As Russian tanks streamed over Ukraine's borders in the early hours of February 24, Vladimir Putin summoned the country's leading oligarchs to a meeting at the Kremlin.
At the time, Roman Abramovich was staying in the south of France where he owns Château de la Croë, a large villa with 19 acres (8ha) of grounds on the seafront in Antibes. He rushed to Moscow on his private plane but arrived too late for the audience, which was partly televised.
Abramovich arranged to have a private meeting with Putin. He apologised to the Russian president for his tardiness but — according to three people with knowledge of the discussion — he also made a strong case to end the war.
Putin heard him out, the people said. In the end, he gave his personal blessing for Abramovich to act as a mediator in peace talks.
The unusual intervention was risky — Putin has described elite Russians who sympathise with the west as "scum and traitors". But it set off a frenzied five-week odyssey where Abramovich has criss-crossed the region, simultaneously trying to protect his fortune from the sanctions the war has provoked, while also promoting a peace process.
The invasion of Ukraine has completely upended Abramovich's carefully constructed life in the West, which he had managed to insulate from the controversies about how he made his money after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
UK and EU sanctions have forced him to put Chelsea Football Club up for sale, race two superyachts across open seas to refuge in Turkey, transfer control of at least two investment vehicles to an associate and reportedly attempt to withdraw vast sums from global asset managers. Shares in Evraz, the London-listed steelmaker and his main remaining industrial asset, are suspended after falling 85 per cent this year.
At the same time, Abramovich has been conducting his own back-channel, shuttle diplomacy.
In the past month, he has jetted between Moscow, Israel and Turkey helping to broker the talks — and even went to Kyiv on at least two occasions to meet Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, according to people familiar with the matter. He also survived a suspected poisoning during negotiations that caused him to completely lose his eyesight for several hours.
At the latest round of talks between Russia and Ukraine, held in Istanbul on Tuesday, Abramovich sat with the Russian delegation and chatted with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a public recognition of his formal role in the negotiations.
In the process, Abramovich has completely flipped the script that he has so assiduously written about himself. For two decades, he has played down any suggestion he is a close confidant of Putin, sometimes using the threat of legal action in London courts to defend himself against claims about financial ties to the president. But at the very moment his wealth and lifestyle have come under threat, his personal relationship with Putin has become Abramovich's trump card, the source of his leverage as an unlikely peacemaker.
Erdogan said Abramovich's presence at the talks shows that Putin "believes, trusts him". Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said Abramovich was not an official member of the Russian delegation but was helping with "certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides".
"It looks like they have much closer relations than I believed. He was always closer to Putin than me, but I didn't think he was this close," says a fellow oligarch who has known both men since the 1990s. "Nobody was aware. Nobody else could play this role."
Zelensky asked the US to hold off on imposing sanctions on Abramovich so he could continue travelling, even if Ukraine's president says he remains sceptical about the oligarch's motives.
"All these people are afraid of sanctions — I'm sure there's no great patriotism in it," Zelensky said last week. Nonetheless, he added, "getting through to the Russian government was unreal. [Now] someone's getting something through."
Abramovich's critics insist he is using the talks to salvage his overseas assets. "I'm not sure how much his involvement in this mediation is real and effective, and how much of it is a PR tool," says Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by the jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. "He's a creative guy, and he has creative people working for him, so it can just be a way to have a chance to ease the sanctions."
A spokesperson for Abramovich declined to comment. Peskov did not comment on the oligarch's meeting with Putin, details of which were first reported this week by Russian independent site Proekt.
Those close to the oligarch insist his only priority is to end the war. "Could it be a double agenda? Sure, but who else could do that — to help Ukraine and stop Russia?" one of them says. "Roman's the only one who's trying."
Abramovich has always been one of life's survivors. Born in 1966 to Jewish parents in Saratov, about 500 miles south east of Moscow, he was orphaned by the age of 3. As a young man, he took to business and by the early 1990s was involved in oil trading.
A chance meeting in 1994 with Boris Berezovsky, a tycoon with close ties to then president Boris Yeltsin, changed his fortunes forever.
With the Russian state near bankruptcy, the duo took advantage of their connections to purchase oil company Sibneft at a price of about US$200 million (NZ$289m) in an auction that critics have long claimed was rigged. The Sibneft deal would turn out to be one of the most lucrative in an era where the country pawned off its crown jewels.
