Mikhail Khodorkovsky: ‘History demands the west deploy every legal and financial weapon against Putin’

March 3, 2022

His regime and all those complicit in war crimes must be held accountable – starting now. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives.

The article was first published in The Guardian.

When Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked, criminal invasion of Ukraine, he shot himself in one foot. When he threatened to use nuclear weapons, he blew off the other. His regime has chosen a path of self-liquidation. The only question is how much damage it will do before its demise.

Ukraine, of course, is now the main target of Putin’s barbarism. I salute the bravery of the Ukrainian people and their leadership. Ukraine, an independent sovereign democracy, is not a part of Russia; but, as is the case for many Russians, Ukraine is a part of me. My grandfather, killed defending Moscow from fascist invaders in 1941, was from Zhytomyr in Ukraine. Today the invaders attacking his homeland are Russian. My grandmother was from Kharkiv. When I see the bombing of her city, it rips my heart in two – my motherland bombing the land of my grandmother.

Putin’s war of aggression is a crime against Ukraine and a crime against humanity. But it is also a crime against the Russian people. The regime starves Russians of information and feeds them lies. It tells them this is not a war but a “military operation”. It tells them we are fighting “Nazis and drug addicts”, even as its bombs drop on the site of Babyn Yar. While Putin’s forces bombard innocent Ukrainian civilians, we need to bombard Russians with the truth. When the news breaks through that Russian boys are being sent to their deaths in their thousands to murder our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, then the regime’s position becomes untenable.

We, as Russians, must hold these criminals accountable for their actions. As a Russian citizen, I have opposed the regime for 20 years and paid a high price. I spent a decade in prison and could easily have lost my life, as many friends and colleagues have. But there is no price too high to pay if it means reaching the day when the Russian people make clear that Putin’s time is up. To reach this day, however, we need international help and support.

The global response has already been stronger than anything Putin envisioned or accounted for, but still more is required. Ukraine is fighting valiantly, but the west has a vital role to play in bringing Putin’s war machine to a halt by bringing the regime to its knees financially.

The sanctions must be tighter. There should be no holding back. Sanctions against the banking sector can and will have an impact, but it is time to stop pulling punches. If the banks are targeted as tightly as they should be, it will even nullify the value of the energy dollars on which the regime relies. Sanctions have been imposed on 70% of Russian banks. Leaving 30% of Russian banks intact gives the regime all the wriggle room it needs to squirm out of the vice.

It gives me no pleasure to write this, because I know innocent Russians will also pay a price. I also know that completely stemming the flow of money into Russia is the way to bring the Russian population out on to the streets to face down their enemy in the Kremlin and reclaim both their freedom and their wealth.

Sanctioning the banks is not enough. Sanctioning Putin is not enough. It’s time to step up the sanctions against the oligarchs who hold his money. We all know their names, however much they abuse the English courts to stop us using them. No one should be exempt. There is no moral legitimacy in half-baked, equivocal platitudes about how “war is not the answer” when you hold the money of the man waging it. The assets of these oligarchs must be frozen immediately before they fund yet more death and destruction on the streets of Ukraine. Eventually, plans should be put in place to return seized assets to the Russian people.

As for the so-called “Russian liberals” within Putin’s circle whom the west has long championed as an acceptable, softer face of the regime, more than a week after the criminal invasion, not one has resigned or publicly protested. The west can no longer give special treatment or have false hopes for these people. They tooare members of Putin’s criminal government, and should face the full force of sanctions.

For 20 years, Putin has plundered Russia and generously invited western elites to get fat at the feast. The west was too busy counting Putin’s money to comprehend the dangers. The invasion of Ukraine seems, finally, to have triggered an international moment of clarity. But if the west fails to take the full measures needed to stop Putin in his tracks, it may risk resuscitating a dying regime.

We need to start imagining a future without Putin. When I see my fellow countrymen taking to the streets to protest against the war in Ukraine, I believe that future is close at hand. But we will only see it come to pass if right now – today and not tomorrow – every legal and financial tool in the arsenal is brought to bear against Putin, his regime and those complicit in its war crimes. History demands this of the west – for Ukrainians fighting heroically for their lives and for the Russians who risk theirs when they dare to speak out against Putin’s regime. And it demands it now.