Interview: Once Russia’s richest man, the oligarch-turned-dissident talks to Samuel Lovett about the current state of war in Ukraine, stopping Vladimir Putin’s war machine, and succession in the Kremlin
Mikhail Khodorkovsky isn’t afraid to speak his mind, no matter how disheartening it is to hear. “I’m a pessimist,” he says, straight off the bat. “I think if the war goes on as it is, for now, in a month or so the fight probably will be in Kyiv and in Odesa.”
As someone who has suffered at the hands of the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky knows what the men he rubbed shoulders with are capable of. Once Russia’s richest man, who thrived during the wild west years of the Yeltsin era, Khodorkovsky had his wings clipped for criticising and failing to subscribe to the new regime carved out by Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s.
The attempt to sell a stake in his oil company Yukos to ExxonMobil proved a step too far. His subsequent arrest, on charges of tax fraud, and the dismantling of Yukos, one of Russia’s post-Soviet giants, marked the moment when Putin turned the country away from political and economic integration with the West, instead setting it on a path towards kleptocracy and authoritarianism.
Imprisoned in May 2005 and not freed until December 2013, Khodorkovsky was kept distant and disconnected from Russia’s transformation under Putin. Having moved to the UK after jail, he then watched from the sidelines as his country withdrew further and further away from the Western world, only to eventually lash out in a horrifying spectacle of warfare that has not been seen on such a scale since 1945.
He may no longer be in communication with his old associates in the Kremlin – “They would probably fear for their lives if I was in contact with them” – but Khodorkovsky, speaking from the comfort and security of his west London townhouse, knows that the mood within Moscow is one of confidence.
“At this present time, they’re sure they will win,” he says. And Khodorkovsky himself struggles to argue otherwise.
Based on the current state of the war and resources available to Ukraine, which are clearly limited, Ukraine will “probably hold on, at maximum, up until the end of the year”, at which point its leaders will be forced into an undesirable agreement with Russia, predicts Khodorkovsky.
“And this agreement would probably consist of what already has been taken,” he adds. “And it will probably consist of what was taken on February 24.” He does not envision Ukraine losing any of its western territory, which will likely be kept protected through Western military influence, but fears that parts of the east will be handed over to Putin.
For now, fighting in Ukraine has shifted away from central locations such as Kyiv and moved to the Donbas, which broadly covers the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed separatists held significant territory before the invasion.
Russia has suffered heavy losses of troops and equipment but has made significant advances here. Invading forces recently consolidated control over the eastern city of Severodonetsk, and are continuing to attack Ukrainian positions north of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which has already repelled one Russian assault.
Intense bombardment is also weakening the defending troops in the east, who continue to depend on outdated Soviet-era weapon stock, rather than the hi-tech weaponry and support that is being used elsewhere in Ukraine to resist Putin’s war machine.
Perhaps in a sign that Western leaders are worried by the current direction of travel in the East, the UK government announced on Thursday that it would be providing a further £1bn in military support to Ukraine.
This, for Khodorkovsky, is the only way that the West can help the country to stand up to Russia. The various economic sanctions that have been imposed are doing little to dent the invasion and won’t stop the war, he says.
“The only way to help Ukraine is through weapons and the education of Ukrainian military. That’s all. The UK is helping as it can.
“But we should not forget the difference in military power between Ukrainian military and Russian military.”
Even if some form of resolution is reached by the close of the year, Khodorkovsky – ever the pessimist, as he warned – does not believe this will be the end of warfare in Eastern Europe for the foreseeable future. After “a year or two”, the conflict will renew, he says.
Indeed, the landscape in this part of the world has been irrevocably changed and injected with a volatility that is likely to flare up and spill over into outbursts of violence and bloodshed. “Here you have two thousand and a half kilometres between Ukraine and Russia, and it will be a hot border,” says Khodorkovsky. “This is a bad situation.”
Nonetheless, Khodorkovsky is convinced that the current appetite for war in Russia will fade with time. He points to polling which, at various points over the past months, has showcased high support among the Russian public for the invasion.
Given the country’s current environment of extreme censorship, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions from such research, especially when the average Russian citizen is kept at arm’s length from the brutalities committed by Putin’s troops.
Ukraine’s leaders and soldiers are depicted as Nazis; the execution of innocent men, women and children is dismissed as crimes committed by the West; and thousands of Russian lives lost to gunfire and bombs are covered up by the Kremlin. No wonder the war effort is supported at home.
But Putin “doesn’t have too much time… probably about two years” to continue waging this conflict before he will start to “have problems in society in Russia”, says Khodorkovsky, switching at this point from Russian to English, spoken slowly and with consideration.
“It’s Russian history,” he goes on to explain. “You can see many times in Russian history when war started, a lot of Russians who supported during two years, the situation changed. Why? I don’t know, maybe because Russian society tired as a result of that situation or a sense of guilt, but historically, two years. After that, there’s usually an increase in anti-war opinions.”
Whether this war will ultimately spell the end for Putin, it’s unclear. Experts will say that, on this occasion, the Russian dictator has overstepped, that he’s gone too far, that he has become removed from reality and taken his nation beyond the point of no return. Any victory in Ukraine is ultimately pyrrhic, they add.
Until his eventual demise, through whatever means that may be, Russia should be treated as a pariah state, says Khodorkovsky. “While the Putin regime is in place now, the relationship with Putin regime should be similar to that with North Korea.”
But who eventually replaces Putin, and the type of political system that emerges around the successor, is a different matter – one that, for Khodorkovsky, will bring another set of challenges with which Russia and the rest of the world will have to grapple.
“This is probably one of my biggest concerns,” he sighs. “Russian people would like a good tsar. And the West would like a good tsar. But in Russia, a good tsar is always an imperialist. The only way to destroy that imperialistic mentality of Russian power is to change the system.”
First published at The Independent