Peace in Europe ‘will not exist’ as long as Putin is in power, says Mikhail Khodorkovsky

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According to exiled Russian businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the West has misunderstood the war in Ukraine from the start.

The biggest misunderstanding: that this is Russia’s war with Ukraine only. “This is not so,” Khodorkovsky said Tuesday, speaking in Russian at an Atlantic Council Front Page event. Russian President Vladimir Putin “sees it as a war with NATO and the United States.” The West’s reluctance to realize this “sounds a lot like an ostrich trying to hide its head in the sand; but it’s not sand, it’s a concrete floor,” he said.

At one point perhaps Russia’s wealthiest man before he was jailed by the Putin regime, Khodorkovsky left Russia in 2013 and later moved to London; he has since been a financial supporter of the Atlantic Council’s work. Below find other highlights from the event, where he touched on Putin’s military challenges, the West’s sanctions, and Russia’s fleeing opinion leaders.

Putin’s choice

  • Ukrainian resistance has shown Putin that he’ll have to choose to either “lose on the front” or “make believe that [he has] won”—and Khodorkovsky is predicting the latter. Ultimately, he said, there are no good ways for Putin to work his way out of his “big mistake.”
  • Khodorkovsky predicted that to drive the narrative that he won in Ukraine, Putin will rev up his propaganda machine to “sell the preservation of separatist districts” in the Donbas region and the “neutral status of Ukraine” as major Russian victories.
  • Even then, Khodorkovsky said that Putin’s attempt to turn back won’t be easy, as the “crazy people in his entourage” will be “satisfied only with the capture of Kyiv and the replacement” of the government in Ukraine. Moreover, Putin’s propaganda has “already created such momentum” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that it’ll “be difficult for [Putin] to retreat. But he’ll have to,” Khodorkovsky said.
  • If Putin does decide to conduct a new offensive, likely surrounding troops in the Donbas, he’d need to call up hundreds of thousands of soldiers, which would “be politically extremely heavy for him,” said Khodorkovsky.
  • He explained that Putin has been taking soldiers specifically from places like the North Caucasus or small villages throughout Russia. But a new offensive with more soldiers would mean that “big cities are going to end up in coffins.” That’s a “serious problem” as another Russian election approaches in 2024.

No peace for Europe

  • If the Russian leader wins in Ukraine, with a new administration in Kyiv, Khodorkovsky predicted that “the next war will be [in] NATO countries’ territories, most likely the Baltics.” Given that Putin sees this war as one against NATO, crossing into Alliance territory “is a natural step for him,” Khodorkovsky said.
  • Khodorkovsky explained that Putin is betting on NATO restraining its response to this war—or if NATO does respond, Putin is betting on the Alliance falling apart. “The collapse of NATO on the European continent is [an] objective that will suit him perfectly well,” Khodorkovsky said.
  • How should the West keep that from happening? By defending Ukraine. Helping in “saving their country is the last chance for NATO to solve the Putin problem [outside] of its own territory,” Khodorkovsky explained.

The West’s next moves

  • Khodorkovsky doubted the feasibility of a total ban on Russian oil and gas, especially for Europe. But he pointed to the West’s portfolio of sanctions, especially those against the Russian Central Bank, which he said were “unexpected for the Kremlin and quite effective.”
  • Khodorkovsky said that while Russian society has been impacted by sanctions, it “has still not felt the full brunt.” But Khodorkovsky predicted that the full impact of the sanctions will arrive “in a few months.” Russians who refuse to acknowledge the war in Ukraine will “wake up” once their “refrigerators” are “hit by sanctions,” he added.
  • But “unfortunately today, sanctions alone are not enough,” Khodorkovsky said. On military assistance, he said Western leaders must “finally… set aside this caution of theirs.”
  • The West can also work to support Russian opinion leaders, who are leaving their country out of fear that they would be jailed, by creating opportunities for them to communicate with Russian society and influence public opinion, amid Putin’s blows to independent media and his misinformation tactics, said Khodorkovsky. “The hopes and future of Russia are tied” to these leaders, he argued.
  • Putin’s grasp on power will also determine Russia’s future. Khodorkovsky predicted that Putin’s fall would happen in the form of a “palace coup.” Sometime in the future, Khodorkovsky said, “Putin is going to experience an event he’ll never forget.”

Katherine Walla is an assistant director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.

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Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst and Katherine Walla

Image: Former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during an interview with Reuters in central London, Britain, on January, 18, 2021. Photo via REUTERS/Henry Nicholls.