Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky is planning for a change of guard in the Kremlin

February 14, 2023

Along with other prominent Russians, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is at the forefront of the resistance against Vladimir Putin. He sees Switzerland as a model for the future Russia.

Guido Felder

Khodorkovsky (59) is Putin’s greatest Russian opponent. The once wealthiest man in Russia, who had to spend ten years in a labour camp and then lived in Switzerland, is now planning to build a new Russian state for when Putin is gone.

He is the founder of Open Russia and the Russian Anti-War Committee through which he fights against the elites in the Kremlin together with well-known figures such as the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov (59), the former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov (65) and the historian Vladimir Kara Mursa (41). Kasparov calls Khodorkovsky the man of the hour for the time after Putin.

Swiss media outlet Blick met Khodorkovsky at his place of residence and work in London for an interview, which SWI swissinfo.ch republished. In the interview, he reveals how the war can be ended, what a new Russia without Putin should look like and why he left Switzerland so quickly.

Blick: Hungarian President Viktor Orban said last week that the war could be ended quickly if Ukraine gave up. Do you see it that way too?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: It is up to Ukraine to decide whether it wants to give up or not, and whether it wants to continue sacrificing human lives to defend its territory. But as an experienced politician, Orban should know that an end to the war is only possible if Putin leaves.

How can Ukraine win the war?

There are three ways in which the war will develop. The first: The Russian regime collapses, for example because Putin dies of a heart attack. The second: The war continues with great losses for years, whereby it is not predictable how it will end. The third: The West equips Ukraine with the means it needs to end the war quickly. It must be a kind of aid where Putin knows he will lose.

With sanctions, the West wants to force Putin to give up. How much do they really harm Russia?

In the long term, they certainly have an effect. But the main source of conflict is the potential of the skilled labour force. