Advertisement

How Russia's Roman Abramovich went from a billionaire sports tycoon to Putin's backchannel to the West

roman abramovich
Russian billionaire and businessman Roman Abramovich attends meeting at the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, on December, 19, 2016.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
  • Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, businessman Roman Abramovich had it all.

  • Aside from owning a vast number of assets, he also enjoyed close ties to Putin, officials said.

  • Many now see him as the Russian president's backchannel to the West.

Roman Abramovich is one of Russia's most recognizable oligarchs.

Roman Abramovich no longer owns Chelsea FC.
Roman Abramovich no longer owns Chelsea FC.Clive Mason/Getty Images

The billionaire once had a vast luxury empire that included superyachts, private jets, flashy cars, extravagant real estate, and —most notably — the London soccer team Chelsea Football Club.

roman abramovich
Roman Abramovich celebrates after the final match between Chelsea and Palmeiras at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on February 12, 2022.Michael Regan - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Source: Business Insider

Abramovich has Russian, Israeli, and Portuguese citizenship. But because of the soccer club and his real estate, the UK was largely seen as his adoptive home.

roman abramovich property
Luxury properties in Chester Square in London, where a number of Russian property owners — including Roman Abramovich — are said to have invested.Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

The oligarch, who used to be the governor of a remote Arctic province called Chukotka, also enjoyed close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Western officials said.

vladimir putin abramovich
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks as Roman Abramovich (L) looks on during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, on July 19, 2016.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Source: European Union

So when Putin launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring country Ukraine, Abramovich was among the handful of Russian oligarchs who paid the price.

roman abramovich
Protesters occupy the property of Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, in Knightsbridge, London, on March 14, 2022.Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

In March 2022, Abramovich was sanctioned by the European Union and the UK after ministers accused him of having ties to Putin, and — by extension — "blood on his hands."

roman abramovich
Russian businessman Roman Abramovich attends a meeting at the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, on December 19, 2016.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Abramovich had all of his assets frozen and was banned from travelling to Britain, The Guardian reported.

Source: The Guardian

A few days after the start of the war, Abramovich said he was selling Chelsea FC, ending 19 years of ownership.

Billionaire Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich watches Chelsea, the soccer club he owns.
Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Abramovich announced he was selling the Premier League soccer team on March 2, 2022.

"I have therefore taken the decision to sell the Club, as I believe this is in the best interest of the Club, the fans, the employees, as well as the Club's sponsors and partners," he said in a statement at the time.

"Moreover, I have instructed my team to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale will be donated. The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine," he added.

Other than the euphemistic mention of "victims", the statement did not address the specifics of the war, blame Russia for invading, or mention the sanctions that forced the sale.

In May 2022 the $5.3 billion sale was completed, and the club now belongs to LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and investment company Clearlake Capital Group.

Before he was sanctioned, Abramovich was also rushing to offload some of his glitzy London real estate, reports said at the time.

roman abramovich house
Luxury properties in Chester Square in London SW1 where Roman Abramovich is said to own a home.Richard Baker/Getty Images

It is unclear whether he was successful in selling the properties.

Source: Business Insider

While many Russian oligarchs had their yachts seized following the sanctions, Abramovich was able to move his to safety.

roman abramovich yacht turkey
Eclipse, the private luxury yacht of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, anchors in Mugla, Turkey, on November 1, 2022.Sabri Kesen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

 

 

 

Abramovich owns two of the world's most expensive superyachts: the $600 million Solaris and the $700 million Eclipse. Both are docked in Turkey.

solaris turkey
Solaris, the private luxury yacht of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, anchors off the coast of Yalikavak, Turkey, on April 4, 2022.Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Oligarchs who couldn't get their yachts out of European or US waters in time found their vessels seized, and in some cases auctioned off. As BI reported, Abramovich moved both of his to Turkey.

In June 2022, a federal judge in New York authorized US officials to seize two of Roman Abramovich's private jets, saying that both jets flew to Russia in March — violating export restrictions.

roman abrov
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich looks on from the stands during a match between Chelsea and Manchester City in London, England, on April 7, 2017.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Source: The Guardian

Abramovich hasn't publicly condemned the war in Ukraine.

roman abramovich
Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge in London, England, on May 21, 2017.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

But he acted as an envoy in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in the weeks after the invasion, and many regard him as Putin's backchannel to the West.

roman
Russian businessman Roman Abramovich attends the peace talks between delegations from Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 29, 2022.Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"I can confirm that Roman Abramovich was contacted by the Ukrainian side for support in achieving a peaceful resolution and that he has been trying to help ever since," a spokesman for the ex-owner of Chelsea told Sky News at the time.

