States— just as a Vienna judge ruled to halt Firtash’s extradition.
Firtash—who stands accused by a Chicago court of having been involved in a criminal conspiracy to pay bribes in India in order to mine titanium—has already been stuck in Austria, fighting extradition, since he was first arrested on a US warrant in March 2014.
He now seems likely to remain in Austria for a while yet: the latest delay to his extradition comes after Firtash’s defence team, led by former Austrian justice minister Dieter Boehmdorfer, submitted “extremely extensive material” which Boehmdorfer believes will prove that the US has “a far-reaching political motivation” in seeking Firtash.
Longstanding rumours about Washington’s motivations
Indeed, suspicions that the US has ulterior motives in indicting Firtash have clouded the five-year-long case from the start. To start with, Firtash’s profile alone would make him naturally of interest to American law enforcement agencies and politicians. A supporter of Ukraine’s ousted, pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, Firtash has extensive connections among Ukrainian and Russian elites
As early as 2015, the original Austrian judge in charge of the case suspected that it was these connections and Firtash’s place on the inside track of Ukrainian politics, rather than any involvement with a bribery scandal, which had piqued Washington’s interest. In an extremely rare step between Western allies—one which was later overturned by higher courts— Judge Christoph Bauer, of the Landesgerichtsstrasse Regional Court in Vienna, ruled against Firtash’s extradition to the United States.
Bauer’s justification for his decision constituted a remarkably scathing rebuke of the US Justice and State Departments. The judge explained that he did not merely doubt the veracity of two witnesses cited by American prosecutors in their filings that he doubted, but “whether these witnesses even existed.”
Arrest when convenient
What’s more, Bauer questioned why US prosecutors had sat on the Firtash indictment for close to a year. The Austrian judge suspected that the delay had something to do with the Ukrainian’s close relationship with then president Yanukovych. Pointing to documents showing that Washington initially asked Vienna to arrest Firtash in the fall of 2013, Bauer noted that, in parallel, Yanukovych was waffling on signing the association agreement with the European Union.
According to Bauer, indications that Yanukovych was being swayed back around to the West led to the arrest being put on hold. Viennese authorities received an urgent, cryptic message days before the arrest was scheduled to take place, reading “As part of a larger strategy, US authorities have determined we need to pass up this opportunity”.
A valuable source?
Yanukovych, of course, did not sign the agreement in the end, and was eventually forced into exile after months of protests. Four days after Yanukovych was deposed, the US authorities resurrected their request for Firtash to be arrested: the Ukrainian was finally taken into custody just as open conflict was breaking out in Ukraine between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions.
There’s always been speculation, however, that Firtash was more than just a bargaining chip in a tussle with Moscow over Yanukovych’s loyalties. As early as 2014, one American insider suggested to the BBC that US prosecutors wanted Firtash for the sensitive information he held regarding Russian and Ukrainian elites. "He knows a whole lot of things about the elites in Russia and Ukraine," the anonymous source explained, "it would be great to have this man talking."
These rumours now appear to have borne fruit, as reports have surfaced that special counsel Robert Mueller’s chief deputy Andrew Weissmann reached out to Firtash’s lawyers in June 2017 with a new deal: shed some light on Russiagate, and the criminal charges Firtash faced in the US might go away. Firtash turned the deal down—according to his lawyers, because he didn’t have information on the subjects Weissman was interested in.
Clouds gather over Exhibit A
The revelation that US prosecutors proffered such a deal seems to confirm the longstanding theory that Washington had political reasons for wanting Firtash on American soil. As Bauer noted when initially nixing the extradition, Austria would have grounds to reject a politically-motivated extradition request “even if a crime occurred”.
Over the past few weeks, troubling questions have also arisen over the file US prosecutors put together to argue that Firtash did in fact commit a crime. Back in 2014, just as the case against Firtash was faltering in Bauer’s court, the Austrian Ministry of Justice received a fresh piece of evidence, dubbed Exhibit A. Exhibit A consisted of a single PowerPoint slide from 2006, which mentioned the “use of bribes” in conjunction with a “2-part India Strategy”.
Prosecutors held the PowerPoint slide out as the smoking gun that Firtash himself had advocated for the use of bribes. More recently, however, it’s become clear that the slide was written not by Firtash, nor by any of his companies, but by American consulting firm McKinsey.
Case in limbo
Firtash’s American legal team have, predictably, been quick to point to the Exhibit A debacle as evidence of less-than-clean intentions on Washington’s part. "Submitting a false and misleading document to a foreign sovereign and its courts for an extradition decision is not only unethical,” the team wrote to investigative journalist John Solomon, “but also flouts the comity of trust necessary for that process where judicial systems rely only on documents to make that decision."
With a key piece of evidence collapsing and two witnesses who’ve recently recanted their testimony, the waters surrounding the Firtash case are muddier than ever. Given the fresh furore, it’s not surprising that Vienna wants more time to make sure Austria’s legal system is not blindly doing Washington’s bidding.