Roman Abramovich ‘was the TARGET of peace-talk “chocolate poisoning” that left him temporarily blind and shedding skin: Attack was ‘a warning not to betray the Kremlin’, investigator behind shocking revelation claims
- Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev said Abramovich was the poison target
- He said none of the three affected were intended to die from low dosage attack
- The chemical weapons hit serves as a warning to antiwar dissent, he added
The lead investigator who exposed the poisoning of Roman Abramovich has said the chemical attack was a warning to the billionaire and others not to betray the Kremlin.
Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator for the investigative news outlet Bellingcat, said the billionaire oligarch was not supposed to die in the poisoning which also affected two Ukrainian negotiators.
He told Times Radio: ‘The dosage was not high enough to kill any of the three, the most likely target would have been Abramovich. And it kind of makes sense.
‘I mean, he volunteered to play… this role of (an) honest broker, but other oligarchs had… declared certain independence from the Kremlin position and criticise(d) the war.
‘So it could well be seen as a warning sign to them to not join the ranks of those who dissent, and to not be too much of an honest broker.’
Roman Abramovich was the target of a poisoning earlier this month, investigators believe. Pictured: Abramovich sits in a VIP lounge before a jet linked to him took off for Istanbul from Ben Gurion international airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 14
Christo Grozev (pictured), lead Russia investigator for the investigative news outlet Bellingcat, said the billionaire oligarch was not supposed to die in the poisoning
A source close to Volodymyr Zelensky told The Financial Times: ‘People became totally blind… the next day.
‘We did not identify the substance. No idea who was behind [the attack] but it looks like Roman was the main target.’
Another said it was ‘definitely not Novichok’, adding: ‘They couldn’t work out who did it – the Ukrainians or the Russians.’
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the poisoning attempt during peace talks in Kyiv on March 3 was ‘very concerning’.
It said the UK will ‘continue to assist’ by implementing tough sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime as well as by providing defensive and humanitarian support to put Ukraine ‘in the strongest possible negotiating position’.
A representative for Abramovich confirmed yesterday the oligarch had suffered the reported symptoms after eating chocolate and drinking water but refused to give any further details.
The Chelsea owner as well as two senior members of the Ukrainian team developed symptoms that included red eyes, painful streaming eyes as well as peeling skin on their faces and hands.
Abramovich, who accepted a Ukrainian request to help negotiate an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, also ‘went blind for several hours’ and was treated at a hospital in Turkey, a source told The Guardian.
Abramovich, another Russian entrepreneur and Ukrainian MP Rustem Umerov (pictured) had been taking part in the negotiations, with the talks lasting until about 10 pm, investigative news site Bellingcat said
Sources told the PA news agency Mr Abramovich had now recovered and was continuing to try to help with the negotiations.
It is understood the oligarch had been involved in talks about securing humanitarian corridors to allow Ukrainians to leave as well as bringing other countries to the negotiating table.
The WSJ reported it was believed the suspected attack was orchestrated by hardliners in Russia who wanted to sabotage the talks.
Asked about the allegations on BBC Newsnight, Sergiy Petukhov, the former deputy minister of justice of Ukraine, said: ‘It’s really hard to make any conclusions out of (the) information that we have.
‘Remember previously one of the Ukrainian negotiators was murdered in Kyiv under unknown circumstances.’
He said the situation makes ‘the atmosphere of the negotiations very tense and nervous, definitely not contributing to success’.
‘I think we will have to wait until further information comes out to be able to reach a conclusion (on) whether it was an intentional attack on the negotiation process or something else that just happened,’ he added.
Abramovich, another Russian entrepreneur and Ukrainian MP Rustem Umerov had been taking part in the negotiations, with the talks lasting until about 10pm according to Bellingcat.
When Roman Abramovich was pictured looking grey, thin and anxious in an Israeli airport a fortnight ago, it was assumed he was suffering in his new status as a global pariah
The investigative news site said it had known about the suspected poisoning for some time but chose not to publicise the information ‘due to concern about the safety of the victims’.
