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Abramovich appears at Ukraine-Russia talks in Istanbul

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By Reuters

By Yesim Dikmen and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL -Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held the first direct peace talks in more than two weeks on Tuesday in Istanbul, with the surprise attendance of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich who is sanctioned by the West over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two teams sat facing each other at a long table in the presidential office, with the Russian oligarch sitting in the front row of observers wearing a blue suit, a Turkish presidential video feed showed.

Signs have emerged since the war began that Abramovich has been seeking to encourage negotiations, and he has traveled to Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and Israel in March. Two of his superyachts are docked at Turkish resorts.

His presence baffled at least one Ukrainian diplomat, while Moscow said he was not formally negotiating but rather there as a go-between.

A spokesperson for Abramovich did not respond to a request for comment.

Security guarantees and organising a ceasefire to resolve humanitarian problems were under discussion, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it would become clear by Wednesday if the talks were promising.

NATO member Turkey shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea, has good ties with both and has offered to mediate the conflict. While calling Moscow’s invasion unacceptable, Ankara has also opposed the Western sanctions.

In a speech ahead of the talks by the Bosphorus strait, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told the delegations the time had come for concrete results and that progress would pave the way for a meeting of the countries’ two leaders.

“It is up to the sides to stop this tragedy. Achieving a ceasefire and peace as soon as possible is to the benefit of everyone,” he said.

“The negotiating process, which you have been carrying out under the orders of your leaders, has raised hopes for peace.”

Ukrainian television said the meeting began with “a cold welcome” and no handshake between delegations.

Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Putin called it a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say Putin launched an unprovoked war of aggression.

SUPERYACHTS IN TURKEY

Commenting on Abramovich’s presence, Ukrainian ambassador to Britain Vadym Prystaiko told the BBC: “I have no idea what Mr Abramovich is claiming or doing. He is not a part of the negotiation team.”

Peskov told reporters on a conference call Abramovich was not an official member of the Russian delegation at the talks, but acknowledged his presence there to “enable certain contacts” between sides.

The Kremlin has said he played an early role in talks but the process was now up to negotiating teams. Sitting next to Erdogan’s spokesman, Abramovich adjusted his headphones to listen to the president’s speech, TV showed.

The Wall Street Journal and investigative outlet Bellingcat, citing people familiar with the matter, said Abramovich and Ukrainian negotiators suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning earlier this month after a meeting in Kyiv.

Peskov dismissed the poisoning reports as untrue and part of an “information war”.

The West has imposed heavy sanctions on Abramovich and other Russian billionaires, Russian companies and officials, in a bid to force Putin to withdraw from Ukraine.

Abramovich had sought to sell his English soccer club Chelsea, a process that was taken out of his hands by the British government when it blacklisted him.

Superyachts linked to him, together worth an estimated $1.2 billion, have been docked at Bodrum and Marmaris in southwest Turkey since last week. Sources have said he and other wealthy Russians were looking to invest in Turkey given sanctions elsewhere.

Its potential as a safe haven for Russian investment raises risks for Turkey’s government, banks and businesses that could face penalties if the United States and others pressure Moscow with broader “secondary” sanctions.