Less than two days into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, two Russian banks – Prominvestbank and MR Bank, former Sberbank of Russia in Ukraine, were liquidated by the central bank, the NBU. Both were owned by state-owned Russian entities: MR Bank. 100 percent owned by the state-owned Sberbank of Russia, and 99.77 percent of Prominvestbank was owned by the state development corporation VEB.RF.
The problems with the banks had been growing since 2014. Sberbank's Russian roots made borrowers wary. Vnesheconombank, a shareholder of Prominvestbank, was sanctioned by the US and the EU over Russia's annexation of Crimea, and in 2017, Ukraine’s national security and defence council slapped sanctions on its subsidiary in Ukraine.
Prominvestbank and MR Bank have historically lent to large Ukrainian businesses and state-owned enterprises, which can be described as critical infrastructure after Russian missile attacks. Both banks lent to Ukrzaliznytsia; Prominvestbank lent to Zaporizhstal; and MR Bank lent to the state-owned enterprise Electrotyazhmash, which develops and manufactures turbo and hydro generators, large DC electric machines, and electrical equipment for railway and urban electric transport.
The bank has also lent to Artem, the state-owned manufacturer of air-to-air guided missiles, and Zorya-Mashproekt, a research and production complex for gas turbine construction.
The Ukrainian government believes that Russian state-owned banks were used for political purposes. "Their main task in Ukraine was not to make a profit, but to influence a number of large state-owned and industrial companies," the justice ministry said in a statement to Forbes Ukraine as an arbitration is being held in Stockholm against VEB.RF, a shareholder of Prominvestbank.
The full-scale invasion helped the NBU finish the job. Some of the commercially attractive assets of the two banks were put up for auction, which started in the summer of 2022. The deposit guarantee fund announced more than 2,000 auctions on Prozorro.Sale, including claims under loan agreements, bank property, furnished bank branches, property rights, loans to individuals, cars, garages, catamarans, boats, even bicycles.
The total announced value of the lots is UAH 97.7 billion, according to the public data of Prozorro.Sale. By April 2023, the fund had received only UAH 2.2 billion from the auction. Why so little?
The lots of Russian banks do not differ from those of other liquidated banks, the fund told LIGA.net in a statement. "On the balance sheet of JSC MR Bank and PJSC Prominvestbank there are both claims on loans that have not been serviced for several years and liquid real estate objects that are sold at the first auction with a significant increase in price," it said.
Real estate and cars are sold first since such assets are easier to evaluate and access visually, according to the deposit guarantee fund. The largest number of auctions are announced for lots of claims under loan agreements, namely 1250 out of 2700 in total. Each lot includes not only the bank loan but also the collateral along with the right to recover it.
Anyone who has lawyers and is ready for lawsuits can buy the claim. If the attractive asset is a loan collateral, it still needs to be recovered through the courts from the former borrower.
"If you buy a large loan, you buy a ticket to war," a source at the deposit guarantee fund who wished to remain anonymous told LIGA.net.
"There is an attractive asset in the lot, but it belongs to an oligarch. There is no other way to get it except through the courts."
However, assets, including claims on large loans, are still bought.
LIGA.net looked into how assets of the liquidated Prominvestbank and MR Bank are sold and found out who could afford to buy the largest lots in wartime.
Many buyers, little info
The buyers at auctions over UAH 1 million have scarce financial statements. Often, their assets and income are less than the final price of the lot.
This is legal: trading platforms allow such companies to participate in auctions. Medium-sized businesses may be interested in lots in the price range of UAH 10 million to 100 million. In demand is real estate, including shops, offices, furnished bank buildings, bank branches, and land plots.
The starting prices of lots with office and computer equipment can be over UAH 1 to 2 million. However, they are sold at a Dutch auction, where the starting price automatically goes down until a participant stops it – and a million-hryvnia lot thus becomes a hundreds-of-thousand-hryvnia lot.
For instance, office equipment and furniture worth more than a million were sold for less than UAH 235 thousand.
Among the MR Bank lots that were sold are land plots in Kyiv and the Kyiv region. The most expensive was a land plot with a total area of 0.068 hectares in the capital city. Its initial price was almost UAH 5 million, but after the auction – this time, an English auction where the price increases – it rose to UAH 6.1 million.
The land plot is meant for the construction and maintenance of a residential building, outbuildings, and structures. It is located on a slope not far from the Regency Hill hotel, a couple hundred metres away from the Hryshko Botanical Garden, overlooking the famous Motherland monument.
The auction was held back in 2020 and won by LL Development LLC, registered in the name of Elina Nikolich, a resident of the city of Dnipro. According to its 2022 financial statement, the company’s revenue was UAH 2.41 million, the profit was UAH 1.82 million, and the assets were valued at UAH 37 million.
LIGA.net asked LL Development LLC about its plans to develop the land plot in Kyiv, but it declined to comment due to the confidentiality of the information.
Real business buys as well
Some of the sold assets are already benefiting businesses – like Prominvestbank's commercial premises on Chervonotkatska Street in Kyiv.
Last year, it was put up for sale at an English auction with a starting price of UAH 31.9 million, the final price increasing by only UAH 641,000. The winner was IT Step School, a Kyiv-based private secondary school with in-depth study of IT and foreign languages.
The premises were quickly renovated, and the school has started teaching students for the spring enrolment since late April, IT Step School marketer Vasyl Dybchuk told LIGA.net.
Gold Oxy Trade LLC purchased the premises of Prominvestbank in the city of Khmelnytsky for UAH 61 million, with a total area of almost 7,300 square metres, garages, furniture and equipment. Oksana Golban is the CEO and founder of the company, which deals with the wholesale trade of textile goods.
