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The conflict may harm Ukraine’s richest figures in financial terms and hand Zelenskyy victory in his battle against their influence.

The Azovstal steelworks has become an almost mythical symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s aggression.

Bird’s-eye view footage from drones, along with photos by Azov Regiment soldiers holed up in the industrial complex in the southern city of Mariupol for 82 days, showed how Russian bombers, multiple rocket launchers, and heavy artillery methodically and mercifully annihilated Azovstal.

The plant occupied 11 square kilometers (four square miles), provided tens of thousands of jobs, churned out two-fifths of Ukraine’s steel, and had its own port on the Sea of Azov to ship metal slabs worldwide.

The odorous smog from Azovstal and its smaller sibling, the Ilich steel plant, blanketed the city of 480,000 people for decades.

In the 1930s, Moscow boosted steel production in Ukraine – and made its steelworkers and coal miners the poster boys of the Communist way of life.

Moscow also ordered the construction of bomb shelters and service tunnels under Azovstal in case of war, and this is ultimately where thousands of Azov fighters and civilians hid from the pummelling this year.

And while news reports about Azovstal’s defense were often front page and top of the hour, one name was rarely mentioned – that of its owner.

Azovstal belongs to Metinvest, a group of mining and steel companies controlled by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest and mightiest of Ukraine’s oligarchs.
Metinvest controls huge business assets and has influence over individual politicians and, in some cases, entire political parties.

At 55, Akhmetov owns Shakhtar Donetsk, a football club, and hundreds of companies in Ukraine, including energy producers, telecom, and a media holding.

He made his fortune after privatizing Soviet-era plants and factories at cut-rate prices, mostly in the southeastern Donetsk region that includes Mariupol.

And the Azovstal and Ilich plants were the pillars of his business fiefdom.

On May 26, Akhmetov said he would sue Moscow for between $17bn and $20bn for the destruction and takeover of the plants and his other assets in the areas controlled by Russian forces or Russia-backed separatists.

“We will for sure sue Russia and will demand proper compensation for all losses and lost business,” he told a local news website.

Akhmetov’s office declined Al Jazeera’s interview request for this article.

Although Bloomberg reported that as of mid-June, Akhmetov’s fortune stood at $6.69bn, he reportedly has lost two-fifths of his fortune since the war began.

And Mariupol’s fall may upend his position as Ukraine’s richest oligarch, some observers say.

“Economically, he’s no longer an oligarch,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

But others disagree.

According to Vadim Karasev, a Kyiv-based economist, Akhmetov’s assets are diversified and stable enough to compensate for the loss of the metallurgical assets.

“Even with such losses, he will remain the richest and resourceful Ukrainian national,” he told Al Jazeera.

One thing is certain, however: the fall of Mariupol changes the ways Akhmetov and his backers are seen in Ukraine

“The city itself has for eight years been the capital of Akhmetov’s business empire, so there aren’t just financial losses, but political and image-related ones,” Karasev said.

The sad irony is that Akhmetov appears to have fallen on his own sword.

For years, he has thrown his immense financial weight behind politicians from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking, rust-belt southeast that gravitated towards Moscow politically and culturally, Kushch said.

“He reaped the whirlwind,” he said.

Akhmetov’s backing helped propel pro-Moscow politician Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency in 2010 and he served two terms as a politician with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions a leaked US diplomatic cable once described as a “haven of Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs”.
Akhmetov was a key financial backer of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s future campaign manager, who helped with the Party of Regions’ political makeover and rebranding.

Akhmetov then went on a shopping spree, buying energy companies throughout Ukraine and diversifying his investments.

By the time Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014, after the months-long Euromaidan popular protests, Akhmetov controlled most of Ukraine’s power networks.

Many protesters saw Akhmetov as the deposed leader’s “grey cardinal” – and even brought a “blood-stained” Christmas tree to his home in the city of Donetsk.

“I live in Donetsk, and the biggest punishment for me would be the inability to walk on this ground and breathe this air,” Akhmetov reportedly told them.

Within months, he would no longer be able to walk that ground.

Moscow used the political chaos in Ukraine to annex Crimea and back pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk.

The rebels seized and “nationalized” Akhmetov’s assets after he refused to pay taxes to the new “authorities”.

Mariupol was one of the cities they took over, but Akhmetov ordered the Azovstal and Ilich plant workers to stand up to the rebels.

Clad in protective uniforms and hard hats, the successors of the Soviet-era poster boys helped Akhmetov’s staunchest critics, the nationalist Azov Regiment, to chase the separatists away.

But bigger problems loomed for him and other oligarchs in Kyiv.

The new, pro-Western government in Kyiv pledged to investigate the privatization deals that created Ukraine’s oligarchs – along with their alleged corruption.
However, new President Petro Poroshenko, another oligarch who once worked in the government of overthrown Yanukovych, failed to tackle corruption.

Oleh Gladkovsky, Poroshenko’s childhood friend and a former defense official during his leadership, was reported to have run a scheme selling used military equipment smuggled from Russia to Ukraine’s defense ministry.

And it was those reports that largely contributed to Poroshenko’s losing the presidency to comedian and political rookie Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

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