ISLAMABAD: A Pakistani billionaire, who before the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a major figure in the Ukrainian media and steel industries, has called on the international community to support Kyiv, as Russian forces step up attacks on cities and nuclear facilities.
Born in the Pakistani megapolis Karachi in 1955, Mohammad Zahoor was 19 when he traveled to Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union, to study metallurgy on a Pakistan steel mills scholarship. After completing his master’s degree, he returned to his home country to work in the steel sector.
Years later, as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics fell apart, and Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, Zahoor went back to participate in the country’s transition into a capitalist economy. He invested in the steel sector and established ISTIL Group, a conglomerate operating in real estate, manufacturing, and coal enrichment.
He also became involved in Ukraine’s media and entertainment scene, and in 2009 bought Kyiv Post, the oldest English-language newspaper in Ukraine, which he owned for nearly a decade, gaining the title of “Pakistani press prince of Kyiv.”
Fluent in the region’s languages and familiar with its politics, the billionaire told Arab News in an exclusive interview why he was calling on the world to support Ukrainians in the war that began on Feb. 24, and which has forced an estimated 2 million people to flee the country in under two weeks.
“This is time, actually, for us not to keep quiet. We have to take sides,” Zahoor said.
“I am openly taking the side of Ukraine because after seeing (reports from) Western, Ukrainian and Russian media, I can see and decide who is telling the truth. This is the time actually for everyone to speak up for Ukraine otherwise every big country is going to swallow its next-door neighbor.”
Married to Kamaliya, the Ukrainian pop star and former Mrs. World beauty pageant titleholder, Zahoor has left Kyiv with their two daughters. His wife had joined them a few days after their departure because she initially wanted to stay in her country, but the situation had become increasingly dangerous.
“It’s more than 10 days that civilians (have been) bombarded; the nuclear plant has been targeted. I think we are in the worst crisis in the world since the Second World War,” Zahoor said.
He said the shelling of nuclear facilities by Russian forces posed a considerable danger to the world.
The Russians have reportedly captured Europe’s largest nuclear power plant after attacking it overnight Friday, which started at least one fire, raising widespread concerns that a meltdown happened and that the consequences would likely be much worse than Chernobyl.
“We are in the middle of Europe, in fact. If something happens to those nuclear power plants, and Ukraine has got 15 of those ... The nuclear power plant which was shelled is six times more powerful than the Chernobyl plant. The Russian equipment, I must say, they are not very precise. So, they’re sending 10 rockets in order to get one to the destination.”
As international sanctions followed Russia’s invasion, aiming to cut Moscow off from the world’s financial arteries, Zahoor said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had called for the world’s intervention before the violence broke out.
“I think Europe has done much (less) than they should have done. Not only EU, but America and UK as well. They have supported all the way, first by words, then by sending those stinger or javelin missiles and that’s it,” he added.
Now, as sanctions are underway, the damage has reportedly already been done to the whole region.
Zahoor said the war may have consequences for Russia similar to the fallout from the Soviet-Afghan war from 1979 to 1989, which drastically weakened the Russian military and economy. That defeat in Afghanistan was one of the major reasons for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“Ukraine is going to be the next Afghanistan for Russia,” he said. “I don’t know how many years they are going to be in Ukraine, but once they are out, they will be broken into pieces.”