Roman Abramovich, the former owner of Chelsea Football Club, “played a key part” in securing the release of five British prisoners of the war in Ukraine.
The Russian, 55, welcomed John Harding, Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill onto a jet flying them from Russia to Saudi Arabia.
He gave each of the men iPhones so that they could call their families and even talked football with the men while they ate steaks on the flight to Riyadh.
Mr Harding, a British Army veteran, said he had not recognised the Russian billionaire on the plane until Mr Pinner, a West Ham fan, pointed him out.
Mr Harding told The Sun: “Shaun said, ‘You really look like Roman Abramovich’ and he replied, ‘That’s because I am 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 taken prisoner in May, said he sat next to Mr Abramovich’s assistant on the flight who had explained how he helped secure their release.
“She said Roman had played a key part in getting us back,” Mr Harding said. “It’s quite extraordinary to think he was involved — and I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you who he was by looking at him.
“He’s well respected by Ukrainians and massively by us now, too — he’s done a hell of a lot for us and we couldn’t thank him enough.
“He was a sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend — we absolutely love him and I’m so grateful for his efforts.”
Mr Abramovich has played the role of a go-between during the war, helping to organise peace talks in Istanbul in April.
In June, a Ukrainian official said he had helped negotiate humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol and other cities besieged by Moscow’s army.
Harding ‘one of the best representatives of Britain’
Mr Harding has been hailed as “one of the best representatives of his nation” by his Ukrainian commander.