The presence of billionaire Roman Abramovich (L) at the Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Istanbul has raised questions about the purpose of the Russian oligarchy.
Cem Ozdel | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
With the resumption of Russia-Ukraine talks on Friday, questions are being raised about the strange involvement of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and the role he could play in the ongoing talks.
The owner of the approved Chelsea Soccer Club was spotted earlier this week during talks in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was photographed with host President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlt Cavusoglu.
Both Russian and Ukrainian spokesmen said Abramovich was not an official member of their delegation and did not sit at the main negotiating table during the talks.
Rather, it is considered a neutral party, playing an important role in facilitating negotiations. In fact, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told President Joe Biden to hold fire over Abramovich’s approval because he could prove an effective cow-justice in peace talks. A spokesman for Abramovich was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
However, due to the billionaire businessman’s close relationship with President Vladimir Putin, this is an interesting position for which he has been approved in the United Kingdom and the EU.
Why Roman Abramovich?
Abramovich, of Russian descent, is one of the richest men in the world.
His close ties to the Kremlin are well-established, and he became a close ally of former President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and later Putin. However, he has been under the radar of international politics for years, preferring to focus on his foreign business dealings, which included the 2003 purchase and conversion of London soccer club Chelsea FC.
It was not until Russia’s war in Ukraine that the high-flying lifestyle of Russia’s oligarch elites was firmly in the public eye as Western allies imposed sanctions on Putin’s inner circle in order to force him to submit.
Abramovich, for one, became prominent – not least in order to start selling off his most valuable UK assets – but also followed Ukraine’s apparent request to act as a mediator between the West and Moscow.
“I can confirm that Ukraine has been in contact with Roman Abramovich for support for a peaceful solution and has been trying to help since then,” a spokesman for Abramovich said in late February, shortly after the start of the war.
Abramovich, known as a close ally of President Putin, was approved by EU and UK authorities in March, freezing his assets and restricting his travels.
Cem Ozdel | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
He has since been seen taking part in mediation talks between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Israel. But his motives are still unclear.
“As far as I know, he [Abramovich] Was assisting on humanitarian issues: with humanitarian convoys evacuating people from Mariupol, “Zelensky told reporters on Sunday.
What does he want to achieve?
As an Israeli citizen and a Jew, some observers have suggested that he was present in the interests of the Jewish community, which has large populations throughout Ukraine and Russia.
Indeed, Israel has played a key role in mediating the ongoing peace talks, and some analysts have suggested that Abramovich could act as a spokesman for the Israeli government, with which he is known to have strong ties.
Christopher Granville, managing director of TS Lombard’s EMEA and global political research, told CNBC on Thursday that “Abramovich is a key figure in doing what he can to advance the proposals and mediation efforts that the Israeli prime minister has led.” These goals include providing assistance and preventing a growing migrant crisis.
This, according to Zelensky, could extend into a broader humanitarian effort, including the establishment of a safe exit corridor for civilians detained in crossfire.
“The Jewish community was Abramovich’s entry into this discussion. But once you get involved in mediation, you will be fully brought into all lines of communication,” Granville said.
Others, however, say his presence could be far more strategically and politically significant, representing both a presence on the ground for Putin and important for all parties.
Andrei Korovkov, a professor of political science and international relations at Middle Tennessee State University, said: “Abramovich is actually a very convenient figure for Putin to be involved in a kind of informal, under-the-counter diplomacy.”
“In reality, he acts as a link between the Kremlin, Zelensky, Israel, possibly the United States and even the United Kingdom,” Korovkov said, noting that Abramovich had “significant connections” to Britain even in the face of sanctions.
Still, some are more skeptical of Oligarch’s intentions.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Ukraine, Vadim Pristiko, who was present at the meeting in Istanbul, told the BBC that Abramovich had “no idea” why he was there and questioned his motives.
“I don’t know if he’s buying her way or if he’s really useful,” Pristico said.
Over the weekend, both Erdogan and Cavusoglu said they would welcome Russian oligarchs to Turkey, a non-European country but a NATO member, which opposes sanctions outside the policy. It came just days after Abramovich took his two supersonic and a private jet out of the reach of European regulators.