Former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave an interview to BBC HARDtalk host Stephen Sakur, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be forced to withdraw from Ukraine in the event of defeat in Donbas.
According to Khodorkovsky, Putin is very likely to lose the war in Ukraine, which could lead to regime change in Russia in the future.
The businessman also commented on the supply of weapons to Kyiv, and Western sanctions against Russia and spoke about his attitude to the war in Ukraine.
– Western leaders say Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine must fail. Do you think they understand what it will take to end the war with defeat for Putin?
“I think they understand that better now than they did before, but I’m not entirely sure.” Putin has announced what he sees as his victory. And that was his fault. He announced that he wanted to change the government in Kyiv. And he failed. And from this point of view, of course, he is defeated today. But you and I don’t know how much extra power he’s willing to use to achieve his idiotic goal.
– In a sense, this war is a war of the will. It is about Putin’s will and determination, the will of the Ukrainians, led by Zelensky, and the will of the West to oppose Putin. Who do you think has the strongest will at the moment? You know Putin well, so I will be interested in your answer.
– Today, Putin believes that he is winning and that he can deal with the obvious problems that have arisen in his army and in general in his original concept of conquering Ukraine. Is he ready to go all the way – I’m not sure. I believe that if he is defeated now in the battle for Donbas, then he will have to retreat.
“Really?” There are opinions in the West that Putin cannot afford to lose in Ukraine, and if he is threatened with defeat, he will use all the weapons at his disposal, including weapons of mass destruction, including, as some say, nuclear weapons. Do you think this fear is appropriate?
– I believe that Putin does not have as much power as many people think. This has already been revealed in a month and a half since the beginning of the war. Can it use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Well, probably, if Western leaders assure him: Vladimir Vladimirovich, whatever you do in Ukraine, we will not seriously oppose you. But if they, like Mr. Biden, remain adamant that the answer would be adequate, then I do not believe Mr. Putin will dare to order his generals to use nuclear weapons.
– Just a few days ago you visited Washington, talked to US officials, reviewed their latest aid package for Ukraine, including new weapons worth $ 800 million, probably heavier weapons, but there are shortcomings in President Zelensky’s list – no heavy artillery, Combat planes. After talking to Americans and European leaders, do you think they will never provide these weapons or maybe they will, but it will be too late? What is your message to them?
“I tell them they’re late all the time.” They are taking steps they should have taken a month earlier. But now the situation is slowly beginning to change. In other words, my feeling is that the weapons that are now being given to Ukraine are exactly the weapons that Ukraine needs now. In addition, the West has begun actively training the Ukrainian military on how to use new weapons that are not available now but will be available later. This is also a very correct and very important signal to all participants in this battle.
It seems to me that now the West has realized the choice it is facing. The main thing I say to Western leaders is: “We see the ruins of buildings in Mariupol, but in his head (Putin’s), he has mentioned it many times, he is at war with both NATO and the United States, not just with some kind of Ukraine. And if you think that Putin’s next step could be to cross the border into one of the European countries, he needs to make additional efforts, but in his head, this has already happened, he is already at war with NATO. Whether to defeat Putin on the territory of Ukraine or defeat him, but now on the territory of one of the NATO countries. Herein lies the real choice.
“It’s not just about weapons, is it?” It is also about the huge funds that the West, especially Europeans, send to Russia every week, every day, every month of the year in the form of oil and gas payments. Hundreds of millions of dollars every day. Why have Russia’s oil and gas revenues not been cut off?
-Because I think the West made a fatal mistake a few years ago, and maybe even 10 years ago, relying on Russian energy resources, Russian oil and gas. Putin – 10 years ago it was clear where the story was going. It was at this point that steps had to be taken to ensure their energy security. Well, better late than never. But today, the West must pay for its mistakes.
Imagine that even Ukraine has nothing to do with it. Let’s just imagine a situation where a supplier like Russia – we see it today in Putin’s face – uses oil and gas as weapons of political pressure on the West. Well, I don’t know what the perception is of this situation here, but my perception is that when I am pressured, I have to do everything to reject this pressure.
