Can we really trust Roman the peace maker? It may be that giving Abramovich a toxic shock was the Kremlin’s way of warning him not to go off reservation, writes the oligarch’s biographer DOMINIC MIDGLEY
When the delegations from Russia and Ukraine took their seats in a meeting room in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace yesterday, the eyes of the watching media were not on the negotiators at the long table running down the centre – but on a weary-looking individual with red-rimmed eyes and white hair sitting at the back of the room.
Many people had assumed that Roman Abramovich’s participation in the peace process between Russia and Ukraine would come to an abrupt end following reports that he had been the victim of poisoned chocolates during an earlier round of talks on the Belarusian border.
But there he was this week, hob-nobbing with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, revelling in his role as an ‘unofficial mediator’ and apparently fully recovered from an attack that is said to have left him temporarily blind and with skin peeling off his face and hands.
Not that the Chelsea FC owner had managed to create an atmosphere of trust at this high-stakes meeting.
The team from Kyiv sat down with the words of their foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba ringing in their ears: ‘I advise anyone going for negotiations with Russia not to eat or drink anything (and) preferably avoid touching surfaces.’
Roman Abramovich pictured at peace talks between delgations from Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul, Turkey
As it happens, this week the negotiating table was lined with a white tablecloth, on which were floral displays and microphones – but nothing that looked like a Novichok-laced praline.
Was Abramovich, as many believe, really poisoned by the chocolates laid out for the negotiators in Belarus on March 3 because he crossed the Kremlin by conducting freelance peace talks?
Or is he an emissary of Putin whose peace-making efforts are being sabotaged by hardliners among the siloviki, the ex-KGB dinosaurs who wield enormous power behind the scenes?
On the face of it, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to back up the argument that the billionaire’s actions are entirely self-serving.
After all, from a financial point of view, it is very definitely in Abramovich’s interests to bring about a swift resolution to the crisis.
His net worth has fallen from a high of £16 billion in 2008 to £6 billion today as the Russian stock market has tanked, the rouble has plunged and his sanctioned assets are hawked at fire-sale prices.
The 55-year-old’s lifestyle has also taken a hit. Believed to have at least three passports – Russian, Portuguese and Israeli – the only place he can realistically live while sanctions are in force is Russia.
The alternative is international waters aboard one of his superyachts – as long as the fuel lasts and his crew is prepared to stay at sea.
It had been claimed the Russian businessman suffered symptoms of poisoning after a previous round of peace talks, but he was present at the latest round held on Tuesday, March 29
And so there can be no winter sun holidays on his 70-acre estate on the Caribbean island of St Barts.
No more living it large at his £170 million mansion on London’s Kensington Palace Gardens. And no more agreeable sojourns in Israel at his £52 million home in Tel Aviv’s exclusive Herzliya district, or at his £17 million beachfront hotel.
Some oligarchs, who have found their standard of living hit to the point that they have to do their own vacuuming, have had the temerity to sound off against the war.
It may be that giving Abramovich a toxic shock was the Kremlin’s way of warning him not to go off reservation.
He also has skin in the game when it comes to nationality.
His mother Irina was born in Ukraine of Ukrainian parents, but the family fled to Russia in the early years of World War Two when the future Mama Abramovich was just three years old.
And as Irina died following a botched back-street abortion when Roman was less than one year old – and his father was killed in an industrial accident 18 months later – there is little indication that Abramovich grew up steeped in Ukrainian culture.
That said, he is currently dating a beautiful Moscow-based Ukrainian, Alexandra Korendyuk – at 25, no fewer than 30 years his junior.
She has made no public pronouncements on what Putin insists on calling ‘a special military operation’ rather than a war – but it seems unlikely her pillow talk features much praise for the invaders.
Abramovich’s involvement in the peace process began with an approach from Ukraine’s Jewish community.
And following that first foray into international peace-broking at the beginning of March, he appears to have become a highly valued player.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky – Jewish, like Abramovich – is even reported to have appealed to US President Joe Biden not to place any more obstacles in the way of his freedom of manoeuvre by adding the oligarch to America’s list of sanctioned individuals.
If Abramovich wasn’t acting with the imprimatur of the Kremlin at the outset, he certainly appears to be now.
After he met former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder for ‘several hours’ two weeks ago in the luxury ‘Kremlin suite’ at his Moscow hotel, for example, Schroder went on to see Putin.
And Abramovich is said to have delivered a handwritten note from Zelensky to Putin after meeting with the Ukrainian leader in Kyiv.
Abramovich has been sanctioned by the UK government following the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Not that it went anywhere towards achieving a settlement – a furious Putin responded by saying: ‘Tell him I will thrash him.’
His presence at the latest round of talks was given the benediction of the Kremlin in the form of a tweet by the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti, which included a picture showing Abramovich talking to President Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
So why is everyone taking the role of this billionaire businessman so seriously?
Part of the reason is his closeness to the levers of power.
As I outlined in the Daily Mail earlier this month, Abramovich not only vetted the members of Putin’s first cabinet in 1999 but created the political party that offered vital support to the new man in the Duma, Russia’s parliament.
He is also a gifted negotiator.
The billionaire, pictured here with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2016, has taken a role in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine
As I was researching my biography of the oligarch, the Russian broadcaster Alexei Venediktov told me: ‘I once asked Boris Berezovsky (Abramovich’s late business partner) what talents Abramovich had.
‘He said he was a good psychologist. And I agree with that – judging by how hard he has tried to recruit me to his cause. He is very good at understanding his interlocutor.
‘I have watched him communicate with a range of different journalists and he has his own approach to each person. Obviously he approaches politicians and businessmen in the same manner.
‘He acts as an honest bloke, talks about his weaknesses. He begins by saying, “Of course you won’t believe me”, which is always very winning.’
And while Berezovsky himself denied to me that he had ever described Abramovich as ‘the most gifted young man he knew’, he did say that of all the businessmen he had met, Abramovich was the best at ‘person-to-person relations’.
This ability to project a fundamentally good nature is something Chrystia Freeland, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times newspaper and now the deputy prime minister of Canada, also spotted.
‘What people say about Abramovich is that one of his real qualities is: he’s a nice guy.
‘And certainly in that oligarch community, he is someone about whom people have tended to speak with affection.
Roman Abramovich did not sit at the negotiating table during peace talks, instead taking a position at the back of the room
‘Maybe he’s milder in person than some of the others. Purely in manner, he’s easy to get along with.
‘I find that quite a flimsy explanation for his business success because these guys are kind of barracudas but that is what people say about him.’
Last night it appeared that Abramovich’s modest charm and emotional intelligence were already paying off.
Russia’s deputy defence minister announced that Moscow is to ‘drastically reduce combat operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas in order to boost mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations’.
If Abramovich does succeed in pulling off an agreement, it will be one of the most remarkable examples of a man going from zero to hero in modern history.
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