Ruslan Rostovtsev – the ‘Coal King’ next on Washington’s next sanctions list, writes Graham Paul for EU Today

Russian businessman Ruslan Rostovtsev’s trade of exporting Donbass coal under Kremlin protection has allowed him to enrich himself and funnel money back into the separatist controlled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), according to an article published in Ukrainian outlet Censor.net.ua yesterday.

This trade allows him to support the legitimacy of the breakaway states and the Kremlin’s interests. Yet, in Ukraine, as in the US and the EU, he continues to evade being placed under sanctions, allowing him to continue his black-market trade and engage in activities harmful to Ukraine.

This may be changing. Censor.net.ua is known to be close to the Ukrainian security services and, with sanctions the main priority of new President Volodymyr Zelensky, new measures may be developing to restrict the activities and legitimacy of Ukraine’s breakaway states.

Rostovtsev, also known as the ‘Coal King’, is considered to be number two in the Donbass’s illegal coal industry, second only to oligarch Sergey Kurchenko when it comes to the volume of coal coming out of the DPR and LPR.

An April 2019 report by Ukrainian NGO “Stop Corruption” revealed that Rostovtsev is responsible for exporting roughly a third of the coal produced in the Donbass, equivalent to around 700,000 tonnes a year. Stop Corruption described how this coal is then transported from East Ukraine, across the border to Russia’s, Rostov-on-Don, where it is repackaged, relabelled and sent across Europe under a Russian label. The coal is then bought by European buyers, who are unwittingly breaking sanctions by illegally funding the separatist republics.

Kurchenko, who is currently on the sanctions list, is expected to be taken over soon by Rostovtsev, whose relative anonymity and absence from the list allows him to operate more freely between the DPR/LPR, Russia and Europe.

According to Censor.net.ua, Rostovtsev’s criminal activity did not start in the Donbass. He was involved in one of Russia’s largest corruption scandals – the ‘Moldovan Laundromat’ – which saw almost 1 trillion rubles ($15.5 billion) withdrawn from the Russian Federation and pumped through offshore companies and foreign banks based on the fictitious decisions of the courts of Moldova. In total 700 banks from hundreds of banks were involved in the scheme.

An investigation into the scandal revealed that Bridgepoint AG, registered in the Marshall Islands, represented the interests of Grandwood Systems, was controlled by Rostovtsev.

The Coal King’s mining interest started in 2009, when he bought the Taldinskaya-Kyrgayskaya and Taldinskaya-Yuzna Kuzbass mines in Russia, where the safety standards are notoriously low. His involvement in the Donbass began shortly after Russian backed separatists invaded the Ukrainian territories in 2014, when he met Igor Martynov, the former Mayor of Donetsk and now deputy head of the DPR administration. Together they organised the logistics of moving coal from Donetsk to Rostov-on-Don.

According to the Censor.net.ua article, this operation has been running smoothly since it kicked off in 2014, with Rostovtsev seemingly so far largely flying under the radar of international governments. His repackaged coal is dispersed across Europe, even being sold back to Ukraine itself. It is bought by Coliner Limited, Rostovtsev’s company registered in Cyprus.

The intermediary, and where Rostovtsev makes his profit, is Swiss Kaproben Handels. The main buyer of the black-market coal is also Swiss, MIR Trade AG, which in turn is owned by SDS Group, helpfully controlled by one of Rostovtsev’s partners – Andrei Bokarev.

The continued illegal flow of this coal not only enriches Rostovtsev and his cronies, it helps to legitimise the DPR-LPR, with Rostovtsev using the money to set up bogus embassies for the DPR in Marseille and Turin. As thanks, the DPR awarded Rostovtsev with a personal award, claiming he helped “strengthen international relations and a positive image of the Republic of the international arena.”

Reports also suggest that money from Rostovtev’s sale of Donbass coal has been used to purchase weapons for the separatist fighters. This dark trade means European buyers of Rostovtsev’s coal are unknowingly implicit in the continuation of a war that has seen up to 13,000 people lose their lives.

Currently, it is believed Washington and Ukraine are considering adding Rostovtsev to the sanctions list. Something undoubtedly must be done. He is not only a sympathiser and supporter of the breakaway republics, he has actively helped finance them on the back of his illicit coal trade. Without the imposition of sanctions, this trade will continue, harming Ukraine and Western interests by legitimising the DPR and LPR while reinforcing the Kremlin’s foreign policy in Ukraine.

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