Khodorkovsky: Don’t Count On A Swift End To The War In Ukraine

June 2, 2023
Photo © Dominik Butzmann

The West is deceiving itself if it hopes for a quick end to the Ukraine war. Above all, it must consistently implement an energy transition — otherwise, it will remain at Putin’s mercy.

There will only be an end to the war if Putin and his regime step down from the political stage, which is probably only possible through Putin’s demise. However, the need to stand united against the aggressor for the sake of general security is not the only lesson of this year of war.

LONDON — In the spring of 2014, I went to Kyiv with a large group of Russians representing the European part of the Russian cultural and social elite to express our solidarity with the Maidan protests in Ukraine, and our disapproval of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Many of us then flew to Kharkiv and Donetsk to meet with Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine who were concerned about what was happening.

In Donetsk, among others, I had a conversation with the leaders of those who stormed the regional administration, including Denis Vladimirovich Pushilin, the current head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Since then, it has been absurd for me to listen to those who still do not understand that the destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea were a “special operation” of the Kremlin from the very beginning.

It is amazing that there are still people who do not understand that Putin is not simply riding the wave of an imperial renaissance in Russia. He is consistently pushing this wave himself, helped by clever propaganda and the direct financing of imperialist-minded national patriots. At the same time, he is suppressing the voices of the sane part of society.

Putin has already used war to solve domestic problems four times (1999 in Chechnya, 2008 in Georgia, 2014 and 2022 in Ukraine) — if you don’t count the war in Syria and the de facto annexation of Transnistria, a region in Moldova, which did not “catch on” with public opinion. Putin’s main goal is to stay in power, although in recent years there has been a shift toward “legacy.” This means a partial restoration of the empire and its influence.

Imperial control

We should remember that the Russian ultimatum of Dec. 2021 did not demand a withdrawal from Ukraine, but “NATO in the borders of 1997”. This demand raised the question of a restoration of imperial control over the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Balkans. And it brought the fate of East Germany back into the conversation.                      

Independent Ukraine and its heroic armed forces became a stumbling block to Putin’s imperial dreams. If Ukraine had surrendered, the West would find forcibly conscripted Ukrainian soldiers in Putin’s invading army a year or two after he had established his rule. For Putin, the political cost of Ukrainian lives is zero.

Since war for Putin is a means of mobilizing supporters and a tool for maintaining power, it is difficult to expect long-term peace, no matter what territorial concessions Ukraine could have made. The only guarantee of an end to active hostilities would be a balance of power, in which each strike is met with a corresponding counter strike. Putin must understand that the next cycle of hostilities, if it comes to that, will not be in his favor, because the Ukrainian army can fight better.

This will only be possible with guarantees from the West of immediate support for Ukraine, through a coalition of allies capable of military action. The West must make these guarantees now because — barring dramatic mistakes on the battlefield — it is very likely that the conflict will freeze in the fall and winter of 2023/24, as the offensive potential of both sides is exhausted.

There will be an end to the war only if Putin and his regime step down from the political stage, which is probably only possible through Putin’s demise.

Remains of Merkel’s Russia policy

The need to stand united against the aggressor for the sake of general security is however not the only lesson to be learned from this year of war. For many countries in Europe, and Germany in particular, the issue of energy security is quite essential.

Many unflattering words are now being heard about former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing Germany to become so dependent on Russian energy supplies. Critics of her foreign policy seem to like to forget that Germany has had additional revenues of $250 billion from this dependence. Unfortunately, these funds have caused many to forget their prudence. The Kremlin’s desire to exploit Europe’s energy dependence for its own interests then led to an extremely dramatic energy crisis.

I fear these lessons have not been fully learned. The popular notion that wind and solar energy will allow Germany to both preserve its industry and move away from nuclear energy and become independent of authoritarian states that supply fossil fuels is absolutely utopian.

On the contrary, this concept will lead (and is already leading) to a drastic decrease in industrial competitiveness — while the likelihood of military confrontation is high — and at the same time to massive purchases of fossil fuels from other authoritarian regimes.

Alternatives take time and money

The use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) provides more freedom of movement. It is certainly remarkable how quickly German professionals were able to build efficient LNG terminals. Obviously, the problem was not the engineers and the industry, but the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, it is a fossil fuel and is bought on the general market.

The self-delusion that “if we don’t buy oil in Russia, we take away a significant amount of Putin’s money” ignores the global nature of the modern oil market. The only way to reduce dependence on this type of energy dictator is an energy transition that uses all, or at least most, of the technologies available today. LNG would then be merely a transitional solution. That means a lot of work, a lot of investment, and a lot of time. So this work must start now.

An alternative would be to resume relations with Putin — a magnificent supplier, who knows how to go for the West’s throat, and how much money he can make with it. (And, it’s worth noting that a future Donald Trump presidency would mean an end to military support for Ukraine).

Another option, a complete de-industrialization of Europe, would hardly be advisable. An attempt to resume relations with Putin would also lead to such high energy prices that de-industrialization would be inevitable.

A victory for Ukraine, the restoration of its borders, the dethronement of a disgraced dictator, democracy in Russia — these are noble tasks for all of us. But the road to accomplishing them may be longer than we would like.

The article was first published in the German daily Die Welt and in English in the Worldcrunch