Interview by Igor Sevryugin
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Israel-Hamas war is like every other crisis around the world: an opportunity to further Russia’s aims in its invasion of Ukraine, says former oil tycoon and Russian opposition activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“They are not supporting anyone,” Khodorkovsky said of the Kremlin. “They are for chaos. Putin today needs chaos to get what he wants out of increasingly muddy, murky waters. And what they want is not to lose in Ukraine.
“Putin is creating chaos wherever he can to distract people, to distract resources, to distract politicians, and to be able to finish his dirty work [in Ukraine],” he said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Putin, he said, “has no personal interest in Hamas.”
“But there is a personal, a practical interest in destabilizing the situation,” Khodorkovsky added. “It doesn’t matter if it is Hamas or Hizballah, whether it is the situation in Israel or some mess in the Balkans. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the attention of the major world players is diverted.”
‘Illegitimate And Criminal’
Formerly Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies to punish his political activity, bring influential tycoons to heel, and put the oil assets of his company, Yukos, into state hands. He spent just over a decade in prison before being pardoned and flown out of the country in December 2013.
He has since lived in London and funded various projects aimed at promoting democracy in Russia. In April, he was among a group of some 50 leading Russian opposition figures who signed a joint declaration denouncing the invasion of Ukraine and proclaiming Putin’s government “illegitimate and criminal.”
At the age of 60, Khodorkovsky denies he has political ambitions in Russia and describes himself as “a public figure” and an “influencer.”
“I am a person in this situation who constantly asks, ‘Guys, how do you want to live? It is not for me to live here. It is for you,'” he said.
‘We Are Literally Months Away’
Putin’s penchant for chaos, Khodorkovsky argued, has created a “dangerous situation” globally.
“What brings us closer to a global war is that there is now such a normalization of international violence,” he said. Before Russia waged its brief war against Georgia in 2008, the world could still be appalled by war. Now, Khodorkovsky told Current Time, “public opinion has gotten used to it.”
“If we stop valuing human life, of course, the clock of a nuclear apocalypse or a world apocalypse in general gets closer to midnight,” he said in the interview in Prague on October 13.
There has been considerable discussion of “Ukraine fatigue” in the West, with analysts saying Putin’s best hope of what he could call a victory in the war he unleashed is the prospect that international support for Kyiv could fade, depriving it of the aid and arms it needs to push back the Russian invasion.
But Khodorkovsky said Ukraine fatigue, or war fatigue, is a potential domestic problem for Putin as well.
So far, he said, despite the deaths of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, the impact of Western sanctions, and the economic costs of waging war and occupying swaths of Ukrainian territory, “we don’t have this uproar yet.”
“There is silence,” he said. “Why? The reason is that Putin pays money. The fact that he pays money, unfortunately, has been a quite effective communication with the public.”
Payments to mercenaries and to the families of the killed or wounded, Khodorkovsky said, have made the war “acceptable” to many impoverished Russians.
“How soon will it become unacceptable?” he asked. “Historical experience shows that two years or so after the beginning of a war, people start to feel tired. I think we are literally months away from people in Russia starting to feel this fatigue. But it remains a big question whether this will happen faster in Russia or in the West.”
Putin cannot win the war in Ukraine as he would like, Khodorkovsky said, because even if he defeated Kyiv, he would be left occupying a devastated country whose population overwhelmingly hated him, as well as facing the likelihood of permanent crippling sanctions. One way or another, Khodorkovsky is confident, the war will end with the defeat of “Putinist Russia, the Putin regime.”
“Strategically, Putin cannot win this war,” he said.
Lessons From Prigozhin’s Mutiny
For many years, Putin’s hold on power has rested on Russia’s military and its security agencies — the so-called siloviki — and the perception that a majority of Russians support him, Khodorkovsky said. However, the short-lived mutiny of the notorious Wagner mercenary group and its now-deceased leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in June showed that both of these pillars could be shaky.
“Prigozhin’s mutiny showed in real time that the army does not support Putin,” Khodorkovsky said. “Do you remember how the Prigozhin forces proceeded toward Moscow like a knife through butter? And all the military units just stepped aside?”
“And the people didn’t support him either,” he continued. “We saw how the people of Rostov-on-Don escorted the Wagner fighters to prevent anyone from defending Putin.”
Khodorkovsky noted that there was never a moment in Rostov when people came out to support the government or express disapproval of those acting against it.
“It would have been understandable if some people had come out with flowers and cameras, while others came out with bricks and bottles,” he said. “Then it would have been clear that part of society supported the current authorities and part of it did not. But most people just didn’t care at all. Or, rather, were pleased [by the uprising].”
Although Khodorkovsky offered no specific predictions for how the end of the Putin era could come for Russia, he did predict the transition would be long and difficult.
“It will be at least five years before democratic forces could be in a position to run the country [after Putin’s departure],” he said.
“Even if Putin leaves tomorrow or the day after, there will be fluctuating processes for some time,” Khodorkovsky said. “And what comes [immediately] after him will look very bad.”
Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on an interview conducted by Current Time correspondent Igor Sevryugin
The article was first published at the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty