Investigation shows what Kyiv and Moscow are negotiating about, and how Russian oligarch Abramovich’s role changed over the year

15 February, 07:10 PM
One of the spring rounds of negotiations between the delegations of Ukraine and Russia - since then Kyiv does not believe in the possibility of substantive negotiations with Moscow (Photo:Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) / Twitter)

One of the spring rounds of negotiations between the delegations of Ukraine and Russia - since then Kyiv does not believe in the possibility of substantive negotiations with Moscow (Photo:Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) / Twitter)

Although the negotiation process between Ukraine and Russia has been stalled for many months, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich remains one of the key intermediaries between Kyiv and Moscow, in particular through his close confidants.

Sergei Kapkov, Abramovich’s former deputy during his work as the governor of the Russian province of Chukota, has served as a key proxy figure for the oligarch in contacts regarding the exchange of prisoners or the grain agreement.

The independent Russian media publication Meduza reported on Kapkov’s role and the current state of the negotiation process between Ukraine and Russia, referring to several sources from both sides and within Abramovich’s entourage.

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After the Bucha massacre, there have been almost no substantive negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. A Meduza source familiar with the negotiation process from the Ukrainian side reported that there is “no political component” in the negotiation process in 2023, and a full-fledged peaceful settlement is out of the question. This state of affairs has been maintained since Ukraine revealed the scale of the Russian military's atrocities in the occupied territories in the spring of 2022.

“Bucha stunned many Western politicians, and most importantly, it created this as a background,” said a Meduza source close to the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“The fact is that in Ukraine, political decisions cannot be made contrary to the interests of society. As of today, a compromise (regarding the terms of ending the war with Russia) is categorically unacceptable.”

Ukrainain presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak confirmed this to Meduza. According to him, no serious negotiations are possible until Russia gives up its claims on Ukrainian territory.

In Podolyak’s assessment, the Kremlin’s conditions can be briefly summarized as: “You must give up sovereignty” and “You must admit that we have the right to occupy your territories.”

Podolyak explains that the fulfillment of any of these conditions will mean the “slow death of the Ukrainian state,” which makes negotiations impossible.

“After Bucha, it became clear: any negotiations will only slow down the genocidal destruction of Ukraine – we won’t be allowed to exist as a state,” Podolyak said.

In the spring of 2022, the Russian negotiating team lacked the authority to make any commitments for its side from the very beginning.

Meduza’s report states that immediately after the invasion and the first attempts at negotiation, “both delegations did have hope that negotiations could change the situation and stop the full-scale war” – but that hope “quickly vanished into thin air.” Thus, the Ukrainian delegation was convinced that the Russians were forced to consult with Moscow on every little matter during the negotiations.

A close acquaintance of former Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky (who headed the Russian delegation at the negotiations) explained to Meduza that the Russian official delegation had not been selected from “thawed hawks.” Meduza’s sources only spoke of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin as “crazy” since he “repeated delusional propaganda about ‘denazification’ and seriously believed it.”

This made clear that in the negotiations during the spring of 2022, the Russian delegation was not authorized to conduct dialogue on its own, a close acquaintance of one of the participants in the negotiations said.

“All [members of the Russian delegation] came with ready-made pieces of paper – there were no improvisations,” Meduza’s source said.

“If any item that required discussion had come up, they took time, wrote to their ‘first persons,’ and did not decide anything themselves. At the same time, the Russian negotiators did not understand what these ‘first persons’ would specifically decide on a specific issue, and what would happen on the front.”

In a conversation with the publication, Podolyak gave an example of how, when asked whether Russia is ready to withdraw its troops, the Russian negotiators answered: “They will stay where they are, and even go further.”

“It was strange,” Podolyak said.

“It looked something like ‘we can’t capture the cities, so you should give them to us.’”

This convinced the Ukrainian side that no Russian negotiating group actually existed.

“This was not surprising,” Podolyak said.

“The whole configuration of the Russian government does not allow for specific independent decisions to be made at different levels. Thus, the guys who came to the negotiations (like any Russian delegations in principle) are exclusively a propaganda wagon, and not people who have the right to independently evaluate the negotiation process, change positions, or conduct a dialogue.”

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Abramovich was and remains one of the most active intermediaries between Kyiv and Moscow. A Meduza source close to the Russian government reported that Abramovich  became part of the negotiation process on his own initiative, but his participation was personally approved  by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who had long been familiar with the businessman.

A Meduza source in Kyiv, who was familiar with the negotiation process, also said that Abramovich himself had contacted the Ukrainian side and “offered” himself as a mediator.

According to two close acquaintances of Abramovich, who spoke with Meduza on the condition of anonymity, the oligarch really hoped to find a way to settle the conflict. One of the sources noted Abramovich had prioritized his negotiation work even above his own businesses in recent months.

“There is no point in talking to him about business now, as he loses interest in a minute because his head is full of other things,” said one of Meduza’s sources familiar with the negotiations process.

“In response, he tells you: ‘Listen, did you read what (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy said yesterday? What do you think will happen now? And what can be done?’ He is much more interested in this. At the same time, if Abramovich was previously indeed a full-fledged ‘mediator between Russia and Ukraine,’ now his efforts are much less significant, since the entire negotiation process is reduced only to the discussion of prisoner swaps and individual issues such as the grain agreement.”

Kapkov has emerged as a new figure in the contacts between Kyiv and Moscow. Meduza calls him “a person from Abramovich’s entourage.” Kapkov has a long working relationship with the billionaire. Among other things, he worked as Abramovich’s deputy when the latter was the governor of Chukotka in the early 2000s. Later, Kapkov headed the Moscow Department of Culture and in the early 2010s, he was known as one of the creators of “Sobyanin's Moscow” (referring to the transformations of the city undertaken by incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin). For example, he led the reconstruction of Gorky Park, which became a popular recreation spot in the Russian capital.

The information that Abramovich had involved Kapkov in the dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow and made him, according to one of the interlocutors, “his proxy,” was confirmed to Meduza by two sources familiar with the negotiation process. They pointed to the fact that Kapkov was granted entry to Ukraine, and that less than a year ago, in addition to his Russian citizenship, he also obtained Israeli citizenship.

A knowledgeable Meduza source added that Abramovich had chosen Kapkov for this work because he considered him a “conscious person” who, moreover, was not sanctioned and could move freely around the world. Kapkov has recently visited Kyiv and Istanbul on behalf of Abramovich, two acquaintances of Kapkov and Abramovich told Meduza.

Currently, Kapkov is involved not only in the organization of the prisoner swaps, but also in “separate matters,” Meduza’s sources said. This includes, for example, discussions of the parameters of the July agreement allowing the export of grain and fertilizers from Ukrainian sea ports.

“In fact, Kapkov’s function is very simple – it’s coordination with the Russian side,” an acquaintance of Kapkov and Abramovich told Meduza.

“If it’s necessary to call (Russian Defense Minister Sergey) Shoigu, Roman (Abramovich) calls. (And) if there are already established contacts, everyone knows and it’s necessary to call some general, Kapkov does this, since the Ukrainian and Russian military don’t communicate directly.”

This was confirmed by another Meduza source familiar with the situation from the Ukrainian side.

“Abramovich communicates directly with, let’s say, fundamental persons – with Shoigu, with Putin,” the source said.

“And his assistants perform technical work: they deal with preparatory documents and analytics, which must then be presented in the negotiation process.”

Podolyak declined to answer questions about the role of Kapkov or other persons in the negotiations.

“The President’s Office doesn’t comment on specific people regarding the informal line of negotiations,” he said.

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