Khodorkovsky: The West’s shortsightedness makes life harder for Russia’s opposition

April 22, 2023

In the spirit of self-criticism, we must admit we’re not being as effective as we would like in opposing Putin.

A memorial to Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet rock idol who wrote “Our Hearts Demand Changes!”, one of the most popular anthems of social and political protests in Russia | Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images​​​​​​​

soi, a Soviet rock idol who wrote “Our Hearts Demand ChaA memorial to Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet rock idol who wrote “Our Hearts Demand Changes!”, one of the most popular anthems of social and political protests in Russia |

Due to pressure from the regime, as the war in Ukraine continues, Russia’s opposition and its anti-war movement are working in the most difficult of conditions inside the country — and the circumstances they face outside Russia aren’t simple either.

Still, in the spirit of self-criticism, we must admit we’re not being as effective as we would like in opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the background, there’s the constant buzz of the regime, accusing critics of “selling out the Motherland.” They are traitors, the regime says; and from time to time, draconian prison sentences are handed down. My friend Vladimir Kara-Murza — one of the leaders of the Russian democratic opposition — was sentenced to 25 years just earlier this week.

Yet, while the opposition is targeted by the regime and leading dissidents are hauled off to jail, there are also complaints from Ukraine that Putin’s opponents and Russia’s anti-war movement aren’t doing enough to fight the Kremlin, that they harbor “imperialist views,” as well as a broader discussion taking place on the collective guilt of the Russian people.

All these claims resonate strongly inside European institutions, and they have led to widespread visa restrictions, the closure of bank accounts and cultural discrimination. For over a year now, the European Union has pursued a policy that sees anyone born in Russia at fault and responsible for Putin and his war on Ukraine.

On top of that, the opposition’s also struggling with internal disputes regarding the fairness of personal sanctions, the morally acceptable limits of actions taken in defense of the interests of “the average Russian” — who mostly supports Putin, about the opposition’s need to consolidate, and the desirability, or undesirability, of Russia’s disintegration.

Still, thousands upon thousands of anti-war activists have chosen to turn their backs on a comfortable life, to risk being locked up and even killed — yet, the war continues, and most Russians support it.

Although, to me, it seems likely that Russian society will ultimately come to tire of the war, the impact on public attitudes of a huge number of dead and maimed has proven not nearly as substantial as expected. Most likely, the initial shock of the war and the obvious role of aggressor has been replaced by the so-far-successful narrative peddled by Kremlin, claiming Russia’s merely defending itself, that sacrifices aren’t in vain and that there’s no alternative outcome than victory.

An important factor here in shaping public opinion — and one that was initiated quickly after the war began — has been the redistribution of resources from state “granaries” and well-off segments of society benefiting from government largesse. As such, money is now flowing to economically depressed single-industry towns in the form of military contracts, benefiting workers in the defense industry.

Money is also flowing to conscripts and contract soldiers who, as a rule, come from the poorest regions and segments of society. The salaries they’re now receiving are seven to 10 times higher than what they could earn at home, while the families of those who’ve been killed or disabled are being paid more than they would expect to earn in their entire lifetimes.

It is all simply being doled out to the poor — like during COVID-19 — and the Kremlin can afford it thanks to its stream of revenue from the export of oil and other raw materials.

Vladimir Kara-Murza — one of the leaders of the Russian democratic opposition — was sentenced to 25 years earlier this week | Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, support for the Kremlin is growing, and the public are more than happy to overlook the horrors in Ukraine and avoid self-guilt by drinking in the narratives they’re being fed by propagandists.

At this stage, this means the anti-war opposition has succeeded in increasing the cost of the work the state is having to do with the public. And, of course, the regime’s also being hit by some of its most active, adaptable and educated young people choosing to flee the country. Meanwhile, some are resorting to small acts of sabotage inside Russia.

The active counter-propaganda campaign taking place inside the country in relation to mobilization is clearly alarming the Kremlin as well, and as a result, the draft is being conducted very gingerly, avoiding large cities, and generals aren’t getting the numbers they want. The situation for the regime has also noticeably worsened in terms of engineering personnel, as many IT specialists have left the country.

But, unfortunately, the shortsighted position Western politicians hold is making opposition work harder.

The Russian Anti-War Committee, for instance, has initiated a project known as “Kovcheg” — meaning, the ark — to assist Russian refugees and immigrants, and over 100,000 individuals have taken part. A majority of this latest wave fleeing the country is young and educated; they don’t want to die in someone else’s war, they don’t want to aid the regime and become enablers or accessories to murder.

To accuse these individuals of having something to do with what’s going on, to deprive them of the opportunity to secure visas, open bank accounts and create their own businesses outside Russia is a colossal mistake. Some of them just can’t take it and return home, where they then have no choice but to work for Putin — whether directly or indirectly.

Meanwhile, the criticism that these individuals aren’t protesting or overthrowing the regime are based on a naïve notion of what Russian totalitarianism is like.

Peaceful protest in a democratic country, like France, is an effective form of electoral agitation, while peaceful protest under mild authoritarianism — like in former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine — can splinter the elite because if the protest is big enough, the only choice is to either shoot or flee, perhaps never to return. Under harsh authoritarianism, along the lines of Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, however, peaceful protest evaporates in the face of readiness to kill.

Putin has already murdered hundreds of thousands of people. And peaceful protest that starts to threaten his hold on power will be met with bullets, without any chance of victory. Everybody understands this.

Does this mean that there’s nothing to be done? Of course, not.

There’s still individual sabotage, there’s one-on-one work to be done with individuals, there’s preparing for an armed uprising. Is it possible to replace the regime in this way overnight? I doubt it. But can this create all kinds of problems for it? No doubt whatsoever.

Every specialist who leaves the country, or simply ceases to work with the state and instead lives on remote work with income paid into bank accounts outside Russia, is delivering a most powerful blow to the Kremlin’s ability to maintain the technological level of its weaponry.

However, Russians must also finally decide whose side they’re on. There can be no support or sympathy for those who want to sit on both sides of the fence — requesting, for example, the lifting of individual sanctions without clearly distancing themselves from the regime. Such people are dangerous in a time of war.

And I call upon people to think, not of collectively punishing all Russians — which is neither fair nor pragmatic — but to think about what can inflict the most practical damage on the aggressor.

The greater the number of those who get the chance to stop working for the regime, the more money will end up beyond the Kremlin’s reach, and the harder it will be for Putin to prolong the war.

This is why — for the opposition — a public declaration that aggression is unacceptable, that the regime is criminal and that Ukraine has the right to its territorial integrity must precede any talk of lifting personal sanctions.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former political prisoner and CEO of Yukos Oil company, is the author of “The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putin’s Power Gambit — and How to Fix It.”

The article was first published in the Politico Europe