Fire sale of Roman Abramovich's London assets, writes the oligarch's biographer DOMINIC MIDGLEY 

When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea FC in 2003, a well-informed American businessman in Moscow told me it represented ‘the cheapest insurance policy in history’.

He meant that, while the football club may have cost the Russian oligarch £140million, the instant celebrity it conferred – along with the adoration of an army of Chelsea fans – rendered him immune from extradition should President Putin ever turn against him.

In the event, the backlash against oligarchs is coming not from the Kremlin – but from Downing Street.

Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, in Britain it is the hard-faced men who made their billions during Russia’s cut-price sell-off of its mineral resources in the 1990s who are suddenly in the firing line.

So far, the Government has imposed sanctions on 15 oligarchs, freezing their assets in this country, including property, shareholdings and businesses. The Foreign Office says it expects to add more names to its ‘hit list’ in the coming weeks and months.

But one man who has so far escaped the clampdown is 55-year-old Abramovich.

Only today, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pressed Boris Johnson in the House of Commons on why Abramovich has not been sanctioned, claiming he has ‘links to the Russian state’ and ‘public association with corrupt activity and practices’.

Roman Abramovich, 55, pictured with Russian ballerina Daria Vishneva, 41

Roman Abramovich, 55, pictured with Russian ballerina Daria Vishneva, 41

No doubt aware of the pressure building behind the scenes, Abramovich has not been idle.

This week, his spokesman suggested that he had even been attempting ‘to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine’.

Abramovich was rumoured to have flown to Belarus to participate in the failed peace talks between delegations from Moscow and Kyiv, and it’s certainly true his private jet was tracked flying from Nice – near the tax haven of Monaco – to Moscow.

However, this has done little to dampen calls for him to be sanctioned. As things stand, the most high-profile Russian in Britain, a man who has been enmeshed in Russian politics for more than two decades, is currently free to carry on as if nothing has happened.

MPs such as Chris Bryant and Bob Seely complain that government sluggishness leaves the door open for ‘asset flight’ as billionaires hurriedly spirit their money out of the country.

And certainly, Abramovich – who is estimated to be worth £9.2billion and is ‘terrified of being sanctioned’ according to Bryant – appears to be determined to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

Abramovich's 460ft superyacht Solaris was the most expensive custom-made yacht ever built at the time of its commission, costing the billionaire £430million

Abramovich’s 460ft superyacht Solaris was the most expensive custom-made yacht ever built at the time of its commission, costing the billionaire £430million

This week he has embarked on the mother of all fire sales of his many and varied UK assets. Chelsea, the jewel in his crown, has been put up for sale through American bank the Raine Group, with a price tag of £3billion.

In a statement released last night Abramovich said he would not be asking for any loans to be repaid – a significant concession given that the club owes him £1.5billion – and that the net proceeds of the sale would be donated to a charitable foundation dedicated to helping ‘all victims of the war in Ukraine’.

One prospective buyer, Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, said: ‘Like all other oligarchs, Abramovich is in a panic. He is trying to sell all his villas in England. He also wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly. I and three other people received an offer on Tuesday to buy Chelsea from Abramovich… He is currently asking far too much.’

Another bidder who might consider throwing his hat into the ring is Britain’s richest man, chemicals magnate Jim Ratcliffe, who had talks about a possible takeover in 2018.

That deal foundered over Abramovich’s asking price – but if he is now looking for a quick sale, there might be a different outcome this time round. With a reported net worth of 17billion dollars (£12.7billion), Ratcliffe can certainly afford it.

Meanwhile, Abramovich’s property portfolio looks to be up for grabs too. Top of the list is his 15-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens, London’s ‘Billionaires’ Row’, which is being offered for sale for up to £170million.

Abramovich's £125million home in Kensington is also up for sale

Abramovich’s £125million home in Kensington is also up for sale

A three-storey penthouse in Chelsea Harbour acquired for £22million in 2018 and a flat in Cheyne Terrace, Chelsea – purchased for £8.75million in 2017 – are also on the block.

This list of homes under the hammer would have been a lot longer if Abramovich hadn’t had to offload a number of properties when he divorced his second wife Irina, mother to five of his seven children, in 2007.

Her £155million settlement included a £10million five-storey house in Chester Square, Belgravia, and the couple’s Surrey retreat Fyning Hill, a £12million, eight-bedroom country pile set in 420 acres of rolling parkland.

As the Western backlash against Russia’s increasingly brutal war in Ukraine grows, it remains to be seen whether Abramovich’s tropical retreat on the Caribbean island of St Bart’s will be included in this sale of the century.

Or, for that matter, his £180million Manhattan mega-mansion. Or, his £1.2billion collection of boys’ toys, from a flotilla of superyachts including the ‘£500million’ Eclipse to an array of private jets, helicopters and supercars. So why is Abramovich suddenly said to be ‘terrified’ of having his assets seized?

To answer that question we have to go back to 1996 when the then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin – facing a resurgent Communist party challenge – sold off his country’s state-owned mineral enterprises for a fraction of their real value to fund his re-election campaign.

