Roman Abramovich and Ukrainian peace negotiators experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning after a meeting in Kyiv at the start of March, it has emerged.
The Russian oligarch and at least two senior members of the Ukrainian delegation suffered eye and skin inflammation and pain in the eyes, sources familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal.
Abramovich lost his sight for several hours before being treated at a clinic in Turkey, The Independent understands.
Here’s what we know so far.
When was the meeting, and who was there?
The negotiations in Ukraine’s capital took place on the afternoon of 3 March and ran until about 10pm.
Abramovich traveled between Moscow and Kyiv for talks at the beginning of the month because he had accepted Ukraine’s request to help negotiate a peaceful end to Vladimir Putin’s invasion just days after it had started. The Kremlin said last week that he played an early role in peace talks, but that the process was now in the hands of the two sides’ negotiating teams. But a person close to the Russian billionaire said he had decided to continue to play a “limited role” in the peace talks despite the suspected poisoning. His late mother was from Ukraine.
Ukraine’s MP Rustem Umerov and Crimean Tatar lawmaker Rustem Umerov were also among those present.
What happened to those affected by the suspected poisoning?
Abramovich and two other members of the negotiating team began to feel unwell after retiring to an apartment in Kyiv later the same night. They suffered inflammation and piercing pain in their eyes, according to bellingcat. Mr Abramovich is reported to have lost his sight of him for several hours. They suffered peeling skin on their faces and hands.
The symptoms continued until the morning.
The next day, the men drove from Kyiv to Lviv on the way to Poland and then to a clinic in Istanbul, Turkey, for medical treatment.
All three are said to have recovered over the course of the following week, and their lives are not in danger.
How could they have been poisoned?
Exactly how the three men were affected remains unclear. They consumed only chocolate and water before the symptoms appeared, according to bellingcat. A fourth person who consumed the same did not experience symptoms.
What kind of poisoning could this have been?
Experts who looked into the incident with remote and on-site examinations concluded the symptoms were most likely caused by poisoning with an undefined chemical weapon. Other experts were unclear whether they were caused by a biological agent or an electromagnetic-radiation attack, the WSJ said.
Chemical weapons experts and a doctor said the symptoms were most consistent with variants of porphyrin, organophosphates or bicyclic substances, bellingcat reported. But the absence of laboratory tests meant it was impossible to provide a definitive answer.
Who could have been responsible?
The victims said they were not aware of who might have had an interest in an attack. However, there has been speculation that hardliners in Russia could be behind the suspected poisoning in an attempt to sabotage talks to end the war.
Given that the dosage and type of toxin used were likely insufficient to be life-threatening, the motive could have been to scare the victims.
“It was not intended to kill, it was just a warning,” said Christo Grozev, an investigator with the bellingcat open-source collective who concluded that a Kremlin team poisoned Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent in 2020.
What have Ukraine and Russia said?
Ukraine appears to be downplaying the allegations.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s spokesperson said he had no information about any suspected poisoning.
Other Ukrainian officials, including Umerov, dismissed the reports. He urged people not to trust “unverified information”.
Another negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak said: “There is a lot of speculation, various conspiracy theories”.
The country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said in a television interview that “everyone is thirsty for news and sensations”. However, he added wryly: “I advise anyone going for negotiations with Russia not to eat or drink anything, [and] preferably avoid touching surfaces.”
The Kremlin has not yet commented.
Elsewhere, a US official said intelligence suggested an “environmental” reason for Abramovich and the negotiators’ sickness. “Eg, not poisoning,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and did not elaborate further.
What happens next?
The first face-to-face peace talks in more than a fortnight are scheduled in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Ukraine is ready to declare neutrality and offer security guarantees to Russia, including keeping the country nuclear-free if Russia withdraws its troops, Zelensky has said.
Ukrainian officials have downplayed the prospect of a major breakthrough but are cautiously optimistic about a compromise from Moscow, having seen stiff resistance and heavy losses.