Abramovich and Berezovsky were both part of the group close to Yeltsin but under Putin, who became president in 2000, their fortunes quickly diverged.
Berezovsky publicly clashed with Putin, sold his stake in Russia's main TV channel to Abramovich, and fled the country to escape a criminal investigation into his business dealings. Abramovich showed fealty to the Kremlin, serving eight years as governor in Chukotka, a desolate region in north-east Russia with a population of just 50,000.
The publicity-shy Abramovich and the former KGB officer soon developed a rapport, though even people who know both men express surprise at how much Putin appears to trust the oligarch.
"They are both very closed personalities," one of the people says.
In 2005, Abramovich's political loyalty received its reward. Other oligarchs who had built fortunes in the 1990s faced legal and tax challenges — or prison, in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's biggest oil baron when he was arrested in 2003 after challenging Putin publicly.
But Gazprom, the state-owned Russian gas giant, agreed to buy Sibneft for US$13b (NZ$19b) — providing the source of most of Abramovich's wealth, which Forbes puts at US$8.4b.
"It was a no-brainer for him," Roman Borisovich, a former Russian banker turned anti-corruption campaigner, says of the relationship Abramovich built with Putin. "He understood his days were numbered. Everyone who was close to Yeltsin's family was being ostracised at the least, and he was in the worst position of all. So he would do anything."
Even before the Gazprom deal, Abramovich wanted to build a new life in the west. In 2003, he purchased Chelsea for £150m (NZ$284), a deal that would turn him into a household name in England.
Speaking through a translator at the time of the purchase, he said in an interview with the Financial Times in London: "It's pleasant to be here, you feel comfortable and you don't feel people are watching you. I'm sure people will focus on me for three or four days but it will pass. They'll forget who I am, and I like that."
Abramovich bought at least £200m of UK property, including a 15-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens, which was formerly the Soviet embassy.
"He was a shadowy tycoon from Siberia [ . . .] then all of a sudden he is a legitimate British businessman with a fat cheque underwritten by the Russian government," Borisovich says. "Everyone thought this is the cleanest money you can get out of Russia."
He established himself as a patron of the arts and gave half a billion dollars to Jewish causes; the president of Russia's main Jewish group said in 2018 Abramovich deserved credit for "80 per cent" of Jewish life in the country.
But despite the attempt to reinvent himself in the West, Abramovich could never fully escape claims about the route he had taken to get there.
In 2001, according to Sergei Kolesnikov, a former business partner of friends of Putin, Abramovich donated $203m to buy medical equipment for a military hospital in St Petersburg.
The equipment, however, was bought at a discount and 35 per cent of the funds were diverted to offshore companies that Kolesnikov said were mostly owned by Putin — and spent without the donors' knowledge on projects including a lavish palace allegedly built for the president's use on the Black Sea coast.
Abramovich said at the time he had donated only $180m and the payment was based on invoices from the company which supplied the equipment.
"He was involved in things that other people were not allowed to be involved in," the fellow oligarch says about the relationships he built in the Putin era. "That's important — it shows you he was closer to Putin."
But the criticism seemed to bounce off Abramovich. In 2012, he won one of the UK's most expensive legal cases ever when a High Court judge ruled against Berezovsky, who had sued Abramovich for $6.5b in damages over a disputed stake in Sibneft.
The judge found he had been "careful and truthful" while Berezovsky had been "deliberately dishonest".
The claims also seemed to have little effect on his standing in the Kremlin, where he regularly attended Putin's oligarch roundtables but rarely said a word, according to another attendee.
In 2014, Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and fuelled a separatist proxy war in the eastern Donbas border region. In response, the US and EU imposed sanctions on dozens of people close to him — but left Abramovich untouched.
"There has always been a file on him sitting on someone's desk", admits one UK government official. "But the way the strategy was explained to me was if you squeezed these people too early, they wouldn't have any influence on deterring the ultimate actions of the guy at the top. It looks naive to me now."
In 2018, the UK delayed his visa renewal application without explanation, prompting him to withdraw it and acquire Israeli citizenship instead. That decision was made two months after former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury with the nerve agent novichok.
