Early on the morning Moscow began its invasion of Ukraine, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was jolted from his sleep by a cellphone call from a Ukrainian movie producer with an urgent request. Was he willing to help stop the fighting?

Ukrainian government officials were worried their Russian counterparts weren’t accurately relaying their messages to the Kremlin, according to people familiar with the matter. They wanted a Russian businessman to act as an informal go-between—to deliver messages directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to help them understand what the Russian leader was thinking.

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