The revelation comes just days after Abramovich reportedly travelled to Poland to act as a negotiator between Putin and US President Joe Biden, who visited the Polish town of Rzeszow mere miles from the Ukrainian border last week.
Asked about the suspected poisoning, Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak only said: ‘There is a lot of speculation, various conspiracy theories’.
Umerov meanwhile urged people not to trust ‘unverified information’.
The three members of the delegation left the talks on 3 March to an apartment in Kyiv later that night.
Whilst there, they were all suffering from eye and skin inflammation and piercing pain in their eyes until the next morning. The three men had consumed only chocolate and water in the hours before the symptoms appeared.
A fourth member of the team who also consumed the same food and water did not experience symptoms.
The next day – on March 4 – Abramovich, Umerov and the other negotiator drove from Kyiv to the Ukrainian city of Lviv whilst on their way to Poland, still experiencing symptoms.
They then moved on to Istanbul, where they are believed to have received treatment before continuing negotiations.
Chemical weapons specialists and a Bellingcat investigator carried out examinations of the three men and concluded the symptoms are ‘most likely the result of intentional poisoning with an undefined chemical weapon’.
The symptoms experienced by Abramovich and the two other negotiators subsided by the end of the following week.
The Kremlin acknowledged for the first time last week that Abramovich was officially involved in early peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, but spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted on Thursday the oligarch was no longer part of the negotiation team.
‘He did take part at the initial stage,’ Peskov said Thursday. ‘Now the negotiations are between the two teams, the Russians and Ukrainians.’
Chemical weapons experts said the dosage and type of toxic used in the March 3 attack was ‘likely insufficient to cause life-threatening damage’ and instead intended ‘to scare the victims as opposed to cause permanent damage’.
Sources told WSJ they blamed the suspected poisoning attack on hard-liners in Moscow who wanted to ruin talks to end the war. The victims meanwhile said they were not aware of who would have an interest in the attack.
Roman Abramovich (left) and producer Alexander Rodnyanski (right) attend a RuArts Foundation cocktail party in Sochi, Russia, in 2017
What is Bellingcat?
Bellingcat is an investigative journalism site ran by British journalist and blogger Elliot Higgins.
Higgins rose to prominence for his investigations of the Syrian Civil War in 2012 and 2013, in which he used open-source intelligence and geo-location to prove the Syrian regime’s use of chemical and cluster weapons.
Off the back of his success, he launched Bellingcat in 2014, and along with a small group of fellow journalists and volunteers discovered that the MH17 disaster, which claimed the lives of 298 civilians, was caused by a Russian missile.
Higgins continued to fund Bellingcat’s investigations with crowdfunding via Kickstarter, and the organisation began to expand overseas and take on more investigations.
The organisation now has roughly 20 full time staff and dozens of contributors around the world, and is funded entirely by crowdfunding, grants and revenue generated via its training programmes.
Bellingcat specialises in using open-source intelligence (OSINT) and social media research to fact-check and verify information, and provides training to journalists looking to develop their research skills.
Higgins described Bellingcat as ‘citizen investigative journalists using open source information to investigate, collaborate, and report on worldwide issues that are being under-reported and ignored’.
The Chelsea FC owner has reportedly been jetting between Istanbul, Moscow and Kyiv to relay messages between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.
But when handed a note from the Ukrainian president outlining peace terms, the Russian despot reportedly erupted with fury.
Abramovich has been trying to rescue his reputation after being slapped with sanctions by the UK and EU over his closeness to Putin.
His assets have been frozen across Britain and the Continent and he started a fire sale of London property as well as Chelsea football club.
But his yachts and jets, which are worth hundreds of millions of pounds, remain out of bounds as they dodge sanctioned waters and airspace.
Meanwhile Zelensky reportedly pleaded with President Joe Biden for the US to hold off bringing measures against the oligarch due to his role in negotiations.
Abramovich left Ataturk airport in Istanbul on a private Hawker 800XP jet last Wednesday, heaving across the Black Sea towards Sochi.
