Firatsh was taken into custody Wednesday on charges of bribery and criminal conspiracy by the organized-crime unit of the Austrian police on a warrant issued by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. A criminal court in Vienna will now decide whether Firtash will stay in custody or face extradition proceedings, said Nina Bussek, a spokeswoman for the Vienna prosecutors. She also confirmed that the U.S. had applied for extradition.
Firtash is a co-owner of RosUkrEnergo AG, which was Ukraine's sole importer of Russian natural gas. He is known to be a well-paid agent of Russia, and made his fortune buying natural gas cheap and selling it to Ukraine's national gas company for a premium.
Former Prime MInister Yulia Tymoshenko accused him of creating an offshore slush fund for Gazprom -- the company at the center of Russian President Vladimir Putin's financial-political nexus. Gazprom is a major source of revenue for Russia and Firtash was generating huge profits for the company.
Many are seeing the arrest as the first move by the U.S. to put financial pressure on Russia, following the Ukrainian crisis. Russian officials and businessmen have been bracing for financial sanctions from the West, including targeting of foreign reserves, banking assets and company lending.
Firtash has been an integral part of the political drama to grip Ukraine in the past few years. After her election, Yulia Tymoshenko, who herself made a fortune from the gas business, sidelined Firtash and RosUkrEnergo AG from the gas business. This resulted in a backlash from Gazprom and resulted in the country accruing huge debts with the Russian energy giant.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected prime minister and charged Tymoshenko with misusing her office for arranging the deal. She was only released after Yanukovych was removed from office Feb. 22.
The arrest most probably is linked to a referendum scheduled for Sunday to determine if people of the Crimean peninsula want to remain with Ukraine or secede to Russia. Russia sees the annexation of Crimea as inevitable and is making preparations to integrate the Crimeans, whereas the U.S. and other western nations have called the referendum illegitimate.