When Roman Abramovich was pictured looking grey, thin and anxious in an Israeli airport a fortnight ago, it was assumed he was suffering in his new status as a global pariah.
But the details of an extraordinary month in his life, including a chilling confrontation with Vladimir Putin, have come to light.
Within 48 hours of the Russian invasion, the Chelsea owner shifted ‘stewardship and care’ of the club to its charitable foundation ‘to look after the interests of the club, players, staff, and fans’. By March 2, he had put the club up for sale.
Meanwhile, a parallel drama, involving his mystery role at the top table of international diplomacy and a possible chemical weapon poison attack, was unfolding.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks as billionaire and businessman Roman Abramovich (L) looks on during a meeting in 2016
On February 28, four days after war broke out, Abramovich was in Belarus to ‘try to help’ as diplomats from the two sides met for the first time. His spokesman claimed he ‘was contacted by the Ukrainian side for support in achieving a peaceful resolution and has been trying to help ever since’. The Kremlin declined to comment.
The head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party confirmed Abramovich’s ‘advocacy’ but said he had ‘no idea who invited him’. Sources suggested Ukrainian officials had sought out a Russian-speaking Jew to act as an intermediary. Others said he was the only Russian figure to offer to help.
And last week, he had even presented Putin with a note from Mr Zelensky outlining his terms for peace. But the Russian president told Abramovich to deliver a venomous message to the Ukrainian leader: ‘Tell him I will thrash them.’
The oligarch’s involvement had previously been met with enough warmth for Mr Zelenksy to call Joe Biden to request that the US President hold off on sanctions so Abramovich could continue to play a role negotiating a deal.
When Roman Abramovich was pictured looking grey, thin and anxious in an Israeli airport a fortnight ago, it was assumed he was suffering in his new status as a global pariah
Sources say the businessman, whose mother Irina was born in Ukraine, is determined to help end the bloody conflict after witnessing the effects of war in Kyiv. The talks failed. Russia batted away Ukraine’s demands for a complete withdrawal and another session was scheduled for March 3.
Abramovich was part of the delegation which met in Kyiv that day. It was then that he started experiencing symptoms, along with Ukrainian negotiators, including red eyes and peeling skin.
The next day the negotiators travelled by road from Kyiv to Poland, ready to fly to Istanbul where informal talks were to continue. Their symptoms were consistent with poisoning with chemical weapons, according to Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence group.
The finger has been pointed at hard-liners in Moscow looking to sabotage the peace process.
Within 48 hours of the Russian invasion, the Chelsea owner shifted ‘stewardship and care’ of the club to its charitable foundation ‘to look after the interests of the club, players, staff, and fans’
The strain was visible when, on March 14, he was photographed by a passenger in the departures lounge of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv
While Abramovich recovered in private, reportedly receiving treatment in Turkey, his public image was deteriorating. The once-loved football club proprietor had become a global pariah as UK then EU sanctions brought his property and corporate empire crashing down.
The strain was visible when, on March 14, he was photographed by a passenger in the departures lounge of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.
Later his £46million private jet took off for Turkey. The next day it continued on to Moscow, although it is not known whether Abramovich was on board. Since then the resistance in Moscow to his efforts to aid peace have become public. Last Wednesday he flew to Russia to be sent away by Putin with the chilling warning for the Ukrainians.
He returned to Turkey to relay news of the meeting to Rustem Umerov, member of parliament and Ukraine’s representative in the talks, The Times said. Despite the access to Putin afforded by his status, US intelligence sources doubt how much influence Abramovich has over the dictator.
Shuttle diplomacy of sanctioned oligarch
October 2021: Roman Abramovich makes his last visit to Chelsea FC’s London ground, Stamford Bridge.
February 28, 2022: He attends peace talks in Belarus.
March 2: Chelsea announce the club will be put up for sale. Abramovich is quickly courted by buyers in the UK and US, and by the Turkish billionaire Muhsin Bayrak.
March 3: Abramovich attends peace talks in Kyiv in the afternoon, and shows symptoms of poisoning that night.
March 4: The peace delegation drives from Kyiv to Lviv, on the way to Poland.
March 5: The Chelsea owner’s Gulfstream G650ER flies into Turkey, where he is believed to have received medical treatment.
March 10: Abramovich is sanctioned by the UK Government.
March 14: He is pictured in the departure lounge of Tel Aviv airport. His private jet later takes off for Turkey.
March 15: After a stop-off in Istanbul, his private jet travels to Moscow. Abramovich is sanctioned by the EU.
March 23: Abramovich travels from Istanbul to Moscow to hand Vladimir Putin a note from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, only to receive the response: ‘Tell him I will thrash them’. He returns to Turkey the same day.
In recent days: Abramovich meets Rustem Umerov, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and Kyiv’s representative in peace negotiations, in a five-star hotel in Istanbul.