MARK ALMOND: Abramovich’s decision to drop £1bn Chelsea stadium isn’t just a hissy-fit by a spoilt Russian oligarch – it’s FAR more menacing and could be an explicit instruction from Putin to even the score with the UK

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To the casual observer, Roman Abramovich might appear a playboy, with a Premier League football club, a 550ft long £406million super-yacht and a ballerina girlfriend many years his younger.

His lifestyle seems more that of a rich kid who inherited his wealth than what he actually is – a shrewd, self-made businessman with an estimated fortune of £8.6billion.

Above all, Abramovich was a protege of Vladimir Putin – the most ruthless leader in Russia’s recent history.

Indeed, his decision to shelve plans for Chelsea’s new stadium has all the hallmarks of his one-time Kremlin mentor.

Roman Abramovich will be allowed to visit Britain for up to six months at at time after gaining Israeli citizenship, Downing Street has confirmed - but he will be barred from working for Chelsea FC while in the UK

It is a warning shot, while in a fit of pique, from a man who feels he has been more than generous to Britain but who feels insulted in return by the British government.

Also, it can be seen as an ominous hint that he is ready to end his links with Chelsea FC altogether and possibly sell the club rather than continue pouring money thanklessly into one of the kingpins in Britain’s national sport.

But Abramovich’s move is far more complex – and menacing.

This is not just a hissy-fit by a spoilt Russian oligarch. I am convinced that Abramovich made this decision with the approval and possibly the explicit instructions of Putin.

As we all know, Putin is cold-blooded and cut-throat when dealing with those who have offended him.

He came to power 18 years ago through his unswerving commitment to crush Chechnya’s separatists. He went on to seize Crimea from Ukraine, is held responsible for the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet carrying 298 people and his secret police goons have been accused of assassinating enemies such as tycoon Boris Berezovsky and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

In other words, Putin does not take kindly to being snubbed.

The same applies to Abramovich, who learned the ways of the world at Putin’s feet.

The friendship between the two men goes back nearly a quarter of a century.

One persistent, though unconfirmed, rumour, is that when the ailing Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was looking for a successor in 1999, Abramovich – then a young man with powerful business allies – suggested that Putin should be made prime minister. Yeltsin did just that.

Roman Abramovich with ex-wife Dasha ZhukovaRoman Abramovich, who was last pictured at Chelsea with Guus Hiddink in December, is said to have personally pulled the plug on the £1billion stadium plan after his visa row 

Abramovich, who started life in Moscow as a mechanic, selling retreaded tyres as a sideline, acquired substantial stakes in the oil and gas industries as the Communist state broke apart.

If mystery surrounds some of his early business deals, there is no mystery about how he hangs on to his wealth: he maintains a tungsten-strength friendship with Putin.

Putin never lets old enmities die, and Abramovich is the same. When Abramovich fell out spectacularly with his business associate Berezovsky, the pair faced each other in court in 2012.

Berezovsky claimed £3billion in damages from Abramovich for intimidating him into selling shares in Russian oil giant Sibneft.

The Chelsea owner won the case, in which legal costs were estimated to be £100million. Asked if he felt Putin would be happy with the ruling, Berezovsky replied: ‘Sometimes I have the impression that Putin himself wrote this judgment.’

Of course, Abramovich’s difficulties in obtaining a UK visa must be set in the context of the Salisbury poisonings and the subsequent major row between London and Moscow with the UK expelling 23 Russian diplomats.

His decision to halt development plans at Chelsea fit a pattern and chime with Moscow’s bitterness over what it calls ‘insinuations’ from the British authorities around the Skripal case.

While most of the Western world is convinced that Moscow orchestrated the attack on British soil, the Russian government refutes the allegations as groundless.

All this strongly suggests that a message is being sent from Moscow to London – and that Abramovich is the messenger.

Chelsea fans may be upset about not getting a bigger stadium but this is becoming a much wider and more dangerous game. That said, Putin understands how powerful a weapon sport can be.

Mr Abramovich is a known ally of Vladimir Putin and has found his visa application at the centre of a row between Theresa May and the Russian President over the Salisbury poisoning

He cynically turned the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the Black Sea coast, into a gigantic ego-trip for himself. He will do exactly the same with this month’s football World Cup which he is hosting in Russia.

But he is offended by criticism of Russia’s human rights record and can’t be happy that Prince William and British politicians will not attend the tournament – a decision made following the Salisbury poisonings.

To some extent, Abramovich’s behaviour is blatant retaliation on behalf of his buddy in the Kremlin.

I believe this might be just the start of Abramovich’s cold-shouldering of Britain.

If Britain doesn’t want him, he doesn’t want Britain.

Asked once where he considered home, he said: ‘I live on a plane. I like to visit London. If I had to think where I could live if not Moscow, London would be my first choice and second would be New York. In Moscow, I feel most comfortable.’

That love of London has died.

Just before Christmas, amid claims that the Russian government had meddled in the Brexit referendum, Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov admitted: ‘It’s no secret that our relations are at a low point.’

Without doubt, after the Salisbury poisonings and Abramovich’s eruption yesterday, it’s clear that relations have got much lower.

Mark Almond is the director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford

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