As of 2022, Gold Oxy Trade LLC had UAH 158 million in assets and the same amount of liabilities. According to Vkursi, a business verification platform, the company's annual revenue was UAH 2.41 million, with no profit.
LIGA.net contacted Gold Oxy Trade to find out about its plans for the asset, but it declined to comment.
None in the ‘major league’
The loans of liquidated Russian banks, valued at more than UAH 1 billion, have very few buyers, if any. For instance, a loan from MR Bank to Azot, a private joint stock company in the city of Cherkasy owned by Dmitry Firtash, has been put up for sale twice since March 2023.
The initial price of the lot is almost UAH 2 billion. The collateral includes all the equipment and communications of the enterprise, complexes of buildings and structures of workshops with a total area of over 130,000 square metres and 29 hectares of industrial land.
The winner will be entitled to demand repayment from the borrowers; after that, Mr Firtash's company can be recovered through litigation.
Prior to its liquidation, MR Bank also wanted to collect a loan, with a debt of UAH 2.63 billion, but restructured the debt in 2021.
Since September 2022, the deposit guarantee fund has been trying to sell another lot of MR Bank for UAH 3.2 billion.
The lot includes agreements on two credit lines, the right to claim the Magellan shopping mall in Kyiv, and a property complex and equipment for milk processing in the Khmelnytsky region. The auction has been announced thirteen times, but the asset is yet to find a buyer.
Another lot, worth UAH 2.4 billion, has been put up for auction four times since October 2022. It includes a three-storey shopping centre in Odesa's TVK Malynovskyi market and a loan claim secured by a 29,000 square-metre commercial property in the city centre.
The borrowers of the loans with Magellan and TVK Malynovskyi as collateral have not paid their debts for more than five years, the deposit guarantee fund said in a statement to LIGA.net, making it difficult to sell.
"These are not easy assets. The loan agreements of legal entities also have a significant amount of outstanding debt (UAH 2.5 billion and UAH 2.2 billion, respectively). All assets included in the lots are related."
Against this background, the lot of MR Bank with a starting price of UAH 477.4 million stands out. During the auction, its price dropped by almost 80 percent, to UAH 105 million. The lot includes claims under a loan pledged as collateral for the Tsarsky City Resort fitness club on Staronavodnytska Street in Kyiv.
The winner was Inkam Financial Company LLC, registered in December 2021, with a registered capital of UAH 3.3 million, according to Vkursi. The company is owned and directed by Yevhen Bohuslavskyi. Its 2021 financial statement, the only one available, shows it had assets of UAH 3.3 million and liabilities of UAH 56,000, and ended the year with a loss of UAH 6,000.
YouControl, an analytical system, links Inkam Financial Company with Bazhaiemo Zdorovia [Wishing You Good Health], a group which founded the pharmacy chain under the same name and now includes more than 700 pharmacies across Ukraine.
In a statement to LIGA.net, Inkam Financial Company declined to disclose the buyer of the lot.
"The financial company has the right to execute an investor's order. The lot was purchased at the request of the investor and at his expense. The investor's data is confidential information, which the investor did not grant permission to disclose," it said.
The investor was interested in the fitness club in the lot, the company noted.
""The Tsarsky City Resort fitness club continues to operate as usual. The investor's future plans are related to investing in the further development of the Tsarsky City Resort fitness club."
Who is behind the mask
Who else could be hiding behind legal entities with minimal financial reporting that can buy large assets?
No one from Russia, anyone associated with the aggressor state, or borrowers or guarantors under the loan agreement put up for sale can participate in the auctions.
Large lots of liquidated Russian banks could potentially be bought by medium-sized businesses, farmers or former borrowers who will hide behind dozens of other companies, says ICU financial analyst Mykhailo Demkiv.
"These may be people unknown to the general public. These can be people from groups that are immediately visible through their connections in open data systems, or financial companies associated with the borrowers themselves," Mr Demkiv explains.
"The latter creates a temptation not to pay on loans and then buy them back at a big discount."
The deposit guarantee fund of Ukraine does not carry out financial monitoring, shifting this function to trading platforms and banks. It does not control how companies get to the auction, either.
"The fund, as an auction organiser, has no technical ability to see and influence the number of bidders. The number of registered bidders becomes known directly during the auction, and their full names are published automatically only after the auction is held," it said in a statement sent to LIGA.net.
The fund believes law enforcement agencies should be proactive and expose suspicious business connections earlier. The fund has a different task, namely selling the asset as quickly and at a higher price as possible to pay off the banks' creditors as much as possible.
Prozorro.Sale, a platform where the auctions are held, focuses on whether the bidder has paid the guarantee fee required for participation in the auction.
"The size of the authorised capital is not a key requirement for participation in the auction," Illia Mykhailov, chairman of the supervisory board of Prozorro.Sale, told LIGA.net in an interview.
"The guarantee fee in the form of a percentage of the starting price of the object is a safeguard. The participant loses the guarantee fee if he or she refuses to conclude the transaction or does not meet the requirements established by law."
Regardless of how the lots are sold, most of the liquidity from Prominvestbank and MR Bank is already working for Ukraine’s victory.
Late last year, the deposit guarantee fund transferred UAH 17 billion from the banks' accounts to a special fund of the state budget.
The shares in the banks’ authorised capital were transferred to the state, represented by the National Investment Fund of Ukraine, a state-owned enterprise. Moreover, the finance ministry also received more than UAH 9.9 billion in repayments on maturing domestic government bonds.