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Russia’s Abramovich at risk of US sanctions as peace talks sputter out

Senior US officials are renewing a push for sanctions against billionaire Roman Abramovich after the Russian tycoon’s recent trip to Kyiv to revive peace talks failed to achieve a breakthrough.

Abramovich didn’t meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on that trip, speaking instead to his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, according to three people familiar with the discussions who asked not to be identified because the talks were private. Zelenskyy is increasingly pessimistic about negotiations to end the war after seeing evidence of Russian atrocities in towns such as Bucha and Mariupol, two of the people said.

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As it’s become clear the talks aren’t progressing, pressure has mounted from senior White House advisers to impose sanctions that were drawn up weeks ago, according to people familiar with the administration’s thinking.

A spokesperson for Abramovich didn’t respond to a request for comment, and there was no response from Yermak. White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Two months into the war, the prospect of a negotiated settlement appears as remote as ever, with Russia undertaking a new offensive in Ukraine’s south and east.

The billionaire’s role as an unofficial mediator has been controversial from the start, with critics claiming Russia’s 10th-richest man was only seeking to protect his vast wealth from the penalties unleashed against other business leaders over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

On the day the war started, Abramovich accepted a request from Zelenskyy, passed through an intermediary, to get involved in negotiations to end the fighting, according to three people familiar with the situation. He threw himself into trying to broker a cease-fire, shuttling between Moscow, Kyiv, Belarus and Istanbul for talks behind the scenes, they said.

Early on, Abramovich asked Zelenskyy to request that Western nations not sanction him while he was trying to act as a mediator, the people said.

Despite opposition from some members of his administration, US President Joe Biden honored Zelenskyy’s appeal and has not targeted the tycoon, according to the people familiar with the administration’s position.

Tabloid staple

Abramovich, 55, has long denied he has financial links to the Kremlin. At the same time, his role as an unofficial mediator undermines his assertion he’s not close to Putin and therefore shouldn’t be sanctioned.

Zelenskyy also appealed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to two people familiar with the matter. Abramovich is perhaps the most famous Russian billionaire in the UK and a tabloid staple thanks to his ownership of Chelsea Football Club. That club is now up for sale.

The UK sanctioned Abramovich on March 10, with the European Union following days later. The measures led to a court in the English Channel tax haven of Jersey freezing more than $7 billion of assets linked to him, equal to half his estimated wealth.

The UK has also targeted Abramovich’s close associates Eugene Shvidler, Eugene Tenenbaum, and David Davidovich with measures it said would freeze assets worth as much as £10 billion ($12.8 billion).

Abramovich “represents that side which backs a diplomatic resolution and end of the war among people in Russia,” Zelenskyy said in a recent interview with Ukrainian media in which he stated talks were at a dead-end. “Nobody can guarantee that it is not a game.”

In jeopardy

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oil tycoon who has feuded with Abramovich since 2003, called the talks a ruse.

“Abramovich’s only goal was to get out from under sanctions,” said Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s richest man before Putin jailed him for a decade. “It didn’t work out.”

Immediately after the invasion, it was clear that Abramovich’s business empire was in jeopardy. Amid outrage over Russia’s war in Ukraine, Abramovich announced in early March he would sell Chelsea as the UK targeted other Russian businessmen with asset freezes and travel bans.

He is expected to decide on the preferred bidder for the football team soon, but the proceeds will be subject to UK sanction rules, with the funds frozen unless Abramovich is granted a license to access the money.

Shifting wealth

Abramovich, who holds Russian, Israeli and Portuguese passports, began to shift his wealth at the start of the war. The UK Foreign Office said Tenenbaum took control of Evrington Investments, an Abramovich-linked company, on the day of the invasion and that the company was taken over by his associate, Davidovich, in March.

He has moved two of his yachts to Turkish waters amid the prospect of asset seizures in Europe. He’s also been house hunting on Dubai’s exclusive Palm Jumeirah, people familiar with the matter said last month.

Early in the war, Abramovich met with Putin one-on-one and got his approval to pursue peace talks, two people familiar with the situation said.

Abramovich was optimistic initially about prospects for a peace deal, despite people with knowledge of the event saying he suffered a suspected poisoning after talks in Kyiv in early March. He and Ukrainian negotiators temporarily experienced peeling skin, red eyes, loss of eyesight and headaches, people close to him said.

Abramovich recovered and he continued the shuttle diplomacy. He made a rare public appearance at talks in Istanbul on March 29, when he was seen dressed in a navy suit and chatting with Russia’s negotiating team and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Those were the last in-person meetings, and the delegations have now reverted to sporadic video conferences.

The Kremlin this week claimed its troops captured Mariupol, the largest city to fall in the war so far, amid what Russian military officials call the second phase of the war. Ukrainian forces there remain holed up in a steel factory with hundreds of civilians, refusing to surrender.

Read more: Pentagon developed custom-made ‘Ghost drone’ for Ukraine to use against Russia

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Taliban hold gathering of 3,000 Islamic clerics, seek advise on running Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering Thursday of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August, urging those at the meeting to advise them on running the country.

Women were not allowed to attend.

At one point, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue.

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Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”

The Taliban, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country, touted the gathering in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.

But all those who addressed the assembly – and, it appeared, the overwhelming majority of attendees – were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics.

Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested that the reopening of the girls’ schools would be discussed.

