yesipping on a tulip-shaped glass of Turkish black tea, Roman Abramovich sat on the sunlit terrace of Istanbul’s Shangri-La hotel on Tuesday afternoon and talked intently with the Ukrainian negotiating team.
Despite the seafood and burger restaurant’s extensive menu and large fridge advertising its stock of dry-aged meat, the Russian oligarch did not appear to eat during the entire meeting. Less than 24 hours had passed since he was reported to have suffered symptoms consistent with poisoning.
Abramovich has emerged as an unofficial channel to Russian president Vladimir Putin. He was present on Tuesday at both the formal Turkey-hosted morning talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators at Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace and the informal huddle at the adjacent Shangri-La in the afternoon.
At the hotel, the billionaire former Chelsea owner sat and talked with Ukrainian MP Rustem Umerov, who was also reported to have suffered symptoms after their previous series of unofficial talks.
Abramovich, who was surrounded by heavy security, leaned in to talk with Umerov, later joined by Ukrainian parliamentary leader and head of the delegation David Arakhamia. The rest of the Ukrainian delegation – including the defense minister, Olekseii Reznikov, wearing military green – were seated at the far end of the terrace, and later got up to reveal a forest of half-empty wine glasses.
The restaurant’s long terrace overlooks the Bosphorus and the adjacent bustling Beşiktaş ferry stop, with travelers hurrying past seemingly unaware of their proximity to the group or their furtive negotiations.
Russia has denied any poisoning plot, and the claims remain murky. Umerov himself has since said he was “fine” and called on people not to trust “unverified information”.
However, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told Ukraine’s Channel 24 television prior to the meeting: “I advise anyone going through negotiations with the Russian Federation not to eat or drink anything, and preferably avoid touching any surface.”
At the earlier official meeting at the palace, some progress appears to have been made. Despite the difficulties of the talks, the results appeared warmer and more productive than previous sessions in Belarus or talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in the southern Turkish city of Antalya.
The delegations conducted delicate negotiations facing one another at a long conference table inside a stone-walled room, with pictures of the meeting showing Abramovich seated at a small nearby table alongside the Turkish presidential spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın.
The discussions followed a short opening speech by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who addressed them from a lecture, saying: “the world is waiting for good news, and good news from you.”
The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, told a press conference that “we see with satisfaction that both sides are getting closer at every stage”. I have expressed hopes that the foreign ministers and later perhaps even the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and Putin would meet.
Later at the hotel, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, resisted further questions from journalists and disappeared from view under the crystal chandeliers in the hotel lobby.
After talking on the terrace, many from the Ukrainian delegation moved into the restaurant’s interior away from public view, to a large table laden with food. Once inside, Abramovich peeled off to sit on a plush sofa alone to make a phone call, accompanied only by his glass of tea.
He later followed Umerov and other members of the Ukrainian delegation, clutching stuffed blue binders, to another area of the restaurant to continue their discussions well into the late afternoon, hours after the official talks had ended.
Outside, under the bright lobby lights, a Ukrainian general strolled across the marble floor past an accompanying diplomat, who fell asleep in an armchair while clutching a briefcase, exhausted from the day’s events.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism