BEREZNIKI, Russia — In late October, one of Vladimir V. Putin’s top lieutenants abruptly summoned a billionaire mining oligarch to a private meeting. The official, Igor I. Sechin, had taken a sudden interest in a two-year-old accident at the oligarch’s highly lucrative mining operations here in Russia’s industrial heartland.
Mr. Sechin, who is a leader of a shadowy Kremlin faction tied to the state security services, said he was ordering a new inquiry into the mishap, according to minutes of the meeting. With a deputy interior minister who investigates financial crime at his side, Mr. Sechin threatened crippling fines against the company, Uralkali.
Startled, the oligarch, Dmitri E. Rybolovlev, pointed out that the government had already examined the incident thoroughly and had cleared the company of responsibility.
He further sought to fend off the inquiry by saying he would pay for some of the damage to infrastructure from the accident, a mine collapse that injured no one but left a gaping sinkhole.
His offer was rebuffed, and it seemed clear why: the Kremlin was maneuvering to seize Uralkali outright.
Mr. Putin, the former president and current prime minister, has long maintained that Russia made a colossal error in the 1990s by allowing its enormous reserves of oil, gas and other natural resources to fall into private hands.
He has acted uncompromisingly — most notably in the case of the Yukos Oil Company in 2003 — to get them back.
Now, the Kremlin seems to be capitalizing on the economic crisis, exploiting the opportunity to establish more control over financially weakened industries that it has long coveted, particularly those in natural resources.
Last month, for example, the government assumed greater influence over Norilsk Nickel, the world’s biggest nickel producer, whose large shareholders, two billionaire oligarchs, have ailing finances. And Mr. Putin said Thursday that he was considering other such interventions.
Yet the Uralkali affair stands out for illustrating with rare clarity the willingness of the authorities to use whatever means necessary to obtain these assets, including subjecting companies to questionable investigations that they have little chance of resisting, financial analysts here say.
At the forefront of these efforts is Mr. Sechin, 48, a deputy prime minister who has been a Putin confidant since the two served in the St. Petersburg city government in the early 1990s. Mr. Sechin almost never gives interviews or speaks publicly, but he is believed to spearhead the use of the secret services and other government arms to capture companies.
“He is the state’s main raider,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent Kremlin expert at the Center for the Study of Elites in Moscow. “He organizes these raider seizures, sometimes to the benefit of the state, or sometimes to the benefit of companies that are friendly to him.”
Mr. Sechin’s role in the Uralkali inquiry immediately caused analysts and investors to presume that the company was in peril. Uralkali’s stock, once highly prized by fund managers, has plunged more than 60 percent since the inquiry began, far more than the broader Russian stock market.
That has caused steep losses for Mr. Rybolovlev, 42, a former medical student who is known as Russia’s fertilizer king because of his dominance of the business of mining potash, a principal fertilizer component. Last June, when Uralkali was soaring, the otherwise low-key Mr. Rybolovlev attracted attention by buying Donald J. Trump’s mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., for $95 million.
The Kremlin has not said when there will be a decision on Uralkali, and the company is hoping to negotiate a settlement that would include a fine of a few hundred million dollars. Analysts emphasized that there was still a chance that Mr. Sechin might pull back after seeing the stock market react so hostilely to the inquiry.
Developments in the overall economy might also give the Kremlin pause. A growing recognition of its outsize influence over business appears to have helped sour the investment climate here, and suggests in part why the Russian stock market has been among the worst performers in the world this year.
Widespread corruption has deepened this mistrust. So it is perhaps not surprising that the Uralkali affair has been marked by what appears to be insider trading.
Around the time of the meeting called by Mr. Sechin on Oct. 29 in Moscow, there was a sharp spike in short selling in Uralkali’s stock on the London Stock Exchange — that is, bets that the stock would fall, according to Data Explorers, an analytical firm that studied the securities data at the request of The New York Times. The meeting itself was not made public until Nov. 7, at which point the stock plummeted.
Mr. Sechin would not comment on the investigation, but a spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Mr. Sechin’s reputation was not warranted. “The press sometimes has a tendency to demonize people,” Mr. Peskov said.
Last month, a first deputy prime minister, Igor I. Shuvalov, dismissed concerns about the government’s intent.
“No one is going to destroy the company — we need strong business units,” Mr. Shuvalov said. “If after payments the company goes bankrupt, that won’t stop the government. A new owner will be found for Uralkali.”