“The West made a fatal mistake 10 years ago, relying on Russian energy, Russian oil, and gas.”
“But we are where we are.” German Chancellor Scholz says that if Germany closes Russia’s gas taps tomorrow, the country will sink into recession. Hundreds of thousands of Germans would lose their jobs. Do you believe that this is a politically viable option for a country like Germany?
– I believe that there is a difference between desires and possibilities. Today, it is desirable that Putin be faced with the impossibility of financing his aggression with money from oil and gas supplies. Is it possible today?
“Let me interrupt you.” You are a former head of Yukos, you were probably the richest Russian oligarch in the energy sector, and you know him better than anyone. If Europe stops buying Russian oil and gas, how quickly will Putin’s military machine and the Russian economy collapse? Or at least to the point that it cannot function as it does today?
– I think that if Putin has to reorient the supply of oil and gas from Europe to Asian markets, he will lose more than half of its revenues – this is half of the federal budget. Whether he will be able to continue the war in this case and how long he will be able to continue the war, in this case, is difficult for me to say. I am not yet a military expert, but I think this will be a very serious blow.
“I was not an oligarch”
– While we see Europe discussing alternative supplies of oil and gas, but, frankly, doing little in this direction, we see limited sanctions against the banking sector. They stopped importing coal, or at least promised to do so, took measures to freeze huge reserves and Russian money in foreign banks, and turned to the oligarchs. As a former Russian oligarch, say what you think about the arrests of yachts and the withdrawal of Roman Abramovich from the Chelsea football club. Will all these measures change anything?
– It is important to understand that the right steps are being taken now, based on wrong presumptions. Even you in our conversation call these people oligarchs. An oligarch is a person who has the opportunity to participate in solving political issues. These people are not oligarchs in that sense, nor have I ever been. These are Putin’s agents through whom he influences or at least has the opportunity to influence the Western political system.
Khodorkovsky: “You think Putin is not yet at war with NATO.”
None of them is ready to give a direct answer to the question of whether Putin is a war criminal, although he understands very well that this is true. What does this mean? This means that Putin is holding them very tightly in his hands. They can carry out any of his commands. And from this point of view, blocking their accounts, blocking their ability to influence the Western political system is extremely important.
– Looking at the terrible events in Ukraine and thinking about more than two decades of Putin’s rule, do you feel somehow responsible that in the late ’90s and early 2000s you were one of the most powerful people in Russia who helped and supported Putin in his attempt to come to power after Yeltsin? Without you, it might not have been easy for Putin. He had strength with you. Are you sorry for your relationship with him?
– Of course, I’m sorry. You see, I began to regret in 2002-2003 when I told Putin in the Kremlin that his system was built on corruption and was destroying our country. From now on, consider that I regret that in 2000-2001 I saw Putin as a normal person, the heir to the democratic revolution in Russia.
– Do you think that he has changed or did you misjudge him in the beginning?
– Of course, I would like to act as a lawyer for myself and say that he has changed. To my deep regret … Of course, he changed, but … Yes, I was among those people he managed to deceive. Yes, I was not shrewd enough at the time. I’m sorry every day.
On the verge of victory
– And you paid a very high price, you spent ten years in a Russian prison. And today you are very passionate against Putin and in support of what you call “open Russia,” with the Open Russia Foundation, with the anti-Putin coalition of exiled politicians. You are doing everything possible to change Russia from the outside. But would you agree that what we see today is a failure of your political campaign against Putin? It failed in your country.
– You know that during the war in totalitarian regimes, in the societies of totalitarian regimes there is an influx of military hysteria. And yes, we have not yet managed. But we see that Putin is afraid to mobilize, even though his generals want it every day. We see that Putin is afraid to use all his troops on the fronts of Ukraine because he is afraid of uprisings that could happen inside the country. And this is a very important result. Another thing is that this is not enough, but it means that we just have to work harder.
