Did Russia deliberately kill Vadatursky, Ukraine’s grain tycoon?

Kyiv, Ukraine – Oleksiy Vadatursky was known as a “grain tycoon” who helped make Ukraine a key wheat exporter.

A Russian missile killed him and his wife Raisa in their house in the southern city of Mykolaiv on Sunday, raising suspicion among Ukrainian politicians and pundits who called their death a calculated murder aimed at stalling the resumption of exports.

Unlike other oligarchs – a group of super-rich and unpopular Ukrainians with immense political clout who gained control of key industries after privatising Soviet-era plants and factories – Vadatursky was widely respected as a self-made man.

“He worked. He didn’t exploit the Soviet industrial heritage. He built his empire in the field,” Vadim Karasev, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “He was one of those who created the Ukrainian miracle of grain exporting.”

Employees, partners and even business rivals called Vadatursky, who was 74, “grandpa”.

His companies owned hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile “black earth” land in 10 Ukrainian regions.

He grew wheat, one of the pillars of Ukraine’s agriculture that contributes 15 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) – and provides about a tenth of the global share of grain exports.

His Nibulon consortium raised cows, produced sunflower oil and owned a network of grain elevators and terminals.

Nibulon also built a fleet of ships that helped revive river navigation in post-Soviet Ukraine – and delivered grain, oil and steel to ports on the Black and Azov seas.

A firefighter faces a blaze in front of a burning residential building after shelling in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region, on July 25, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine [Ukraine Emergency Service/AFP]

Dozens of vessels designed and built from scratch at Vadatursky’s shipyard carried millions of tonnes of cargo a year, saving roads and highways whose asphalt was often broken each fall by giant grain-carrying trucks. The ships also dredged riverbeds to improve navigability, carried passengers and were increasingly used in the Ukrainian navy.

Vadatursky’s decision to open a hub in the southern city of Mykolaiv – where four mammoth, Soviet-era shipyards once churned out hundreds of ships, including China’s first aircraft carrier – surprised many.

“Life made me, an agrarian, start shipbuilding, open a shipyard and build my own fleet,” he reportedly said after one of the old shipyards failed to build enough cargo vessels for him on time.

His explanation was simple.

“If there is a problem – I solve it,” he reportedly said.

A deliberate killing?

Even as a septuagenarian, Vadatursky looked youthful with a mop of flaxen hair, sun-weathered bronze skin and the gait of a man who spent a lot of time outdoors.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, seizing some of his key assets in eastern and southern regions and blocking sea routes for grain export, Vadatursky did not give up and leave Ukraine.

He worked tirelessly on restoring grain shipments – and was killed a day before they resumed.

A Russian missile hit the bedroom of his spacious mansion.

The strike was part of the heaviest shelling of Mykolaiv since the war’s beginning, the regional capital’s Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich said.

Other politicians immediately declared that Vadatursky’s death was not just an accident.

“A precise hit not just on his house, but on a specific wing, on the bedroom, leaves no doubt the hit was targeted and corrected,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote on Telegram.

Vadatursky’s killing was part of a larger campaign of “high-profile terrorist attacks to intimidate, destabilise and break Ukrainian society”, he added.

Borys Filatov, the mayor of the eastern city of the Dnipro, was also adamant that Vadatursky’s death was calculated.

“Grandpa was a billionaire, a Forbes-listed figure, someone who could because of his age leave the country and end his life on Cote d’Azur in luxury,” he wrote on Facebook.

Instead, Vadatursky remained in Mykolayiv to negotiate grain exports by sea that resumed on Monday, after a Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship, Razoni, left the Black Sea port of Odesa.

“That’s why I don’t believe his death is accidental,” Filatov wrote.

Some political pundits were also sure that his death benefits Moscow.

“With his death, the business won’t stop, but it would take time to redirect the system of decision-making,” Igar Tyshkevich, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Any delay in decision-making, in shipping, benefits Russia,” he said.

Another analyst said Russia has so far avoided deliberately targeting the assets of oligarchs as the Kremlin tried to lure them to its side.

“Vadatursky’s case is either a coincidence or a systemic change of this trend, a certain signal to Ukrainian oligarchs and big businesses,” Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Reshaping an industry

The son of a collective farmer, Vadatursky was born in 1947 in a village near Odesa, in the waning days of Joseph Stalin’s ruthless rule.

He worked as an engineer and managed state-run bakeries, and in the 1980s became one of the key experts on wheat imports to the Soviet Union. The inefficient Soviet planning system, with tens of thousands of collective farms, could not grow enough wheat and heavily relied on grain imports from the United States and Canada.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, Vadatursky helped reverse this trend and turn his nation into a major wheat exporter.

He founded Nebulon days after Ukraine held the August 24, 1991 referendum to gain independence from the USSR.

He built his businesses in the chaotic 1990s, when corrupt officials, police and intelligence officers, as well as nascent criminal gangs, saw entrepreneurs as cash cows.

Reflecting on this era in 2021, he said his business survived endless inspections, criminal probes, “sit-downs” with criminals, raids by masked police officers and even arson.

“In the beginning, we were going nowhere, trying to create and win,” he wrote on Facebook.

In 2018, four years after Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Vadatursky became one of 322 Ukrainians blacklisted by the Kremlin.

In June 2020, the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine said he was worth $450m – and was Ukraine’s 15th richest person.

He is survived by a son, Andriy, who serves as a lawmaker in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament, and three grandchildren.

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