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By John Helmer, Moscow

Roman Abramovich (lead image left) is the most indiscreet back-channel, flaunting go-between in the history of secret diplomacy. The Russian oligarch, now a citizen of Israel and Portugal, could not have made himself more visible this week at the Istanbul round of negotiations between Russia and the Ukraine than if he had danced for the cameras in a jester’s costume with ninny stick and bells.

According to the Turkish protocol in the conference room on March 29, the businessman whom a decade ago Boris Berezovsky accused of cheating him out of a fortune, and then out of the judgement of the High Court in London,* was seated as President Vladimir Putin’s personal advisor next to Ibrahim Kalin, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s advisor.

That was the Turkish signal that Abramovich outranked the official Russian delegation which included a Kremlin staff assistant, a deputy foreign minister, a deputy defence minister, an ambassador, and a member of the State Duma. Erdogan (lead image, 2nd from left) sent a second signal of Arbamovich’s seniority when he and his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, posed talking with him ahead of the other Russian negotiators.

Two days later in Moscow on March 30,  in a letter to the Foreign Ministry, Sergei Obukhov, a leader of the Russian Communist Party and State Duma deputy, requested “information about the status [in the Istanbul negotiations] of the famous Russian-speaking oligarch and today’s citizen of Portugal and Israel.”

Reflecting the hostile reaction in Moscow, Obukhov asked if “the Foreign Minister of Russia is planning to involve in participation [in the negotiations with the Ukraine] other Russian-speaking oligarchs, for example MB Khodorkovsky, MM Fridman, PO Aven, and others like Abramovich, who have their own interest in relation to the special military operation for demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. And does MiD [Foreign Ministry] of Russia have the plan or the intention of involving for participation in the negotiations people who represent patriotic parties and social organisations who introduce the interest of the state-supporting Russian people who are recognised for their firm stance in the protection of the national state interests of historical Russia.”

Ukrainian officials have also attacked Abramovich’s involvement in the negotiations, suggesting he had bribed his way into the talks to save himself from US sanctions.  “I don’t know if he’s buying his way out somehow or if he’s really useful, that’s very difficult to tell,” the BBC reported the Ukrainian ambassador to London as saying. The Murdoch press in New York have claimed Abramovich had persuaded Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky to lobby in Washington for sanctions relief on his behalf.

Abramovich has substantial commercial and personal assets in the US, including a steelmill in Oregon which manufactures armour plate for US Army tanks.   For the archive of reports on Russian government subsidies for Abramovich’s US loans, click to.

In Istanbul on March 29, left, Abramovich; right, Ibrahim Kalin,   See also the video record of Abramovich standing back to the wall as Erdogan and Kalin enter the meeting room.  Kalin later told the US media that Abramovich participated “as someone who was appointed by President Putin as a negotiator."   For Kalin’s role in Turkey’s anti-Russian policies, read this.   

Abramovich talking to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (left) and President Erdogan (centre).  

In Istanbul on March 29,  the Russian delegation (right) was headed by Russian Presidential Assistant Vladimir Medinsky (far right), and next to him, in order, head of the International Affairs Committee of the State Duma Leonid Slutsky; Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov, and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin. The Ukrainian delegation (left) included (in order from left)  head of the Servant of the People faction in the Verkhovna Rada David Arakhamiya; Rustem Umerov, Verkhovna Rada representative for the Crimean Tatars;  Minister of Defense Alexei Reznikov, with baseball cap in front of him; and spokesman for the delegation and Zelensky adviser,  Mikhail Podolyak.
Source: https://rtvi.com/

The domestic criticism of Abramovich’s performance in Istanbul has also extended to the press statement given by Medinsky (lead image, 3rd from left), head of the Russian delegation, at the conclusion of the talks, as well as to a statement by Deputy Defence Minister Fomin (lead image, extreme right). “Medinsky did more damage in three minutes than all the Ukrainian propaganda in a month,” Obukhov said in a televised interview.   

Fomin was criticized for his announcement of the reduction and withdrawal of Russian forces from their cordons around Kiev and Chernigov. Tass reported Fomin as saying: “Due to the fact that the talks on preparing an agreement on Ukraine’s neutrality and non-nuclear status as well as on providing Ukraine with security guarantees are moving to the practical sphere, considering the principles discussed during the meeting today, in order to bolster mutual confidence and create the necessary conditions for the further talks and the achievement of the final goal – the coordination and the signing of the aforementioned agreement – the Russian Defense Ministry has made a decision to cardinally, several-fold decrease the military activity in the direction of Kiev and Chernigov.”  

According to Obukhov, “as for Medinsky, if we remove the part of his [Istanbul] statement where he was working as the press secretary of the Bandera regime, he declared his intention to sign a ‘peace treaty’ with the Kiev authorities, in fact (and this has become a precedent!) on behalf of the Kremlin, he agreed to negotiations on the status of Crimea. In addition, he operated with such concepts as ‘de-escalation of the conflict’ against the background of a surge of indignation over war crimes and abuse of Russian prisoners of war.”

