Roman Abramovich, the former owner of Chelsea Football Club, “played a key role” in securing the release of five British POWs in Ukraine.
The Russian, 55, welcomed John Harding, Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill on a jet that flew them from Russia to Saudi Arabia.
He gave each of the men an iPhone so they could call their families and even talk football with the men while they ate steaks on the flight to Riyadh.
Mr Harding, a veteran of the British Army, said he did not recognize the Russian billionaire on the plane until Mr Pinner, a West Ham fan, pointed it out to him.
Mr Harding told The Sun: “Shaun said, ‘You really look like Roman Abramovich’ and he replied, ‘That’s because I’m him, sir.’ He couldn’t believe it.
“I joked that Shaun is a West Ham fan and we all laughed.”
‘We couldn’t thank him enough’
The 59-year-old father of two, who was captured in May, said he sat next to Mr Abramovich’s aide on the flight who had explained how he had helped secure their release.
“She said Roman played a key role in getting us back,” Mr Harding said. “It’s very special to think he was involved – and I couldn’t even have told you who he was by looking at him.
“He is highly respected by the Ukrainians and now greatly by us – he’s done an awful lot for us and we can’t thank him enough.
“He was a healthy guy, a really nice guy. He is a legend – we absolutely love him and I am so grateful for his efforts.”
Abramovich played the role of an intermediary during the war and helped organize peace talks in Istanbul in April.
In June, a Ukrainian official said he had helped negotiate humanitarian corridors from Mariupol and other cities besieged by the Moscow army.
Harding ‘one of Britain’s best representatives’
Mr Harding has been hailed by his Ukrainian commander as “one of the best representatives of his country”.