Branson Wants Putin Meeting Amid Ukrainian Invasion Fear

Billionaire Richard Branson said he’s seeking an audience with President Vladimir Putin as business leaders call for a peaceful end to the conflict in Ukraine amid concern that Russia may invade its neighbor.

Branson was joined by 15 businesspeople -- including Canadian billionaire Jeff Skoll, Unilever NV’s Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman, Ukrainian tycoon Victor Pinchuk and Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov -- in urging governments to help resolve Ukraine’s crisis and avoid “the Cold War misery of the past,” according to a post on the Virgin Group owner’s blog.

“We will ask for a meeting with President Putin and sit down with him and express our views,” Branson said today in a phone interview from Switzerland. They may also seek to meet “Ukrainian leaders and European leaders and see whether we can use our negotiating skills as business leaders to help resolve the situation.”

More than 2,000 people have died in months of fighting as Ukraine’s military seeks to stamp out a pro-Russian insurgency in the nation’s easternmost regions. Ukraine and its European and American allies blame Putin for stoking the unrest and have imposed sanctions on Russia’s finance and energy industries. Russia denies involvement and has hit back with food bans that prohibit imports ranging from U.S. chicken to Norwegian salmon.

Branson said he’d spoken to nearly one hundred businesspeople in Russia, who are all upset at what’s happening, and is appealing to the business community everywhere. Putin only hears what his supporters say and that’s very damaging for Russia, according to Branson.

The initiative is partly motivated by “a fear that Russia might invade east Ukraine at some stage,” he said. “We had to speak out to make sure that leaders realize the disaster that would result.”

Other businessmen involved in Branson’s push include WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, Max Levchin, the entrepreneur who helped build PayPal Inc., and Igor Yurgens, who was a Kremlin economic adviser during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency.

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