Vladimir Putin personally approved Roman Abramovich’s involvement in Russia’s peace talks with Ukraine, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Putin’s direct blessing indicates that Abramovich sought approval at the highest level to help start ceasefire negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow in late February and runs counter to long-running claims by the Russian businessman that he was never part of the Russian president’s inner circle.

After receiving Putin’s backing, Abramovich met a senior official from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s office to help set up the talks, three people said.

Since then, the two sides have started discussing a tentative plan to cease Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — although Ukraine and its western allies fear Moscow may be using the talks as a ploy to buy time for its troops to regroup and lead a renewed ground offensive.

Western officials briefed on the progress of the talks have cast doubt on whether Abramovich even played a role. Others have suggested he might have tried to overstate his efforts in an attempt to prevent becoming a target for western sanctions and losing control of his UK-based assets, including Chelsea Football Club.

The Russian billionaire has since been targeted by EU and UK sanctions. Zelensky pleaded for the US not to include the billionaire in its own blacklist because of his supposed role as a go-between in the ceasefire discussions, according to the Wall Street Journal.

For decades Abramovich has sought to avoid being associated with Putin, under whom he served as governor of the remote province of Chukotka on the Bering Strait from 2000 until 2008.

He did not attend a roundtable Putin held for oligarchs and state company bosses the evening after the Ukraine invasion began on February 24. In 2003, he told the Financial Times he had “no special relationship” with Putin.

But when it decided to freeze his assets, the EU said that Abramovich’s connection to the Russian president “helped him to maintain his considerable wealth.”

David Arakhamia, head of Zelensky’s party in parliament and a member of Ukraine’s negotiating team in talks with Russia, said he met Abramovich in Gomel, Belarus, when the first round of talks took place.

“I can confirm that Mr Abramovich is heavily involved in peace talks,” Arakhamia told the FT. The billionaire “came into the process through the international Jewish community”, he added.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on whether Abramovich had received the go-ahead from Putin himself. Peskov said on Thursday that the businessman had played a role in organising the talks, adding: “Now talks are taking place between the two negotiating teams — the Russians and the Ukrainians.”

In recent weeks, as the two sides held talks online to avoid the Ukrainian delegation making a dangerous day-long trip to Belarus via Poland, Abramovich has focused his efforts on humanitarian issues as well as trying to arrange meetings with foreign mediators, according to the people with knowledge on the matter.

He met former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Moscow earlier this month, alongside Vladimir Medinsky, the head of Russia’s delegation at the talks. His private jet has been pictured making stops in Israel and Turkey, whose leaders have also been involved as mediators in the negotiations.

“He’s trying to do what he can,” one of the people close to the billionaire insisted.

However, a spokesperson for Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett denied Abramovich had played any role in securing Israel’s involvement. A spokesperson for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Abramovich said it was “not helpful commenting on the process” of those talks or on Abramovich’s involvement for the sake of their success.

Additional reporting by Neri Zilber and Laura Pitel

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