Its flight tracker went dark near the city of Mineralnye Vody, with the plane later popping up leaving Vnukovo airport in Moscow and returning to the Turkish capital.
The oligarch had flown in to meet Putin and hand him a handwritten note by Zelensky outlining Ukraine’s peace terms position.
According to the Times, the Russian president said to the oligarch: ‘Tell him I will thrash them.’
He returned to Istanbul and linked up with Ukrainian politician Rustem Umerov, who is said to be acting as Kyiv’s negotiator.
They met at five-star hotels in the Turkish capital, having been set up by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
Abramovich and Umerov have visited the Ukrainian President in war-torn Kyiv after travelling on private jets routed through Warsaw, Poland.
The businessman has been flying on one owned by a Turkish firm due to his being under EU sanctions.
He is one of at least 20 oligarchs in Turkey as they toe the line between Putin and Western restrictions.
He has two of his yachts moored in Bodrum on the south west coast despite the presence of Ukrainian protesters.
Turkey has not sanctioned Abramovich and appears to have allowed him to help in the negotiations surrounding the war.
Abramovich is pictured left with Putin at a meeting with top businessman in Sochi in 2016
Abramovich’s luxury lifestyle is being squeezed by EU and UK sanctions – and now the US has moved to prevent his Gulfstream plane from making international flights
Insiders said he was determined to draw the war to an end after seeing the horrors in Ukraine, where his mother Irina was born.
Meanwhile another set of negotiations in Turkey were being held between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers.
Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba met in Antalya on March 10, with Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu overseeing the chat that ultimately failed.
He also met with ex-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to try to broker peace with Putin earlier this month.
They are believed to have met at one of the Russian capital’s luxury hotels where the former premier was staying, according to multiple sources.
The billionaire oligarch entered and left via a side door to avoid being spotted, according to German newspaper Bild.
The meeting was believed to have been in the same suite where Schröder’s wife, Soyeon Schröder-Kim, prayed for peace with the Kremlin on Instagram.
The talks lasted ‘several hours’ and later in the evening Schröder is said to have met with Putin at the Kremlin.
No further details were released but Reuters said an insider told them the oligarch wanted to find a way to stop the conflict.
Abramovich who is a Russian–Portuguese–Israeli billionaire, was close to the Kremlin during the reign of Boris Yeltsin.
He is said to have been the first person to recommend Putin to Yeltsin as his replacement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks as billionaire and businessman Roman Abramovich (L) looks on during a meeting in 2016
During Putin’s time in power, Abramovich was the governor of the Chukchi Autonomous Okrug for eight years.
After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the UK imposed sanctions on Abramovich, who has been the owner of Chelsea for almost 20 years since buying the club in 2004.
The west London team is now for sale and is currently under the hammer in a bidding process.
Abramovich has pledged to write off Chelsea’s £1.5billion debt and the bidding frenzy for the club could see the eventual deal hit £3billion.
The Russian billionaire made his fortune buying up discounted state assets after the collapse of the Soviet Union and owns billions of pounds pf assets in the UK.
In the past month he has been hit by a string of sanctions in the UK and EU due to his close relationship with Putin, and scrambled to divest before the asset freeze hit.
It comes as Boris Johnson pledged to ‘co-ordinate closely’ with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in the days ahead, reiterating the UK’s commitment to strengthening economic pressure on Moscow.
Meanwhile, British defence intelligence analysts warned more than 1,000 Russian mercenaries are expected to deploy to eastern Ukraine to undertake combat operations.
In an intelligence update on Twitter, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Russia had ‘highly likely been forced to reprioritise’ personnel from the paramilitary Wagner Group, at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria, ‘due to heavy losses and a largely stalled invasion’.
The Wagner Group, seen as Mr Putin’s private army, was among the latest tranche of entities sanctioned by the UK Government over the Russian invasion last week.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Mr Putin’s forces were abducting Ukrainian politicians, activists and journalists as Russia failed to meet its military objectives.