After attending peace talks at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border in March 2022, Abramovich suffered symptoms consistent with poisoning. He made a full recovery.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in London, United Kingdom, on November 4, 2011.Andrew Winning/Reuters

The symptoms included peeling of the skin, and red eyes, BI previously reported.

Abramovich reportedly asked doctors if he was dying.

His 27-year-old daughter, Sofia Abramovich, condemned the war in Ukraine, writing in an Instagram Stories post in March 2022: "The biggest and most successful lie of Kremlin's propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin."

sofia abramovich
Roman Abramovich and his daughter Sofia in Monaco, on June 27, 2015.Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Source: The Times of London

Since 2022, Abramovich has been spending most of his time in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where governments have not imposed any sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

mansions istanbul turkey
Historic mansions line the waterfront in Istanbul, Turkey.Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Local media reported that Abramovich was looking to buy real estate in Turkey, though BI was unable to independently verify these reports.

Meanwhile, The Mirror reported in June 2023 that Abramovich was renting a mansion that overlooks the Bosphorus in Istanbul for $50,000 per month.

 

A report by The Guardian found that Abramovich had transferred assets worth more than $4 billion to his seven children just three weeks before the start of the war in Ukraine.

roman abramovich
Roman Abramovich celebrates Chelsea FC winning the Premier League in London, England, on May 21, 2017.Catherine Ivill/AMA/Getty Images

The assets included luxury properties, yachts, helicopters, and private jets, The Guardian reported.

They also included the Eclipse superyacht worth $700 million.

Source: The Guardian 

In December 2022, Canada said it would start the process of seizing $26 million from Granite Capital Holdings Ltd. — a company owned by Abramovich.

Chrystia Freeland
Chrystia Freeland, Canada's deputy prime minister and finance minister.Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland accused Russian oligarchs of being complicit in the "illegal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine" in a statement, adding that the country "will not be a haven for their ill-gotten gains."

Source: Canadian government

And his troubles keep coming. In December 2023, he lost a legal battle against the European Union after it froze his assets and blocked his visa.

european union
Flags of Europe as seen waving on a pole.Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Abramovich filed a lawsuit against the European Council in 2022 in an effort to get the sanctions against him reversed. But it was announced in December 2023 that the lawsuit was dismissed, AP News reported.

"The General Court dismisses the action brought by Mr. Abramovich, thereby upholding the restrictive measures taken against him," the court said in a statement obtained by AP News.

"The Council did not in fact err in its assessment by deciding to include, then maintain Mr. Abramovich's name on the lists at issue, in the light of his role in the Evraz group and, in particular, its parent company."

Most recently, it was alleged that Abramovich was involved in negotiating a prisoner exchange that would have freed Alexey Navalny before his death.

Alexey Navalny
Alexey Navalny.AP

Alexey Navalny, Putin's political nemesis, died suddenly on February 16.

Before his death, Navalny was being held at an Arctic penal colony which many viewed as a punishment for his opposition to Putin and the Kremlin.

While the Kremlin denied any involvement in his death, world leaders, commentators, and Navalny's family have publicly blamed Putin.

Speaking in a video posted to YouTube, Maria Pevchikh — an anti-corruption activist who was one of Navalny's allies — said that Navalny was close to being released as part of a prisoner exchange that was being negotiated the day before his death.

"Roman Abramovich was the one who delivered the proposal to swap Navalny to Putin. As an informal negotiator communicating with American and European officials, and at the same time, representing Putin; an unofficial channel of communication with the Kremlin," she said.

Pevchikh noted that she contacted Abramovich through mutual acquaintances to ask for more details about the alleged negotiations. She said that although he didn't respond, he did not deny the allegations.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 1 2023 and most recently updated on February 26 2024 to include details about Roman Abramovich's alleged role in mediating a prisoner swap to release Alexey Navalny. 

Read the original article on Business Insider