– I am sure you know about the total information control exercised by the Kremlin. You are aware of the story that Putin and his associates are telling the Russian people – that this is a defensive war against Russia, that NATO seeks to undermine Russia’s security, and that Russia has a fundamental right to engage in a war that protects Russian culture. , Russian history and the future of Russia. This message seems to resonate with the people, so I wonder if you are missing a very important moment by saying that this is Putin’s war, not Russia’s war.
– In fact, Putin does not consider NATO a serious organization. There are very few Russians who are seriously afraid of NATO. For the people of Russia, NATO is an explanation for their fear of taking to the streets, of protesting against this regime, which allows them not to feel like bastards when their neighbors are bombed. And I am convinced that something will happen tomorrow that will keep Putin out of place. The same 80% will act from an opposite position because there is no deep fear of NATO in Russia.
The Russian people are not stupid at all, they see that NATO is not at war even now that Putin is at war in Ukraine. Why the hell would people take seriously the threat that NATO would attack Russia alone? Well, it’s funny.
– A slightly different question. The Soviet empire collapsed 30 years ago. In countries like Ukraine, they have begun to build civil society, democratic institutions, and the rule of law. This process is far from perfect, but it has begun. Why didn’t this process begin in Russia three decades later, and people like you pouring money into Open Russia foundations and other civil society initiatives failed? Why?
– In fact, there have been very noticeable and very serious changes in Russian society. And in 2000, now it’s strange to remember, but I had the feeling that another 10 years – and Russia will become a perfectly normal democracy. Everything was ready for that. How did a relatively small group of losers, led or identified by Vladimir Putin, managed to reach such a large part of the Russian population?
This, of course, has objective preconditions. This is a prerequisite for a significant part of the Russian population to be perceived as losers. It is the feeling that they have lost, even though they were only on the verge of their victory, a real victory, in prosperity in their lives. This was our biggest mistake as reformers, which we failed to show people in 2000: you almost won.
“I am ashamed”
– Are you ashamed of your country today? You live outside of it in a completely different world and I just wonder if you feel Russian? Or are you just ashamed of your country?
– It is awful to feel when your homeland is at war with the homeland of your ancestors. I don’t know if you can feel it, but for people like me, whose whole family once left Ukraine, and I and my parents were born in Russia … And now one part of my country is at war with another part of my home country.
For me – Ukrainians are offended by this – but for me, it is a civil war in which I lose friends, I lose those people with whom I had very good relations because we just broke up, we are on different sides of the barricade. Am I ashamed? Yes, I am ashamed. Yes, I am ashamed, because I cannot explain to every Ukrainian that it is not me.
– You recently said that you are sure, I quote you that the Putin regime will end very soon. Why do you say that?
– Russian history shows that a lost war – and Putin is likely to lose this war after all – leads to major problems for the regime within two years. I think that the Putin regime will not only face these problems but will most likely not survive them. Two or five years after this dramatic mistake made by Putin from the position of dictator, I most likely see the end of his regime.
– What next? What then? Do you know what alternatives the Russian people have in terms of leadership? Boris Nemtsov, one of the leading opposition politicians, has died. Alexei Navalny, perhaps the biggest opposition figure today, is in prison. People like you, Gary Kasparov, you are all in exile, not even in Russia anymore. What leadership will Russia receive? Will he be just one of Putin’s aides? If so, why does everything need to change?
– I want to say that it is a huge mistake for a significant part of Russians in the West to look for a person who will be the same as Putin, but better. Putin, but democratic, who will build a united but democratic Russia. This will never happen. If you are looking for a good king for Russia, you will always come across such imperial outbursts, imperial fascists.
What we need to do, what I am trying to do, is not change Putin, but change the regime. We need a parliamentary republic, we need real federalism, we need real local self-government, and now, which makes me happy, the people of the big cities are gradually beginning to realize that. We will not be able to build a united democratic Russia, Russia will be politically diverse.
– Will you return and be part of this very different Russian future after Putin?
“Anyway, as long as I have the strength to do so, yes.” Yes, unless other people come.
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