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Ukraine to negotiators: Don’t eat or drink at Russia talks amid poison concern

Sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich sits in a VIP lounge before a jet linked to him took off for Istanbul from Ben Gurion Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv on March 14. (Stringer/Reuters)

LONDON — Ukraine warned its negotiators not to eat, drink or even touch anything as they headed into talks with Russia in Istanbul on Tuesday, following allegations that Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and others may have been poisoned during previous talks.

“I advise anyone going for negotiations with Russia not to eat or drink anything, preferably avoid touching surfaces,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in an interview on national television channel, Ukrayina 24.

Abramovich — who also attended the peace talks in Istanbul, although Russian officials said he was not part of the official delegation — fell ill after meetings in early March, as did members of Ukraine’s negotiating delegation. They came to suspect that they were poisoned, an associate of Abramovich said Monday.

Tuesday’s talks did not result in any peace agreement, but Ukrainian negotiators outlined some proposals and Moscow said it would “drastically reduce” military activity near Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity, the associate said some suspect a “third party” carried out the alleged poisoning, suggesting it was not sanctioned by the Russian government.

The Abramovich associate said the owner of Britain’s Chelsea soccer club — who faces sanctions in Europe over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has since put his West London club up for sale — has recovered and was “okay,” and now is focused on negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.

Russia denied that Abramovich was poisoned and that it had any links to the incident. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that such claims were “part of the information war,” he said. “These reports are definitely not true.”

The investigative collaborative Bellingcat and the Wall Street Journal first reported the suspected poisoning. They said Abramovich and two Ukrainian peace negotiators suffered “red eyes, constant and painful tearing, and peeling skin on their faces and hands,” symptoms consistent with chemical weapons poisoning, after a March 3 meeting.

Last month, a spokesperson confirmed Abramovich had been contacted by Ukraine to help facilitate peace talks with Moscow. However, the extent of his role in those negotiations remains unclear.

Peskov said Tuesday that “Abramovich is involved in ensuring certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides. He is not an official member of the delegation.” The Kremlin spokesman said the oligarch was present “from our side.”

Kyiv will investigate video that appears to show Ukrainian forces shooting Russian prisoners of war

The United States declined to target Abramovich with sanctions after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he could prove helpful in securing a peace deal, an official familiar with the matter previously told The Washington Post.

Kyiv and Moscow both sought to temper hopes of a major breakthrough from Tuesday’s Istanbul talks, after high-level negotiations in Antalya, Turkey, earlier this month and weeks of talks via video link failed to produce an agreement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the latest round of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul on March 29. (Video: Reuters)

Ukraine’s Kuleba told local media outlets Monday that Kyiv’s goal is — at best — a “sustainable” cease-fire. Meanwhile, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow should “stop indulging” Kyiv.

Russia’s war in Ukraine entered its 34th day on Tuesday as the death toll climbed on both sides and Ukrainian cities continued to be severely bombarded.

Russia has killed civilians in Ukraine. Kyiv’s defense tactics add to the danger.

Almost 4 million people have fled Ukraine since the conflict began, the vast majority to neighboring Poland, according to the latest United Nations data, triggering Europe’s largest refugee crisis.

Annabelle Timsit and Miriam Berger contributed to this report.

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