- Share to or
Pushing papers, telling jokes In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Roman Abramovich and his team hoped for a peaceful resolution. Then Bucha changed everything.
At the outset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the hope of regulating the emergency through peace talks was very much alive on both sides of the conflict. Since then, those hopes have evaporated. The Ukrainian side has grown disenchanted with a Russian delegation incapable of making autonomous decisions, pinned as it were to the positions rigidly specified in advance by the Kremlin. After the Russian atrocities in Bucha shocked the world, the space for compromise shrank to a minimum, and the peace talks devolved into addressing localized questions like prisoner exchanges and the grain deal. Yet the peacemaking group still exists, and its Russian side, loosely organized around the oligarch Roman Abramovich, has a number of surprising players. Here’s what we know about its composition and its members’ contacts with the Ukrainian side.
Media skits and history jokes
Official peace talks between Ukraine and Russia have ground to a halt as far back as March 2022, despite the fact that both sides had entered them in real hopes of ending the war through peacemaking. One participant told Meduza that the composition of the Russian delegation had seemed encouraging at first: “There was only one madman on the Russian delegation,” he says, and this was Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin:
He was constantly repeating propaganda cliches about “denazification” and really believed them too. Everyone else, like Medinsky, was more or less sane and rational.
The Ukrainian delegation included Mykhailo Podolyak, the well-known advisor to President Zelensky’s chief of staff. As late as mid-March, Podolyak still expressed a tempered optimism about the talks’ potential for ending the war. At that time, he gave an interview to Meduza, describing former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (a key figure from the Russian side) as a “constructive negotiator.” The Russian side, he said, showed a “desire to arrive at some compromise” in drafting a peace agreement.
Medinsky was made part of the delegation, says one of his friends, in part simply because Putin “likes listening to him talk about history.” But there was also a calculated decision not to include “hardboiled hawks” in the group and to comprise it of affable, rational people. On March 29, a month into the war, it was Medinsky who announced the Russian army’s retreats on the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions, claiming that Russia was making “two huge steps towards peace.”
But Medinsky’s readiness for concessions met with immediate fierce criticisms back in Russia, where the “hardboiled hawks” had been waiting for their revenge. Chechnya Governor Ramzan Kadyrov proclaimed: “We’re not making any concessions, Mr. Medinsky seems to be mistaken.” Vladimir Putin then said that the Ukrainian authorities had failed to comply with some agreement in connection with Russia’s retreat, and negotiations stalled.
“There were some skits for the media,” recalls an eyewitness who spoke with Meduza, “when members of the delegations pushed some papers around the table. The rest of the time, they just sat around chatting and telling history jokes.”
Then the Russian army withdrew from the Kyiv region. When the world learned about the Russian troops’ mass killings of Ukrainian civilians, including the unfathomable atrocities in Bucha, everything changed. Kyiv’s rhetoric became harder. There wouldn’t be any more talking to Putin. Moscow, meanwhile, continued to insist that it’s ready for dialogue, but only “on its own terms.”
Speaking to Meduza, Mykhailo Podolyak reflected on that shift:
Before Bucha, that is, before their retreat from the Kyiv region, no one quite understood what kind of war Russia was waging in Ukraine. But very soon, it became clear that Russia didn’t come for peace talks. Later, we did realize that this was a typical position for Russian diplomacy: you come and say something, but what you mean is something else entirely. After Bucha, it became clear: negotiations would merely slow down the genocidal destruction of Ukraine. They wouldn’t let us go on existing as a sovereign state.
A close acquaintance of someone who took part in the peace talks shared the sense that, in the spring, the Russian peacemaking group had no power to make decisions or bargain in real time:
All of them came with readymade papers. There wasn’t any improvisation. Anytime something needed discussion, everything stalled. They played for time, deferred to the leadership, but made no decisions on their own.
The same source pointed out that Russian negotiators had no sense of what to expect from their leadership on any particular question, and what might happen at the front as a result.