For Medinsky’s verbatim remarks, click to read the Interfax bulletin.    “We are also taking two steps to de-escalate the conflict,” he said. “One of the positions – on the military part – will be announced by the Deputy Minister of Defense [Fomin], and I will speak on the political part…After today’s meaningful conversation, we have agreed and propose a solution on which a meeting of the heads of state is possible simultaneously with the initialling of the treaty…”  Medinsky indicated he had agreed to a multinational system of guarantees for Ukrainian security, leaving out Crimea and the Donbass which, he claimed, the Ukrainians had conceded. In exchange, he said, Russia would not object to Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.  

“An extremely significant role, as can be seen from the TV footage and media publications,”  Obukhov retorted, “was played by the oligarch R[oman] Abramovich in the ‘negotiations’. As a result, experts have even started talking about the ‘Medinsky-Abramovich conspiracy’, and the negotiations themselves have been called the ‘operation to save Abramovich’.

Sergei Obukhov in interview in Moscow on March 31; source: https://kprf.ru/ 

Text of Obukhov’s March 30 letter to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; source: https://t.me/boris_rozhin/38170

“Taking into account yesterday’s information storm,” Obukhov noted “the reaction of Russian society to capitulation. We must not forget about the possibility of betrayal by the elites in the event of surrender. And about splitting tendencies in this case.  One way or another, the Kremlin has now got the opportunity to assess the consequences of the implementation of the collective Abramovich ‘wish’ in a relatively soft version of this reaction… the ‘peace process’ in the Medinsky-Abramovich version looks like a complete and unconditional surrender of Russia… In this regard, the question arises as to who authorized this Medinsky to make statements which have brought obvious and significant damage to the national and state interests of Russia?  Well, we are waiting for the public reaction of the President, which, quite possibly, will follow today.”

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded that Abramovich was an unofficial participant in the Istanbul talks who had been authorized in advance by both Putin and Zelensky, and who had been active in this role for some time. “Roman Abramovich is involved in ensuring certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides, and he is not an official member of the delegation. You know that our delegation is headed by Presidential Assistant [Vladimir] Medinsky; nevertheless, from our side, he [Abramovich] is present at the negotiating table,” Peskov explained.  

A well-informed Moscow source comments: “This is a self-goal by Putin. If Abramovich is a back channel, he should never have appeared publicly. His public presence in the talks has no positive impact but there are plenty of negatives. Medinsky has been for some time Putin’s culture and history tour guide. At a minimum Medinsky’s remarks were careless, ambiguous; at worst, he went beyond his negotiating mandate and far beyond the PR competence to be expected of his role. We can’t know what Putin has in mind, but if he falters and wavers, then Russians will be unforgiving. A deal which Abramovich makes can never be sold to mothers of soldiers.”

Another Moscow source believes the Kremlin intended Abramovich’s visibility. “It’s a signal that the oligarchs whom the Americans are sanctioning because Blinken and the CIA think they can be motivated to finance the Fifth Column and pull a coup against Putin are in fact patriotic, united with the Russian people behind the war, and behind Putin.”

The semi-official Moscow publication Vzglyad reported that Abramovich’s role was played principally on the Ukrainian side. “‘Abramovich is a creative person, otherwise he would not be so rich. He knows how to speak in a language understandable to the Ukrainian elite,’ political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko told the newspaper Vzglyad… Since in Kiev, unlike in Moscow, the decision-making structure is diversified, we need negotiators who can talk to the local elites in a language they understand. That is why Roman Arkadievich is present there. He is also a businessman, also of Jewish origin, like many Ukrainian businessmen. This is the person who speaks the language of some of the governing elites of Ukraine,’ the source added.”

Vzglyad added that in Russian strategy, the Istanbul talks were a sideshow, and that the military campaign takes priority. “The special military operation is still ongoing. Even if we proceed from the fact that the goal of the Russian Federation was exclusively to protect the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LPR [Lugansk People’s Republic] within their proclaimed borders, the question arises how can we talk about this when Mariupol has not yet been completely taken and the Donetsk grouping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has not been defeated…Our citizens support the special military operation. And if in the end Moscow makes some concessions, people will have a question about what ‘our guys’ died for… Another confirmation that the parties may not be in the mood to agree on something specific… is the massive leaks of details of the negotiations in the Western press.”

[*] The record of witness testimony and documents in Berezovsky’s lawsuit against Abramovich in 2011-2012  revealed that Abramovich has a poor memory for facts, figures and promises;  no comprehension of Russian corporate taxation. He is reluctant to write things down but he is a model student under coaching; under cross-examination he is far from quick-witted but achieves credibility by seeming simple, naïve even.   

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