By the time the UK moved against him, however, Abramovich was spending little time there and became a regular visitor to the US and Israel.
His donations to elite Israeli institutions, including Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial, have earned him at least some favour — the chair of the memorial was among those who wrote to the US ambassador seeking help to keep Abramovich off US sanctions lists in early February.
He has also taken legal action in the UK to deny claims about direct business links to Putin. Last December, he settled a case over a book by former FT Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton, whose publisher admitted it "contained some inaccurate information" about the oligarch — and amended a claim that Abramovich bought Chelsea on Putin's orders.
"He is a talented guy — a very resourceful entrepreneur who went over to the side of evil," says Ashurkov, the Navalny ally. "He could be an international industrialist. He could be known for his philanthropy. He could be a person Russia is proud of."
Instead, Ashurkov added, "he finds himself in a quite different situation [ . . .] and it's of his own making".
As the businessmen waited for hours in the Kremlin on February 24 for the arrival of Putin — whom some of them had never even met — they despaired to each other, according to a person present.
"Everyone was losing it," the person says. "They spent 20 to 30 years building empires, and it all came down in one day."
Western officials say the unprecedented sanctions are partly designed to turn Russia's oligarchs against Putin. Yet after five weeks of the war, none of them have publicly condemned him.
"The oligarchs had more power when they had assets in the West. Now they are totally dependent on Russia. They lost everything except for their Russian assets," another person close to Abramovich says. "They are hostages. Before, they could live in the West and had more freedom. Now they have to listen to Putin."
Abramovich, too, has refrained from explicit criticism of Putin's war. But in the first week of the invasion, his daughter Sofia, 27, shared a post on Instagram that read: "The biggest and most successful lie of Kremlin's propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin."
Even as he was meeting Putin, Abramovich was trying to rearrange his business affairs. On February 24, on the day war began, he transferred control of Norma, an investment vehicle that manages his stakes in start-ups, and its subsidiary to David Davidovich, an Israeli business associate.
Two days later, Abramovich said he would relinquish stewardship of Chelsea to a charitable trust. He followed up days later by revealing plans to sell the club, saying he would forgive £1.5b in loans he is owed and donate the proceeds to a foundation benefiting "victims of the war in Ukraine".
"Please know that this has been an incredibly difficult decision to make, and it pains me to part with the club in this manner," he wrote.
The decision was just one part of a careful choreography taking place, just before he was slapped with sanctions by the UK and EU that would freeze his assets and all but strangle Chelsea's ability to operate. Attempts to offload his London property that had begun just as the war started were aborted.
Two of his superyachts, Eclipse and Solaris, raced to Turkey to find safe harbour — in the case of Eclipse, after a 28-day trip across the Atlantic from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean.
The Antiguan government established this week that two other yachts moored in the Caribbean island belong to Abramovich and is considering whether to seize them as a result of the UK sanctions.
Abramovich's presence at the talks in Turkey confirmed that he has a genuine role in the process. But it does not indicate whether he has real influence behind the scenes.
People close to Abramovich insist he is no closer to Putin than any of the other few dozen oligarchs the president regularly meets.
"Roman's never spoken to Putin as much in his life as in the last month. Others could have gotten involved too, but they didn't," one of them says.
His confidants fear he could have been poisoned in early March by hardliners in Russia or Ukraine upset at his role in the talks — although they say the medical results were not sufficiently conclusive to identify the source.
Abramovich has pushed to organise escape routes for civilians in Mariupol, where tens of thousands have been trapped in a destroyed city without water, heating and electricity for weeks. But according to Zelensky, these efforts failed when Russia refused to observe a ceasefire.
"Everyone in Mariupol was trying, including him specifically, I know — but nothing came of it," he said.
If the sanctions did indeed push Abramovich to get involved in the talks, the advocates of the measures hope this is only the beginning.
"The intention is to create a motivation for them to remove Putin, because now they understand that the sanctions will be lifted only if there is change in the government. So now they have an incentive to get it all back," says Ashurkov.
But for now, people close to Abramovich say Putin shows no signs of relenting.
"What's the point of calling him Putin's wallet?" one of them says of the claim that Abramovich has long denied. "Putin doesn't need a wallet. The whole country is his wallet."
© Financial Times