- The UK and the EU sanctioned Roman Abramovich last month over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
- The Russian oligarch, a Putin ally, has since been seen taking part in Russia-Ukraine peace talks.
- Experts said he was there merely to expedite the unfreezing of his assets and save his empire.
The Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s presence at the Russia-Ukraine peace talks is an attempt to expedite the unfreezing of his assets and save his business empire, experts told Insider.
The UK and EU sanctioned Abramovich — who according to Bloomberg is worth $14.3 billion — in early March following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As a result, Abramovich relinquished control of several investment vehicles, and saw his assets frozen by US hedge funds. Evraz, Abramovich’s mining company, suspended trading on March 10 after the price fell 85%. The sanctions also prevented Abramovich from personally profiting from the sale of Chelsea Football Club, the London soccer team he listed days earlier.
Now Abramovich is doing all he can to solve his financial issues, mainly by inserting himself in peace talks to bring an end to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, experts said.
Motivations for a cease-fire
Abramovich has attended peace talks held between Ukrainian and Russian officials, with his most recent appearance being last Tuesday in Turkey, where he sat with the Russian delegation, the Financial Times reported.
Vladimir Milov, Russia’s former deputy energy minister, told Insider: “He’s absolutely devastated by blows to his international business empire and assets that were delivered by sanctions and he also does not support the war.”
“Which is why he is actively trying to do something about it, to help achieve some sort of cease-fire which might be a starting point for unblocking his assets and his travel.”
“I am sure there is no other motivation. He was always an extremely selfish person, only focused on personal gain,” he added.
Milov said that as deputy energy minister, he had played a role in the 2002 sale of the Russian oil company Slavneft to Abramovich. The BBC reported last month, citing leaked Russian intelligence documents, that the sale may have been rigged.
“I was against selling this major stake to one man without an auction, as there were other bidders who offered a higher price,” Milov said.
Losing Chelsea will also be a dear blow to Abramovich, experts said. Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and took it from mediocrity to winning the Premier League five times and the Champions League twice.
“The loss of Chelsea would have hurt him,” Mark Hollingsworth, the author of “Londongrad: From Russia with Cash,” told Insider. “I think that was a genuine love affair.”
Others have cast doubt on Abramovich’s motivations for peace talks.
Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of the Putin critic Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, told the FT that Abramovich’s presence at the peace talks could be “a PR tool,” while Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, recently suggested to the BBC that Abramovich might be “buying his way out” of future sanctions.
Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and editor of the Agentura news site, told Insider that Abramovich also appeared to be using the peace talks to line up new investments in Turkey.
“He is trying desperately to find a new place, safe for his investments. As far as I get it he is going to invest in Turkey,” he said. Following the imposition of UK and EU sanctions, two of Abramovich’s yachts docked in Turkey.
Abramovich hasn’t been sanctioned by the US. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Treasury halted plans to sanction Abramovich after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked President Joe Biden to spare the oligarch due to his role in the peace talks.
Abramovich has been a successful businessman for the entirety of Putin’s 22-year stint as president or prime minister, and the pair have often been photographed together.
However, in a recently-settled UK court case, lawyers for Abramovich said he was “someone who is distant from Putin,” a claim which sits uneasily with his presence at peace talks.
Hollingsworth said: “People have called him ‘Putin’s wallet’ and ‘Putin’s treasurer,’ and he was known as ‘the money man’ and ‘the bag man.’ But it’s quite hard to really pin it down.”
The Financial Times reported that Abramovich had Putin’s explicit blessing to be at the peace talks.
And according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Abramovich is helping with “certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides.”
Motivations aside, Abramovich has much to offer at the talks, Hollingsworth said. “He has been a brilliant negotiator, that’s his great skill,” he said.
Abramovich, who was orphaned at the age of three, left school at 16 and rose from a provincial perfumes-and-deodorants trader to an oil magnate. By 2005 he was Russia’s richest man, according to Forbes.
‘The person who has least chance to be punished by Putin’
Few among Russia’s business elite have explicitly spoken out against the war, apparently fearing they will be punished by Putin for dissenting.
However, the Financial Times reported that Abramovich recently made a direct in-person pitch to Putin to end the war, following which Putin permitted Abramovich to attend the peace talks.
“He is the person who has least chance to be punished by Putin for actually inserting his nose and doing something because he still has a very strong standing, personal relationship with Putin,” Milov told Insider.
“Others are afraid to stray out of their business and interfere with Putin’s business, which is war. Abramovich is less afraid.”
Russia’s offensive into Ukraine has faltered in recent weeks, with Putin’s forces refocusing on the east of the country, abandoning towns and cities such as Trostyanets and Irpin, as well as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Hollingsworth, who researched Abramovich for his book, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have triggered something deep in Abramovich.
“He probably genuinely cares about the fact that this war is such a disaster for Russia,” he said.
“I think there’s a certain nationalistic pride there.”