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Ivor Ichikowitz, chairman of Paramount Group, gestures during an interview with Reuters at the International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Feb. 22, 2021.KHUSHNUM BHANDARI/Reuters

The founder of one of South Africa’s biggest weapons manufacturers is playing a key backroom role in an international peace mission to Ukraine and Russia this week, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Ivor Ichikowitz, who has financial interests in naval vessels and fighter aircraft among other military hardware, is helping to organize the visit to Ukraine and Russia by seven African presidents who hope to launch a process of shuttle diplomacy to resolve the war between the two countries.

The presidents, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Senegalese President Macky Sall, plan to arrive in Kyiv on Friday to talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. They are scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin a day later in St. Petersburg.

A photo released by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni shows Mr. Ichikowitz as a participant in an online meeting with Mr. Museveni and other African leaders to prepare the peace initiative. The presidents of Egypt, Zambia, South Africa, Senegal and Comoros were also in the meeting and are among the leaders of this week’s mission.

Mr. Ichikowitz is the founder of Paramount Group, a privately owned South African military equipment company. He is a supporter of the Brazzaville Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by wealthy French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, who spent decades in the commodities trading business in Africa and elsewhere.

Mr. Ollivier led a delegation to Kyiv in February to meet Ukrainian foreign ministry officials. His foundation said last week that it “obtained the approval and participation” of the seven African presidents for the peace mission to Ukraine and Russia.

Mr. Ichikowitz “has been working closely with the Brazzaville Foundation in co-ordinating the initiative,” Nico De Klerk, spokesperson for the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, told The Globe. “He believes that Africa has a role to play in facilitating dialogue in this conflict.”

Ukraine scrambles for African support in geopolitical rivalry with Russia

Asked how Mr. Ichikowitz would ensure that his business interests are kept separate from the peace initiative, Mr. De Klerk said he does not see any conflict of interest since Mr. Ichikowitz stepped down as executive chairman of Paramount Group last year and is concentrating his efforts on his family foundation. He confirmed, however, that Mr. Ichikowitz still has an ownership stake in Paramount Group.

On his personal website, Mr. Ichikowitz says he has a wide range of business interests, including naval patrol vessels and supersonic fighter aircraft.

Mr. Ollivier, in a separate response to questions from The Globe, said Mr. Ichikowitz “provided valuable support” for the African peace initiative. The Brazzaville Foundation does not see any conflict of interest in his role, he said.

Not everyone agrees, however. Hennie van Vuuren, author of books on South Africa’s arms industry and director of Open Secrets, an African social-justice organization, said the involvement of Mr. Ichikowitz in the peace initiative “should set off alarm bells.” He said Mr. Ichikowitz has “no track record as a peace builder” and his company “remains heavily invested in the business of war.”

He told The Globe that Mr. Ramaphosa should explain Mr. Ichikowitz’s exact role in the peace initiative and whether the South African government has endorsed this role.

African officials have said that the peace initiative is partly a response to the soaring economic costs inflicted by the war in Ukraine, including rapid rises in food prices across Africa.

Mr. Zelensky has agreed to meet the African leaders this week, but his Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said the African initiative has not provided any specific plan so far. Ukraine’s own peace formula – which rejects any ceasefire that would “freeze” Russia’s territorial gains – should be at the core of any peace effort, Mr. Kuleba said.

Mr. Ollivier first came to prominence in Africa in the late 1980s when he helped facilitate the Brazzaville Protocol, an agreement that led to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. This, in turn, led to the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia and may have contributed to the negotiations ending apartheid, according to a documentary funded by Mr. Ichikowitz’s family foundation in 2013.

Since the Angola agreement, Mr. Ollivier has been involved in peace negotiations in several African countries, while also becoming wealthy as a trader in oil and other commodities, including in the oil-rich Republic of Congo. He has long-standing connections to Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, an authoritarian who has ruled the country for most of the past four decades and is also listed among the seven leaders in the African peace mission.

Last month, the Brazzaville Foundation said the “primary goal” of the African peace mission is to secure agreements to allow Ukrainian grain and Russian fertilizer to be shipped to Africa. This could require an easing of Western sanctions that blocked Russia’s access to the SWIFT global financial transaction system, Mr. Ollivier told Associated Press last month.

In response to questions from The Globe last week, Mr. Ollivier said the peace mission does not have any connection to his own business interests because he is no longer involved in trading commodities.

In the past, he has served as an adviser to the Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom and has had indirect links to Russian businessman Vladimir Yakunin, who is reportedly close to Mr. Putin.

According to the Brazzaville Foundation website, Mr. Ollivier and Mr. Ichikowitz both attended a 2019 conference in Greece organized by the Dialogue of Civilizations institute, co-founded by Mr. Yakunin. The foundation later described Mr. Yakunin’s institute as its “partner,” but the agreement between the two organizations is now “null and void,” according to the Brazzaville website.

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