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Kyiv Post: Branson joins forces with Ukrainian, Russian businesspeople in seeking peace from Putin

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, speaks during the 13th annual Aviation Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on April 3 in Washington, DC.

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British billionaire Richard Branson’s message to Russian President Vladimir Putin: Give peace a chance.

“It might sound simplistic,” Branson said of the personal meeting that he, Russian and Ukrainian business leaders are hoping to set up with Putin. But Branson said that he would feel “very irresponsible” if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and nobody “had spoken out or done anything about it.”

Speaking with the Kyiv Post on Aug. 20 in a Skype interview from London, Branson said he would tell the Kremlin leader: “President Putin, please don’t turn the clock back. We remember when the Berlin Wall fell and how wonderful both Russians and the rest of the world felt about it…Let’s resolve the issues diplomatically and not militarily. Let’s trade together, let’s marry, let’s go on holidays with each other. Let’s work together to resolve conflicts in the world.”

Branson, whose Virgin Group is a leading international investor with 50,000 employees, 300 companies and $24 billion in revenues, is involved in the telephone, travel, financial services, leisure, music, vacation and health & wellness sectors, among others.

He said that Russia could even join the European Union one day. The conglomerate

Branson and his allies in the peace mission – who released a statement today calling for compromise and dialogue -- could soon find out whether their aims are naïve, since a flurry of diplomatic activity is coming soon to bring the war to an end. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to Kyiv on Aug. 23 to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is scheduled to meet with Putin on Aug. 26 in Minsk.

If Branson’s assessment of Putin proves to be naïve, the group of businesspeople he has assembled is an impressive collection of savvy giants, including Russians who agreed “to stick their head above the parapet,” as Branson said, in an attempt to convince Putin “that he ought to be taking a different tack.”

Among the Ukrainian and Russian businesspeople who have signed on to Branson’s peace initiative:  Victor Pinchuk, founder of EastOne Group; Maxim Ivanov, founder of Foodline Group; Dennis Ludkovsky, CEO of Svyaznoy Group; Arkady Novikov, founder of Novikov Group; Sergey Petrov, founder of ROLF Group; Igor Yurgens, president of the All-Russian Insurance Association; Jan Koum, co-founder ant CEO of WhatsApp; Max Levchin, co-founder of Paypal; Igor Mazepa, CEO of Concorde Capital; and Yevgeniy Utkin, chairman and president, KMCORE.

Branson, who has participated in peace initiatives in other parts of the world, took an active interest in Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. For instance, he helped finance a tour of Canada and the United States by Yulia Marushevska, the star of the viral video “I am a Ukrainian,” with more than 8.2 million views. In the past, he has linked up with the late South African President Nelson Mandel a and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on peace initiatives.

Despite Putin’s seeming popularity in Russia, Branson said that “we want Putin to know the vast majority of businesspeople in Russia” are against the conflict.

Aside from waiting for an audience with Putin, Branson said he is planning to visit Kyiv next year, or earlier if he finds “a reason to come sooner.”

And if his peace initiative doesn’t succeed in making any difference with Putin?

For now, Branson doesn’t want to talk about the next steps from the West, except to say that continued warfare will mean a grimmer future for both Russia and Ukraine. He also doesn’t want to discuss the possibility of harder Western sanctions against Russia: “I’m going to choose my words diplomatically. If we’re going to be useful I don’t want to be undiplomatic.”

The statement Branson and the other business leaders released today says:

“A group of 16 high-profile Russian, Ukrainian and international business leaders are calling for an end to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In a joint statement issued today, the group warns of “a new era marked by deteriorating relations and armed confrontation” – with damaging repercussions felt around the world. Stressing the need for dialogue and diplomacy, the business leaders ask that the Russian and Ukrainian governments start talking to each other and call on the international business community to increase pressure on their own governments to push for a peaceful solution to the conflict which has already costs the lives of hundreds of people. The statement in English, Russian and Ukrainian was released on Richard Branson’s blog (www.virgin.com/richard-branson/) and in several Russian, Ukrainian and international publications earlier today.

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