She condemned the ‘abhorrent tactic’ following work by Ukrainian human rights group ZMINA, which claimed to have identified dozens of individuals who had been abducted, with thousands more deported to Russia.
Ms Truss said Mr Putin was resorting to ‘desperate measures’.
‘Putin continues to use abhorrent tactics against the Ukrainian people, including abducting innocent civilians,’ she said.
‘He is not achieving his objectives and is resorting to desperate measures. Putin must fail in Ukraine.’
Ms Truss, in a statement to the House of Commons, later told MPs: ‘We know that Putin is not serious about talks, he is still wantonly bombing innocent citizens across Ukraine and that is why we need to do more to ensure that he loses and we force him to think again.
‘We must not just stop Putin in Ukraine but we must also look to the long term. We need to ensure that any future talks don’t end up selling Ukraine out or repeating the mistakes of the past.’
In their call on Monday, No 10 said Mr Zelensky provided Mr Johnson with an update on negotiations, adding that ‘the two leaders agreed to co-ordinate closely in the days ahead’.
The Ukrainian president has signalled he is prepared to offer a series of concessions to Russia to end the fighting.
Ukraine could declare neutrality and offer guarantees about its non-nuclear status as part of a peace deal, Mr Zelensky suggested, but he stressed the desire to ensure the country’s ‘territorial integrity’.
Salisbury, Navalny and Litvinenko: The Kremlin’s links to previous poisonings
Sergei and Yulia Skripal
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia (Pictured) were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury city centre last year after being poisoned by the nerve agent which had been sprayed on the house’s doorknob
Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia were both found slumped on a bench in the city centre in March 2018 after the military-grade chemical Novichok was sprayed on the house’s front door handle.
The attack seriously injured police officer Nick Bailey and Salisbury resident Charlie Rowley, whose partner, Dawn Sturgess, 44, died after she found a perfume bottle containing Novichok and sprayed it on her wrist.
The suspected assassins – Russian intelligence officers Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin – were caught on CCTV as they travelled from Moscow to the Wiltshire cathedral city.
A third suspect, senior Russian agent Denis Sergeev, was believed to be the on-the-ground commander. All three fled back to Russia after their failed murder attempt.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a military grade nerve agent
Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow in August last year with suspected novichok poisoning.
Local health chiefs and doctors claimed they found no evidence of novichok in Navalny’s blood, and denied he had been poisoned.
But there were also claims that the hospital was full of agents of the security service FSB, which was later accused of poisoning Navalny.
He was then airlifted to Germany, where doctors concluded he had been poisoned with a military grade nerve agent.
While being treated in Berlin, Navalny was put into a coma. He came out of it on September 7, 2020, and once he had recovered, decided to return to Russia on January 17, 2021 despite knowing he would be arrested.
His poisoning and arrest sparked widespread condemnation abroad as well as sanctions from Western capitals.
The last photo taken of poisoned spy Alexander Litvinenko alive, in which he is seen lying gaunt in a hospital bed
Litvinenko, a prominent critic of the Kremlin, died aged 43 in London after drinking green tea laced with Polonium 210 at the plush Millennium Hotel in Mayfair.
He died in intensive care on November 23, 2006, more than three weeks after the initial poisoning and three days after the now-infamous photo of him lying in bed without hair was released to the media.
Britain has long blamed the attack on Russia, saying he was poisoned by Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun.
Russia was ordered to pay £105,000 in damages to Alexander Litvinenko’s widow after European judges ruled the state is responsible for his 2006 murder in September last year.
Viktor Yushchenko, the former President of Ukraine, believes the Kremlin was behind his poisoning
The former Ukrainian President suffered horrific disfigurement after he was fed dioxin, a chemical found in the herbicide Agent Orange, while eating dinner with the head of Ukraine’s security service in 2004.
The pro-European Yushchenko was standing against pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych and was a leading figure in the so-called Orange Revolution at the time. He believes the Kremlin was behind his poisoning.
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