March 12, 2014 – Ukraine asks US to develop their titanium industry; DOJ has Firtash arrested, Ukraine moves to strip him of titanium assets; force Russia out of the titanium industry

In Email/Dossier Investigations, John Helmer by Katie Weddington

“Ukrainian government and commercial interests are lobbying the US Government to support a stealth sanction against VSMPO-AVISMA, the Russian supplier of titanium to Boeing and other US aerospace companies. Instead of VSMPO, the Ukrainians are seeking US government financing for the establishment of new high-grade titanium production lines at Zaporizhye Titanium and Magnesium Combine (ZTMC), and expansion of Ukrainian titanium exports to the US.

U.S. Department of Commerce (Credit: public domain)

This week, a confidential message from the US Department of Commerce revealed that “in recent meetings with U.S. Department of Commerce officials, the GOU [Government of Ukraine] expressed that it would like to have U.S. companies involved in the development of the titanium resources in Ukraine. The Commerce Department is, of course, very interested in encouraging the involvement of all U.S. companies in all relevant sectors given such an opportunity, and we are inviting input from industry regarding this topic.”

(…) The US Department of Justice indictment of Dmitry Firtash for alleged bribery in the titanium trade, unsealed at the time of his arrest in Vienna on March 12, 2014, followed by moves announced last week by the Kiev government to strip Firtash of his Ukrainian titanium production assets, are a coincidence, according to US sources.

The investment required to replace Firtash and substitute Ukrainian titanium sponge for VSMPO in the US market has been estimated at more than $110 million for new metal production facilities and up to $2.5 billion for expansion of both downstream production and upstream titanium mining in Ukraine. The asset confiscation plan initiated by US prosecutors against Firtash has been estimated to total $500 million. The value of VSMPO’s direct exports to the US in 2013 was $380.2 million, 24% of its sales revenue for the year.

With this much at stake in forcing the Russians out of the titanium market, industry and government sources in the US have been leaking to the local press that they suspect Boeing and other US consumers of Russian titanium of anticipating the US-Ukrainian scheme by secretly accelerating deliveries to the US and stockpiling the Russian metal there.

(…) On September 15, the Kremlin advisor for economic policy, Victor Belousov, warned publicly that if the US and EU kept escalating sanctions aimed at damaging the Russian economy, a counter-sanction order might follow from Moscow to halt deliveries of titanium to the US and Europe.

There has been no official acknowledgement or press report that while this war of words was going on, the Ukrainian government was making a concerted effort to win US commitments for their scheme for an alternative flow of Ukrainian titanium to the US. The effort has been confirmed by sources in Washington and Kiev.

Independent industry sources in the UK say they have not heard of the Ukrainian scheme. They also doubt its feasibility. An October 2013 study by Philip Dewhurst and Pedro Palma of the Roskill Consulting Group suggests that at present Ukraine lacks the production capacity to increase output of titanium sponge or substitute for Russian titanium in the US market. After three past years of rising production worldwide, they also noted that there is now a surplus of titanium in relation to demand, and little incentive for investors to pay to build new Ukrainian production lines.

Dewhurst of Roskill says: “I can’t imagine the US has any great interest in Ukrainian sponge production. There are several [other] reliable sources of high grade sponge. Current Ukrainian sponge is regarded as too low grade for aerospace use and little unwrought titanium (1,359 tonnes in 2013 – 7.7% of the total) is imported into the USA.”

ZTMC, the sole Ukrainian producer of sponge, is located in the Zaporozhye region of eastern Ukraine. Since December 2012 ZTMC (below left) has been controlled by Firtash (centre), who won a privatization administered by the former President Victor Yanukovich (right). Here’s the company’s announcement. The company website reports that as part of his privatization agreement with Yanukovich, Firtash promised to invest in building 40,000 tonnes of additional sponge capacity. By the time of Yanukovich’s downfall, and Firtash’s arrest in March, he had not made good on the promise.

The US indictment alleges that Firtash and five accomplices conspired to bribe Indian state and federal government officials to agree to a mining and refining venture in Andhra Pradesh state. The alleged corruption began in April 2006. In February 2007 Boeing signed a memorandum of understanding with Firtash to buy the titanium from the Indian project; Boeing was to be the biggest of the off-takers in what Firtash estimated to be $500 million in annual sales. Altogether, US prosecutors claim that $18.6 million in bribes were paid, starting in April of 2006 and concluding four years later, in July of 2010.

It took the American investigators another two years before a grand jury issued its charges, based in part on what Boeing admitted about its part in the Firtash plan. That was in January 2012. In the Justice Department press release of April 2, 2014, it is claimed that the federal court in Chicago took eighteen months before issuing a secret indictment in June 2013. Another ten months were to pass before the indictment was unsealed, and the US prosecutors asked their Austrian counterparts to pick Firtash up on an extradition warrant. The Justice Department press release quotes the FBI agent in charge of the Firtash case as saying: “This case is another example of the FBI’s willingness to aggressively investigate corrupt conduct around the globe.” The evidence of the paperwork reveals that even if the FBI agents had been aggressive, there had been an unusual delay in pursuing Firtash.

The acting assistant attorney-general on the case in Washington, David O’Neil, claimed: “the charges against six foreign nationals announced today send the unmistakable message that we will root out and attack foreign bribery and bring to justice those who improperly influence foreign officials, wherever we find them.” Wherever wasn’t the word for it, for the Ukraine had been off limits while Yanukovich was in power. London, where Firtash met British intelligence and Foreign Office officials on February 24, after Yanukovich had been deposed, was also off limits for the US agents.

The American aggressiveness on the subject of titanium has found its echo in Ukraine. In mid-July, Igor Kolomoisky, the governor of Dniepropetrovsk, began a public campaign for the government in Kiev to renationalize Firtash’s assets, including ZTMC. Kolomoisky alleged that the privatization process had been rigged illegally and that members of Yanukovich’s family had been hidden beneficiaries.

Last week, the Ministry of Economy in Kiev launched a legal process to recover control of two mining complexes, Irshansky in Zhitomyr region and Volnogorskiy in Dniepropetrovsk. Without their ore concentrates to refine, Ukrainian industry sources say it is only a matter of time before ZTMC stops operating, or else Firtash’s control is removed. “The government has started to build a new titanium vertical,” reported a Ukrainian publication last Sunday.

Ukrainian officials had discussed the plan of renationalization of Firtash’s titanium mine and refining assets in advance. The European Union trade office and the Office of Materials Industries at the Commerce Department in Washington then sent U.S. titanium industry executives a note, saying the Ukrainian Government had “terminated the lease contract for two titanium mining and enrichment plants in the Zhytomyr and Dnipropetrovsk regions of Ukraine. They are now state-owned mining assets. In recent meetings with U.S. Department of Commerce officials, the GOU expressed that it would like to have U.S. companies involved in the development of the titanium resources in Ukraine. The Commerce Department is, of course, very interested in encouraging the involvement of all U.S. companies in all relevant sectors given such an opportunity, and we are inviting input from industry regarding this topic.” (Read more: John Helmer, 9/17/2014)  (Archive)

(Republished in part with permission)