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Ukraine enlists billionaires to take on Russia

The phrase "Russian oligarch" has become a cliché in Western media – but Ukraine's billionaires have been shoved into the spotlight in their country's recent turmoil.

The mix of personal, political, and financial dissatisfaction at the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych were key factors driving anti-government protests. Indeed, it was the wealth that Yanukovych's son is believed to have amassed that has been cited as one of the factors in his father's downfall.


Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov at a training session of his team in Donetsk on February 12, 2013, a day before its Champions League football match.
Alexander Khudoteply | AFP | Getty Images
Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov at a training session of his team in Donetsk on February 12, 2013, a day before its Champions League football match.

(Read more: US and Russia set for Ukraine talks)

Yet the new government has tried to get some of the wealthiest Ukrainians on side. Two of the country's billionaires, Igor Kolomoisky and Serhiy Taruta, have been given posts leading important regions, while Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and formerly a prominent supporter of Yanukovych, has stated his company SCM "will do everything possible to maintain the integrity of our country." Taruta is in charge of Donetsk, a particularly important region on Russian border which has been the focus of pro-Russian protests

Kolomoisky, billionaire and now governor of the region Dnipropetrovsk, waded into the diplomatic row between Ukraine and Russia Monday by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a "schizophrenic of short stature."

Putin, who is 5'7", fought back at his press conference Tuesday: "What we see in the east [of Ukraine] now is that billionaires are being installed as governors."

(Read more: Markets may have made Putin blink)

There are currently nine dollar billionaires in Ukraine, according to Forbes, who have derived their wealth from the sell-off of the country's natural resources -- much like their Russian equivalents. And now, they have an opportunity to step away from Russian influence towards the European Union.

"They are not interested in getting too close to Russia because they are afraid of Russians buying them out," Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, told CNBC.

Tycoons from both countries are not shy of a fight. The fallout from the tussle between Russia's Roman Abramovich and Kolomoisky, where the Russian has accused the Ukrainian of scamming to the tune of billions of dollars, is one notable example. Kolomoisky has also had a very public battle with Ukrainian pipeline magnate Victor Pinchuk. Pinchuk is the son-in-law of ex-President Leonid Kuchma.

Putin personally commented on the Abramovich row Tuesday, saying Kolomoisky had "cheated" Abramovich.

(Read more: What Russian TV is saying about Crimea)

"Ukrainian politicians are often political businessmen. You get into politics to gain or protect assets," David Dalton, economist for Central and Eastern Europe at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC.

"The difference with Russia is that in Russia, the state is much stronger and there is more to go around."

(Read more: Why Crimea matters)

After its recent turbulent political history, Ukraine does not have the same history of a strong central government as Russia.

The appointment of Kolomoisky, who is Jewish, is an important tool against Russian claims that the new Ukrainian administration is "fascist" or anti-Semitic, as well as a way of keeping him on side for Ukraine's new government.

Yet appointing prominent figures from Ukraine's past may not help achieve the new regime's stated objectives of reforming its economic system to increase productivity, innovation and fairness.

"The protests began as pro-EU, then became anti-government, then anti the economic system. The basic aim is to split business and politics," Dalton pointed out.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @cboylecnbc.

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