In partnership with fellow Russian Boris Berezovsky, Abramovich – who made his first fortune from businesses ranging from plastic toys to bodyguard recruitment – put in a bid for a Siberian oil company called Sibneft (now Gazprom Neft).

Their offer of just under $200million (£149million) for a company which just seven years later was valued at $15billion (£11.2billion) – 75 times as much – was accepted and Abramovich was a billionaire at the tender age of 30.

One leading economist described the deal as ‘the largest single heist in corporate history’.

And you don’t have to take his word for it. When Berezovsky sued Abramovich over the size of the payment he received when he sold his stake to Abramovich in 2001, even Abramovich’s own lawyer Jonathan Sumption QC – now a distinguished former Supreme Court judge – admitted that the sale was ‘rigged’.

Having acquired his gargantuan nest egg, Abramovich’s priority was to ensure he could keep hold of it. At a time when Russia was known as the ‘Wild East’ due to the near-absence of the rule of law, any sensible ‘biznisman’ needed a ‘roof’ – a well-placed ally in government – to protect their bonanza.

Abramovich owns an array of private jets as part of his £9.4billion portfolio

Abramovich owns an array of private jets as part of his £9.4billion portfolio

And Abramovich’s contacts reached to the very top. The first the Russian public heard of this Kremlin insider was in 1998 when he was described as President Yeltsin’s ‘wallet’ on a popular current affairs show.

And when Yeltsin appointed Putin – then the head of the FSB, successor to the KGB – as his prime minister in August 1999, Abramovich’s status was highlighted in the most extraordinary way: he interviewed each member of the new man’s first Cabinet.

The journalist who stumbled upon Abramovich’s role behind the scenes was Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Radio Ekho of Moscow and perhaps best described as Russia’s equivalent of John Humphrys.

As was his custom when cabinet reshuffles were under way, Venediktov had headed for the Kremlin to mingle with the decision-makers. As he toured the corridors, the broadcaster fell into conversation with a man in his thirties he didn’t recognise.

As he recalled: ‘I talked to some of the candidates that I knew and I asked them what they were doing there, and they said, “We’re having an interview.”

‘I then asked them who they were having an interview with and they said that, apart from other people, they were having an interview with Roman Abramovich. “What does he look like?” I asked. And when they described him to me I realised he was the young man that I had seen in one of the Kremlin corridors.’ 

The fact that one of Moscow’s most well-informed pundits, who had been in the business since 1990, had not recognised a billionaire with the ear of the president may sound surprising – but, at the time, no photograph of Abramovich had ever appeared in public.

And yet, as early as 1999, candidates for office in Putin’s government had all had to submit themselves to an interview with the newly minted oilman.

As late as December 2003, Abramovich was sticking to his line that he was a businessman not a politician. Venediktov claimed: ‘He said to me, “Alexei, I promise you I am not interested in politics”. So, I reminded him how in 1999 he had helped form the cabinet, how all the candidates for ministerial positions in Putin’s government had had to go one by one into an office to see him.

‘He said, “That didn’t happen.” I said, it did, because I was in the Kremlin that day and saw it with my own eyes. “Oh,” he said, laughing, “those were just friendly conversations.” Friendly conversations? In the Kremlin?’ The news that Venediktov had rumbled him would have come as a devastating revelation to Abramovich.

It was one thing for a closed circle of politicians to be aware of the extent of his involvement in the highest levels of Kremlin power-broking, quite another for it to become public knowledge.

And this was not the extent of Abramovich’s political involvement. Throughout his presidency, Yeltsin had been forced to wrestle with a parliament dominated by Communist deputies and, while Putin’s popularity rating was rising steadily, a strong showing in the 1999 parliamentary elections by the Communists and other opposition parties might have damaged his prospects.

What was needed was a party that would offer wholehearted support to Putin and so, in the absence of such a beast, one had to be created.

The result was a party called Unity, created from scratch under the charismatic leadership of ‘emergencies minister’ Sergei Shoygu. But the paymaster and organisational genius behind the enterprise? One Roman Abramovich.

‘Abramovich put that party together,’ maintains one of his former associates.

Fast forward 20 years or so and Shoygu, the politician Abramovich worked with so closely on the formation of Unity, is now Putin’s minister of defence – and playing a key role, of course, in the Ukraine invasion.

Given this background, it would be no surprise if – as has been claimed by his spokesman – Abramovich had indeed been asked by members of Ukraine’s Jewish community to intercede in the conflict. (And remember, Ukraine’s President Zelensky is himself Jewish – giving the lie to Putin’s claim that the country is run by ‘neo-Nazis’.)

It is certainly true that Abramovich is a highly respected member of the Jewish community worldwide. In Britain alone, he has campaigned against anti-Semitism, set up various educational initiatives, and made a multimillion pound donation to the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum.

He may also have been influenced by his daughter Sofia, 27, who in an Instagram post last week, replaced the word ‘Russia’ with ‘Putin’ in the sentence ‘Russia wants a war with Ukraine’.

She added: ‘The biggest and most successful lie of [the] Kremlin’s propaganda is that most Russian[s] stand with Putin’.

With dissent so close to home, Abramovich appears to have finally grasped the gravity of his plight.

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