By Yesim Dikmen and Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, sanctioned by the West for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, made a surprise appearance in Istanbul on Tuesday at the first direct peace talks in weeks between Russian negotiators and Ukrainians.
The two teams sat facing each other at a long table in the presidential office on the grounds of an Ottoman palace. The Russian oligarch sat in the front row of observers dressed in a blue suit, a Turkish presidential video showed.
In the most tangible sign yet of progress towards the end of the war, Russia walked out of the talks promising to scale back military operations around kyiv and the north of the country, and Ukraine offered to adopt a neutral status.
For Abramovich, signals have emerged since the start of the war that he has sought to encourage negotiations, and he visited Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and Israel in March. Two of its superyachts are moored in Turkish resorts.
His presence initially baffled at least one Ukrainian diplomat, while Moscow said he was not formally negotiating but rather there as an intermediary and had the approval of the Ukrainian side .
A spokesperson for Abramovich did not respond to a request for comment. Abramovich showed no signs of alleged poisoning reported earlier this month.
The Wall Street Journal and investigative newspaper Bellingcat, citing people familiar with the matter, said Abramovich and the Ukrainian negotiators suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning after a meeting in Kyiv.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the poisoning reports false and part of an “information war”.
Turkey, a NATO member, shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea, enjoys good relations with both and has offered to mediate in the conflict. While calling Moscow’s invasion unacceptable, Ankara has also opposed Western sanctions.
In a speech ahead of the Bosphorus Straits talks, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told delegations that the time had come for concrete results and that progress would pave the way for a meeting of the two countries’ leaders.
“It is up to the parties to end this tragedy. Achieving a ceasefire and peace as soon as possible is in everyone’s interest,” he said.
Footage released by kyiv shows Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov being warmly welcomed by his Turkish counterpart ahead of the talks on the grounds of Dolmabahce Palace.
Reznikov, who was not wearing a face mask, joked with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar that Ukraine abandoned COVID-19 precautions during the Russian invasion.
Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24. Putin called it a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say Putin has launched an unprovoked war of aggression.
SUPERYACHTS IN TURKEY
Commenting on Abramovich’s presence, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, told the BBC: “I have no idea what Mr Abramovich is claiming or doing. He is not part of the negotiating team.”
Peskov told reporters on a conference call that Abramovich was not an official member of the Russian delegation to the talks, but acknowledged his presence there to “allow for some contact” between the parties.
The Kremlin said it played an early role in the talks, but the process now rests with the negotiating teams. Television video showed him sitting next to Erdogan’s spokesman and adjusting his headphones to listen to the president’s speech.
The West imposed heavy sanctions on Abramovich and other Russian billionaires, businesses and Russian officials, in an effort to force Putin out of Ukraine.
Abramovich had sought to sell his English football club Chelsea, a process that was taken away from him by the British government when it blacklisted him.
Related superyachts, worth an estimated $1.2 billion, have been moored in Bodrum and Marmaris in southwestern Turkey since last week. Sources said he and other wealthy Russians were looking to invest in Turkey given sanctions elsewhere.
Its potential as a safe haven for Russian investment increases the risks to Turkey’s government, banks and businesses, which could be sanctioned if the US and others pressure Moscow with more “secondary” sanctions. wide.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Kate Holton in London, Pavel Polityuk in Lviv and Dominic Evans in Istanbul; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Frank Jack Daniel and Nick Macfie)