The Taliban’s supreme leader earlier this year banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.

“The girls’ (school girls) issue is a challenge and needs to be solved by the government, and the government has the responsibility to listen to the people’s demand,” Mujahid said.

The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban government, demanding it be more inclusive and respect women’s rights.

However, the conference seemed less a nod to that pressure than an attempt by the Taliban to bolster their legitimacy as rulers, at a time when the former insurgents are struggling to deal with Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe and are cut off from international financing.

A powerful earthquake earlier this month that killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan only further underscored the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation.

The gathering was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University.

A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers.

However, the Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga, instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.

Read more:

Taliban posters say women not wearing hijab ‘trying to look like animals’

Pakistan foreign minister calls for easing sanctions on Afghanistan

G7 to meet on Afghanistan deadline, Taliban recognition

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Germany looks to buy Israeli or US missile defense system

Berlin is considering buying a missile defense system from Israel or the United States to defend against threats including Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, German weekly Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday.

The Iskander missiles can reach almost all of western Europe and there is no missile shield in place to protect against this threat, Germany’s chief of defense Eberhard Zorn told Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on Saturday.

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“The Israelis and the Americans possess such systems. Which one do we prefer? Will we manage to establish an overall (missile defense) system in NATO? These are the questions we need to answer now,” Zorn said.

He did not specify the names of the systems but was most likely referring to Arrow 3 built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the US system THAAD produced by Lockheed Martin.

Russia said in 2018 it had deployed Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave, a slice of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania. A mobile ballistic missile system, the Iskander replaced the Soviet Scud missile and its two guided missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

In a landmark speech days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would hike its defense spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output by injecting 100 billion euros ($110 billion) into the military.

Zorn belongs to a group of high-ranking officials consulting with Scholz on how to spend this money.

“So far, only one thing is clear: We have neither the time nor the money to develop these (missile defense) systems on our own because the missile threat is known to already be there,” Zorn said.

Referring to Germany’s lack of a short-range missile defense, which can be used to protect troops on the move or under threat while deployed, he said Berlin had started looking into the purchase of such systems and it now had to make a decision.

Beyond this, the Bundeswehr will have to invest 20 billion euros by 2032 to replenish its ammunition storages, Zorn added.

Read more: Iran tensions, record gas prices push Biden to recalibrate US policy in Middle East

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Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to block Sweden, Finland NATO deal if expectations not met

Just two days after agreeing to lift deal-breaking objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, Turkey’s leader threatened Thursday that Ankara could still block the process if the two countries fail to fully meet his expectations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the close of the alliance’s summit in Madrid that Tuesday night’s 10-article agreement with the Nordic pair was a victory for Ankara that addressed all its “sensitivities.”

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He especially stressed Turkey’s demand that Sweden and Finland extradite terror suspects with links to outlawed Kurdish groups or the network of an exiled cleric accused of a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.

But Erdogan added that if the two Nordic states renege on their promises, Turkey’s Parliament could still not ratify the deal. NATO accession must be formally approved by all 30 member states, which gives each a blocking right.

“This business will not work if we don’t pass this in our parliament,” Erdogan said. “First Sweden and Finland must fulfill their duties and those are already in the text … But if they don’t fulfill these, then of course there is no way we would send it to our parliament.”

Erdogan claimed that Sweden had promised to extradite 73 “terrorists” to Turkey and crack down on the financing and recruitment activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — listed as a terrorist group by the US and the European Union — and linked groups.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the PKK.

The text of the memorandum sets no specific number on extraditions. It says the Nordic countries will address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided” by Turkey in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

On Wednesday, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sweden and Finland’s justice ministries have files from Turkey on 33 people with alleged links to PKK and the network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Journalists at Thursday’s news conference repeatedly pressed Erdogan about the extraditions and whether Sweden had actually promised the number he quoted.

“Of course what we understand is important from our meetings and talks,” Erdogan said. “Sweden promised to give us these 73 people with this text. They may or they may not, we will follow that through the text and we will make our decision.”

Erdogan also said the number of extraditions had been 60 but was updated to 73. There was no immediate response to requests for comments from the Swedish delegation at the summit in Madrid.

The Swedish government has sought to allay concerns that the deal would lead to extraditions to Turkey without due process.

“I know there are some people who are worried that we’re going to start to hunt people and extradite them and I think it’s important to say that we always follow Swedish laws and international conventions, and we never extradite Swedish citizens,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told public broadcaster SVT on Wednesday.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto stressed that Helsinki pointed out that the memorandum does not list the names of individuals.

“In the case of extraditions, we will adhere to our own legislation and international agreements. Ultimately, extradition is a legal discretion which politicians have no right to influence,” Niinisto said.

With the joint memorandum signed, NATO moved ahead with inviting the Nordic countries to the military alliance that seeks to enlarge and strengthen in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The most time consuming part of gaining NATO membership is the ratification of the applicants’ accession protocols by the alliance’s 30 member countries. It’s a process that involves national parliaments — and could take months.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that Germany will launch the process of ratifying the planned NATO membership of Sweden and Finland this week and will conclude it “very quickly.”

Read more:

Erdogan urges new push to end war in Ukraine

Biden says US ‘should sell’ F-16 fighter jets to Turkey

Putin: Russia will respond if NATO sets up infrastructure in Finland, Sweden

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