In photographs released from the Russia-Ukraine talks in Istanbul on Tuesday, one face stood out, smiling as the negotiations got under way.
Sanctioned billionaire Roman Abramovich is not officially part of the Russian delegation, but has apparently played a major role behind the scenes, jetting between Moscow, Kyiv and Istanbul since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Further questions about what role Abramovich was playing, and why, were raised on Monday, when the Wall Street Journal and investigative outlet Bellingcat claimed Abramovich and a Ukrainian MP were among three people to fall ill with symptoms consistent with chemical poisoning, during a round of negotiations in Kyiv in early March.
A source confirmed to the Guardian that Abramovich had fallen ill after the meeting, and had lost his sight for several hours. He soon recovered and was able to take part in later rounds of negotiations.
News of the alleged poisoning has been met with widespread skepticism. In a rare case of Washington and Moscow agreeing on something during the past month, both capitals have given signals they do not believe the poisoning story.
“The intelligence highly suggests this was environmental,” a US official told Reuters on Monday, adding: “Eg, not poisoning.”
On Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, added his own denial: “This is part of the information panic, part of the information sabotage, information war. These reports are not true… it is necessary to strongly filter the flow of information.”
A spokesperson for the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, meanwhile, cautioned “only to follow official information”.
Christo Grozev, of Bellingcat, said he stood by the claims. “We don’t know who did it but something did happen,” he said.
Grozev has a record of uncovering poisoning attempts, including identifying the Russian hit squad that allegedly poisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in 2020. He said he would soon be able to release more information about the current incident.
“We are trying to find a balance between protecting privacy and security concerns of the individuals and informing the public correctly,” Grozev said.
Aside from the poisoning claims, the emergence of the publicity-shy oligarch at the heart of peace negotiations has also surprised many.
In recent years, Abramovich has positioned himself as someone who has retired from the hard edge of business life and has no political ambitions. He has been known for funding cultural causes and generally living the high life. Although he can sometimes be spotted in Moscow art galleries, theaters or restaurants, the former Chelsea football club owner loathes publicity, and gives no interviews.
Information about Abramovich’s wealth and lifestyle have instead tended to come from court cases, notably an epic 2012 battle in the London courts with his former benefactor Boris Berezovsky, who claimed Abramovich had swindled him out of several billion dollars by forcing him to sell his stake in oil company Sibneft at a reduced price. The judge found in Abramovich’s favor of him.
More recently, Abramovich brought a libel case in London against journalist Catherine Belton, after contesting several claims in Belton’s book Putin’s People, including that he bought Chelsea at Putin’s request. Abramovich settled with Belton after her publisher agreed the book would acknowledge this was not a statement of fact.
In that court case, his lawyers claimed “Abramovich is someone who is distant from Putin”, something which has been thrown into question by his sudden appearance as an envoy.
A source in the Ukrainian delegation told news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda that Abramovich had positioned himself as a neutral intermediary, and his main role was “to pass on our position to their boss in human language”.
Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to Zelenskiy, told the Guardian that Abramovich had been brought in as an intermediary by his father, a Ukrainian film producer who knows the billionaire well.
In Kyiv, Abramovich is seen as, at the very least, a serious interlocutor who has Putin’s ear. Russia’s official negotiating team is mostly made up of second-tier officials not seen as influential, so Putin may have selected Abramovich as a more serious interlocutor to send to the Ukrainians.
“Putin is looking for back channels. He doesn’t believe in anything that’s open. Everything should be a little bit conspiratorial,” said veteran Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats.
A source in Moscow said Abramovich had been granted two personal meetings with Zelenskiy in Kyiv over the past month, claims which have not been confirmed by the Ukrainian side. After the visit during which Abramovich fell ill, he returned again for another trip to the Ukrainian capital, said the source.
Zelenskiy, in his interview with Russian journalists over the weekend, said Abramovich was one of a number of Russian oligarchs who had contacted him offering to invest in the Ukrainian economy.
“We got signals from him and from several other businessmen saying ‘let us help somehow, let us try to do something,’” said Zelenskiy. He also said Abramovich had been involved in unsuccessful discussions to organize humanitarian corridors. However, he did not mention Abramovich’s visits to Kyiv, or his own purported meetings with the oligarch.
Albats said offers from Abramovich and other Russian businessmen to help Ukraine could come from horror at the war, but also self-interest and a desire to avoid crippling western sanctions.
“It’s the way people are trying to save their villas, yachts and also to be on the right side of the struggle. Some of them at least are horrified. I know some who just couldn’t believe what happened,” said Albats. “Then there are some who are just concerned they’re unable to pay their cleaning ladies.”
Many are skeptical about Abramovich’s reincarnation as peacemaker.
“How could they have forgotten who this is? He is one of the biggest sponsors of Putin’s regime,” said Maria Pevchikh, a close associate of jailed opposition leader Navalny and the head of investigations for his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Pevchikh said she did not buy the idea that Abramovich could be an independent actor in the talks. “I’m 100% sure that this was coordinated with the Kremlin entirely. When you’ve been Putin’s puppet for 22 years you don’t suddenly go rogue,” she said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism