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A poster of the new exhibition called 'United' at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv, on Jan. 17. Viktor Pinchuk, one of the country’s powerful oligarchs, sponsored the Ukraine is You exhibit at the Davos gathering in Switzerland this week.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

As delegates gathered this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, they were greeted by an exhibit inviting them to “be Ukrainian for a moment” by immersing themselves in the realities of the Russian invasion.

The “Ukraine is You” exhibit features a movie about life in Kherson, a southern Ukrainian city liberated in November after almost nine months of occupation, and another film documenting evidence of the thousands of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian troops.

The message seems clear: Ukrainians are asking the world to support their country while it’s under attack. But the exhibit has a very obvious sponsor in Viktor Pinchuk, one of the country’s powerful and politically connected oligarchs. Mr. Pinchuk’s name is prominent on all advertising for “Ukraine is You,” and he was the exhibit’s opening speaker Tuesday, introducing Polish President Andrzej Duda, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, who addressed the event from Kyiv.

Mr. Pinchuk isn’t the only oligarch wrapping himself in the Ukrainian flag as the anniversary of the war approaches. Last week, just before the “Ukraine is You” exhibit opened in Davos, a news release announced that the similarly themed Museum of Civilian Voices – an online depository funded by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov – featured more than 50,000 video testimonials from Ukrainians affected by war.

The oligarchs’ efforts to show their pro-Ukrainian colours come as their collective influence is at a low ebb. Many of their businesses have been destroyed – or at least have had their bottom lines badly damaged – by the war.

Mr. Akhmetov, who derived much of his wealth from the massive Azovstal and Ilyicha steel factories in the shattered city of Mariupol, saw his fortune plummet from US$13.7-billion to US$4.4-billion over the course of 2022, according to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine. Mr. Pinchuk, a steel and pipe production magnate who ranks fourth on the Forbes list, saw his estimated value contract from US$2.6-billion to US$2.2-billion.

They also lost much of their political influence at the start of the conflict when Mr. Zelensky declared martial law and decreed that the country’s main television channels – long used by the oligarchs to promote their political agendas – now had to broadcast a single, “unified” newscast.

Most importantly, for the first time in Ukraine’s modern history, the country has a leader who doesn’t need the oligarchs.

“Over all, oligarchs in Ukraine significantly lost their power. They are not deciding who is in politics, they are not deciding the expenditure of state money and state resources,” said Daria Kaleniuk, director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Centre. “Oligarchs who used to have TV stations don’t decide any more who is popular and who is unpopular in Ukraine.”

A support centre for refugees from the Mariupol in Kyiv is one of the initiatives which is supported by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation. Mr. Akhmetov also funded the Museum of Civilian Voices, an online depository featuring more than 50,000 video testimonials from Ukrainians affected by war.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Zelensky, who has achieved folk-hero status for his leadership during the war, has overseen an escalating crackdown on the tycoons. Three months before the war began, he signed what became known as the “anti-oligarch law,” creating a register of anyone worth more than US$83-million and politically active. Those on the list were prohibited from financing political parties, and government officials were required to report all contacts with oligarchs or their representatives.

Since the invasion, Mr. Zelensky has used his powers under martial law to both push the oligarchs out of the media sphere and to order the nationalization of five companies with connections to people on the register, putting their factories and facilities at the disposal of the country’s military.

It was an unexpected turn for Mr. Zelensky, whom many viewed as a tool of the oligarchs when he won the presidential election in 2019. He had risen to fame via a television show on a station controlled by banking and mining magnate Ihor Kolomoisky, and many assumed he would do Mr. Kolomoisky’s bidding from the President’s Office.

Instead, Mr. Zelensky has frozen him out. Two of the nationalized companies were controlled by Mr. Kolomoisky, and Mr. Zelensky is also reported to have stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship. (As a result, Mr. Kolomoisky, whose wealth was estimated at US$1.8-billion in 2021, doesn’t appear on this year’s Forbes list of rich Ukrainians.)

The oligarchs made much of their fortunes during the chaotic first years of the country’s independence, when lucrative state assets were passed into their hands via a series of murky arrangements. Many Ukrainians remain cynical of everything they do – including their wartime philanthropy.

“They’re trying to whitewash their reputation – that’s the basic thing. They could do whatever they want, it will never change the perception of the majority of Ukrainians that the first privatization was not fair,” said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political analyst from the eastern Donbas region, which was politically and economically dominated by Mr. Akhmetov and the other oligarchs before the war.

Nataliya Yemchenko, a board member of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, said Mr. Akhmetov has spent US$150-million since the start of the war on projects ranging from the online museum to helping rebuild Ukraine’s battered electrical grid via his energy firm DTEK. The foundation also funds a network of 17 centres around the country that support internally displaced persons who fled Russian-occupied Mariupol.

But Ms. Yemchenko acknowledged that some Ukrainians will always see a hidden agenda in whatever oligarchs such as Mr. Akhmetov do. “It’s lack of trust. It’s a general phenomenon in Ukraine.”

Nataliya Vovk, a spokesperson for Mr. Pinchuk, said it was not possible to answer e-mailed questions “because of the tight schedule of Mr Pinchuk.”

The oligarchs – who have, until recently, largely kept silent since the start of the war – once had the power to choose Ukraine’s course. Mr. Akhmetov was seen as the force behind former president Viktor Yanukovych, who tried to reverse the country’s embrace of Europe in favour of closer ties with Moscow. That move sparked a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv in 2014, which was followed by Russia’s first moves to seize Ukrainian territory.

In response to e-mailed questions from The Globe and Mail, Mr. Akhmetov said it had been a “mistake” to get involved in politics. He also said Russia’s war against Ukraine “completely changed” his view of the world and that he now considers Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

And while Mr. Pinchuk has long held pro-Western views – building ties with businesses and diplomats by funding annual conferences on Ukraine’s integration into Europe – he remains tainted in the eyes of many Ukrainians by the fact he is the son-in-law of former president Leonid Kuchma, the man who elevated Mr. Yanukovych onto the national political stage two decades ago by making him his prime minister.

In the run-up to Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Mr. Zelensky became convinced that some of the oligarchs were collaborating against him. Prosecutors first accused Viktor Medvedchuk, a long-time ally of Mr. Putin who controlled three Ukrainian television channels, of treason in July, 2021. Mr. Medvedchuk escaped house arrest after the invasion began but was apprehended and handed over to Russia in exchange for 215 captured Ukrainian soldiers.

In December, 2021, Mr. Zelensky accused Mr. Akhmetov, without proof, of being connected to a pro-Russian coup that never materialized. A month later, Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor and main rival, former president Petro Poroshenko, was also charged with treason as part of the same case involving Mr. Medvedchuk. Mr. Poroshenko, a chocolate and media magnate, has lost more than half his fortune – it fell from US$1.6-billion to US$730-million over the past year – according to Forbes. Allies of Mr. Poroshenko, who was one of the driving forces behind the pro-Western revolution in 2014, say he has spent millions to support and arm volunteer battalions.

There’s quiet concern in Kyiv about some of Mr. Zelensky’s actions – the prolonged television takeover unsettles advocates of independent media, and the state of martial law likely means that presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year won’t happen – but very few are bothered by his moves to curtail the oligarchs. Critics just wish it hadn’t taken a war to do so.

“We were all dreaming of just getting rid of oligarchs,” said Mr. Batozsky, the analyst from Donbas. “But it’s happened in a very, very unpleasant way.”