One of Britain’s richest men, Russian-born Roman Abramovich, widely believed to be a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, has found himself at the center of a sanctions debacle. Asked by Ukraine to sit at the negotiation table in peace talks with Russia, the billionaire is one of the few people on good terms with both sides of the war. But that is not enough to get him out of sanctions, so Yad Vashem, Israeli’s Holocaust memorial and museum, is petitioning the U.S. government to give him a pass, according to The Washington Post.
Quoting a letter to U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides, Yad Vashem and a number of high-ranking Israelis have officially asked the U.S. government to exclude Abramovich from their sanctions, warning that not doing so could be harmful to Jewish institutions that need his money. Abramovich recently donated an “eight-figure” sum to bolster research projects and commission two new editions of the Book of Names that will be overseen by Yad Vashem.
Abramovich became a dual Israeli citizen in 2018, shortly after he was turned down for a U.K. passport during heightened tensions with the Kremlin after the nerve-agent poisoning of ex KGB officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter by Russian agents.
Abramovich, clearly concerned about the sting of sanctions, is said to be conducting a fire sale of his British assets, including a $260 million London property empire and his multibillion-dollar stake in the Chelsea football club, fearing his assets will be frozen by British lawmakers.
On Wednesday, he released a statement on the team website confirming rumors that the club was now for sale. “In the current situation, I have therefore taken the decision to sell the Club, as I believe this is in the best interest of the Club, the fans, the employees, as well as the Club’s sponsors and partners.” Never mind that keeping it in his wheelhouse would have surely seen it shuttered under the strict sanctions set forth by the British government against oligarchs. He went on to say the sale of the club would “not be fast-tracked but will follow due process.” While no buyer has been named, he wrote, “I will not be asking for any loans to be repaid. This has never been about business nor money for me, but about pure passion for the game and Club.”
As a final note, he said the money from the sale will be donated to a new fund he is setting up. “The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine,” he wrote, without mentioning his best pal Putin or Russia actually leading the war effort. “This includes providing critical funds towards the urgent and immediate needs of victims, as well as supporting the long-term work of recovery.”
Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss preempted the news, saying Wednesday that he was offered the iconic London football club, telling Swiss newspaper Blick: “Abramovich 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. I have to wait four to five days now. Abramovich is currently asking far too much.”
Wyss said he had not been given an “exact selling price” and would not agree to the deal unless as part of a consortium of partners joining him in the investment. However Blick said the deal is thought to be valued at around $2.5 billion.
The comments by Wyss came after British lawmaker Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege Tuesday to accuse Abramovich of plotting a speedy selloff of his trophy London properties, including a $200 million home on the city’s most exclusive street, where his neighbors include Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Bryant said in a debate in parliament: “I think [Abramovich] is terrified of being sanctioned, which is why he’s already going to sell his home tomorrow, and sell another flat as well. My anxiety is that we’re taking too long about these things.”
He added he was afraid the billionaire would have “have sold everything by the time we get round to sanctioning him.”
Bryant has been a regular thorn in Abramovich’s side: Last week, he used a parliamentary debate to air passages from a leaked Home Office report that alleged Abramovich was flagged by a 2019 government investigation for links to the Russian state and “corrupt activity and practices.”
The move to sell Chelsea comes after a week of turmoil for the club. Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Abramovich said in a statement: “I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC. I believe that currently they are in the best position to look after the interests of the club, players, staff, and fans.”
However the proposal appears to have caught trustees by surprise: They promptly reported the move as a “serious incident” to Britain’s Charity Commission.
It was notable for being one of the very few public statements Abramovich has ever made about Chelsea. The second was his confirmation of the club’s sale four days later.
Last year, his fortune was said to be around $15 billion. However that changed with the collapse of Evraz, the London-listed mining giant in which he has a significant stake. It fell by 84 percent in value as sanctions hit, and knocked his wealth, with Forbes putting his real-time net worth Wednesday at $12.6 billion.
Abramovich was born in Saratov, in southwest Russia, and, orphaned at the age of 3, was brought up by his uncle. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he made billions from the former state energy companies he bought up in the 1990s. By 2008, when his net worth peaked at $23 billion, he was Russia’s richest man.
He is not believed to have spent any significant amount of time in the U.K. since 2018, when his application for a U.K. visa was withdrawn.