With the financial crisis jolting economies around the world, Russia is hardly alone in taking ownership stakes in corporations these days. But many governments seem to view this as an uncomfortable role that has been thrust upon them. Russia’s rulers, however, appear to perceive the crisis as a chance to further expand their control over the economy, concentrating ever more power and wealth in the Kremlin.
“We will put capital directly into major companies, in cases when it would be beneficial to the state and eventually to the taxpayer, and in those enterprises that are the basis of the economy of the Russian Federation,” Mr. Putin said in a television appearance on Thursday. “We do not exclude that these tools may be used in a large-scale way.”
What seems to have drawn the Russian leadership’s attention to Uralkali was its impressive balance sheet, which expanded robustly over the last year as the prices of food and commodities shot up. Its revenues swelled to $1.1 billion in the first half of 2008, double the level in the same period the year before. Its profits more than tripled to $550 million.
With that kind of cash flow, the company was better able to ward off any fines and penalties the Kremlin could reasonably levy. But as its revenues have dropped because of the downturn, Uralkali has become more vulnerable.
Russians undoubtedly have ambivalent feelings about oligarchs like Mr. Rybolovlev. They tend to resent the oligarchs’ wealth, believing that it was accumulated through underhanded means in the 1990s. (Mr. Rybolovlev himself was accused of orchestrating the killing of a rival back then, though he was cleared of the charges.)
But they also worry that government officials want to seize these assets for their own venal purposes, and that they will end up mismanaging them, just as in Soviet times.
Here in Berezniki, 750 miles northeast of Moscow in the Ural Mountains, the new investigation has stirred anxiety among some miners, who said in interviews that they would fear lower salaries if the government took the company.
Federal officials have already aroused resentment here among residents who had to move after the 2006 mine accident into new, government-built homes that they said were shoddy.
Vladimir Smirnoff, 48, who drives a transporter in the mine, said workers did not understand the need for the inquiry, given that the earlier one had absolved the company.
The first government inquiry concluded that the mine collapse, which happened with enough warning that all the miners escaped, was caused by “a previously unknown geological anomaly.”
“It seems to us that the authorities simply want to take the company away from Rybolovlev,” Mr. Smirnoff said. “The authorities just can’t watch all that money pass them by.”
Mr. Rybolovlev and other Uralkali executives declined to be interviewed for this article.
The company said last month that “there are no legal or moral grounds” for blaming it for the accident. It said that if the new inquiry found Uralkali responsible, “it will suffer an enormous financial burden. The company’s future and plans would be in doubt.”
Uralkali fears that officials will seek compensation equal to future taxes and fees that the company would have paid to the government if the section of the mine that collapsed had continued operating, a penalty that could amount to well over $1 billion.
The new investigation carries echoes of the case that has come to define Mr. Putin’s tenure — the government’s forcible takeover of Yukos, once the country’s biggest oil company. Mr. Sechin is said to have led that case, and now also serves as chairman of Rosneft, the government-controlled oil company that swallowed up many of Yukos’s assets.
“The Uralkali case says that the government feels it has the power to interfere in any way in these industries,” said Marina Alexeenkova, a vice president at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank in Moscow. “It looks really aggressive and really risky. In general, this has been considered the most serious attack on a company since Yukos.”
The government imprisoned Yukos’s owner — the billionaire oligarch Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who had angered Mr. Putin by engaging in politics — on tax charges. It does not appear that Mr. Rybolovlev will suffer a similar punishment.
Like many oligarchs who have heeded Mr. Khodorkovsky’s example, Mr. Rybolovlev has backed the Kremlin, and has spurned pleas for financial support from opposition politicians here in the Perm region.
As the inquiry continued last week, the government sent conflicting signals about its course. It said Wednesday that investigators would need at least two more weeks before forwarding their report to Mr. Sechin, dimming Uralkali’s quest for a settlement. The next day, the natural resources minister, Yuri P. Trutnev, a close friend of Mr. Rybolovlev’s, publicly supported the company. He is not directly involved in the new inquiry, though, and analysts discounted the importance of his statement.
Investigators are now said to be examining whether Uralkali should pay for rerouting 30 miles of railroad track around the sinkhole, as well as for reimbursing the government for resettling people and other costs. But their primary objective is to scrutinize the accident itself and decide whether the company was at fault, which could expose it to heavy penalties.
Here in Berezniki, though, people seem confused about how the investigators are going to do that. It turns out that the part of the mine that collapsed is now completely filled with water, preventing anyone from getting anywhere close to it.
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY, December 8, 2008