Podolyak told Meduza that Russian negotiators, when asked about retreating further from their positions, would respond that they intended not to retreat but to advance. “This was remarkable,” says Podolyak. “It was as if they were saying, ‘We cannot capture these cities, so you must just give them to us.’”
The absurdity of these contributions finally convinced the Ukrainian delegation that, in reality, there was no Russian negotiating group as such. According to Podolyak:
This wasn’t surprising. The whole power arrangement in Russia is incompatible with decision-making on different levels. This is why the guys who came to the talks (like any other Russian delegation) were just a propaganda outfit. These weren’t people who could make their own calls about conflict resolution, change their positions, or take part in dialogue.
As a result, negotiating devolved into purely informal contacts and settling specific questions like prisoner exchange. As of today, no one thinks of any full-fledged peacemaking process between the two sides.
Roman Abramovich and peacemaking
One of the more unexpected Russian peacemakers was the oligarch Roman Abramovich, who enjoyed a place as one of Vlaidmir Putin’s “trusted persons” just before the start of the invasion. In early April, The Financial Times reported that President Putin had personally “blessed” Abramovich to mediate the peace talks. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also said that, although Abramovich wasn’t part of Russia’s official delegation, he nevertheless facilitated contacts between Moscow and Kyiv, helping mediate prisoner-of-war exchanges.
A source close to the Russian government told Meduza that Abramovich joined the peace talks on his own initiative but also with Putin’s consent. Meanwhile, a Kyiv source familiar with the talks adds that Abramovich also contacted the Ukrainian side and offered his services as a mediator.
The Wall Street Journal has suggested that Abramovich’s peacemaking activities might be motivated by a desire to get off international sanctions lists. After February 24, Abramovich’s “long-time close ties with Putin” led to sanctions against him, from both the EU and Great Britain. Ukraine also sanctioned him, but those restrictions were provisionally lifted until the end of the prisoner-of-war exchange. A large portion of Abramovich’s assets is currently frozen, and even the Chelsea Football Club he once owned has been sold to an investor consortium, with legal guarantees that Abramovich himself would not profit from the deal, and the proceeds would go to a Ukrainian charity.
Two of Abramovich’s close associates, who agreed to speak with Meduza on the condition of anonymity, said that the entrepreneur had really hoped he might succeed in regulating the Russia-Ukraine conflict. One said that, in recent months, Abramovich has become more interested in the peace process than in his own corporate empire:
It’s pointless to talk to him about business these days. He loses interest within a minute — he’s got other things on his mind. He’ll just say, “Listen, have you read this thing Zelensky said yesterday? What do you think will happen next? What can be done?” This is what interests him a lot more.
Abramovich introduced another figure to the talks: David Davidovich, his longtime business partner and “righthand man” (to quote a Forbes profile). One of the insiders who spoke to Meduza says Davidovich would not travel to Ukraine, and that this may have been connected with sanctions, too. Just like Abramovich, Davidovich was sanctioned by the British government in spring 2022, and three additional sources familiar with Davidovich and (or) the peace talks, have confirmed that Kyiv also sanctioned him. (Verifying this officially proved impossible, since Ukraine has classified its sanction lists under the martial law, and Davidovich himself did not respond to Meduza’s queries.)
But Davidovich isn’t the only member of Abramovich’s circle involved in the peace talks. Alexander Voloshin, who chaired the Skolkovo board of directors and once served as the presidential chief of staff (from 1999 to 2003), also took part in the early phase of this work, according to one of his acquaintances, as well as two other sources within the peacemaking group.
Unlike Davidovich, Voloshin didn’t travel to Ukraine at all, communicating with the Ukrainian side instead over the phone. Among others, he would call Davyd Arakhamia, the leader of the Servant of the People fraction in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, who was himself a member of the Ukrainian peacemaking delegation. An acquaintance of Voloshin’s explains that he took no part in the official talks: “It was just an informal conversation about whether something could be done to help the situation.” At the start of the full-scale invasion, he says, both sides believed that peaceful regulation was still possible.
The group also included the Russo-Ukrainian film producer Alexander Rodnyansky. Once again, this was another longtime friend of Abramovich’s. In a January 2023 interview, Rodnyansky said that, on the first day of the invasion, he got a call from Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, who invited him to join Abramovich in trying to regulate the situation quickly. Rodnyansky connected this offer with the fact that he knows Zelensky and his team quite well. (It was on Rodnyansky’s 1+1 TV channel, after all, that Zelensky started his TV career back in the early 2000s.)
Rodnyansky’s role in the peace process boiled down to helping organize POW exchanges, possibly facilitating the exchange that returned a number of Azovstal defenders to Ukraine, in exchange for Putin’s close associate Victor Medvedchuk (prompting another wave of criticism inside Russia).
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
An Abramovich proxy
Recently, the Russian peace delegation got a new member. This is yet another person from Roman Abramovich’s circle: Sergey Kapkov, the former head of Moscow’s Culture Department. Recently, Kapkov traveled to both Kyiv and Istanbul at Abramovich’s behest, as confirmed by two of their mutual acquaintances.
Kapkov’s connection with Abramovich goes a long way back. In the early 2000s, Kapkov worked as Abramovich’s deputy when the latter served as the governor of Chukotka, a remote peninsula of the Russian Far East. A decade later, Kapkov made a name for himself in Moscow’s municipal administration, where he took charge of the Gorky Park reconstruction, a showcase of Mayor Sobyanin’s “new and improved Moscow.”
Two sources familiar with the Kyiv-Moscow talks have confirmed that Kapkov now takes part in the peacemaking process as Abramovich’s “proxy.” Both speakers note that Kapkov, unlike David Davidovich, can still enter Ukraine legally. (It helps that, in addition to his Russian citizenship, he also has an Israeli passport.) What makes Kapkov valuable to Abramovich’s peacemaking efforts is that he isn’t hampered by sanctions and can move around the world at will. He is also known simply as a “sane person,” capable of communicating and getting along with people. Here’s how a person who knows both Kapkov and Abramovich describes his role:
If someone needs to phone [Russian Defense Minister Sergey] Shoigu, this is done by Roman [Abramovich]. If communication has already been established, everyone knows everyone, and you just need to call some general, this is done by Kapkov. The Russian and Ukrainian militaries rarely communicate directly.
An informed Ukrainian source fills in this picture: “Abramovich communicates with fundamental, so to speak, players, like Shoigu or Putin. His helpers do more of the technical work: preparing documents or analytics.”
‘Compromise is categorically unacceptable’
Peacemaking insiders who spoke with Meduza highlight Roman Abramovich’s informal contacts with both sides of the Ukraine-Russia talks, and the sense that he “gives all of his time to questions of prisoner exchange.” “Roman really does commiserate with other people’s sorrows, with their misfortunes,” says one of his friends. “He isn’t doing it because of the sanctions, I know this for a fact.”
At the same time, a Ukrainian insider to the talks points out that Abramovich’s efforts are all but meaningless, since his scope is, in fact, limited to questions of POW exchanges and particulars like the grain deal. In the past, he had been a genuine mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, but since then, the “political component,” as the source calls it, has evaporated from the talks. What has changed is best explained by another speaker, a person close to the Ukrainian President’s Office:
Bucha has shocked many pro-Western people, and above all created a certain backdrop… The thing is that, in Ukraine, political decisions cannot be made in spite of society and its interests. As of today, compromise is categorically unacceptable.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky’s chief of staff, largely agrees with this viewpoint. As of this moment, he says, the Kremlin’s actions seem to be saying to Ukraine: “You must give up your sovereignty and recognize we have a right to occupy your territories.” For Kyiv, says Podolyak, this is unacceptable, and abiding by this position is tantamount to the Ukrainian nation’s slow death. This is what makes it impossible to talk to Moscow.
- Share to or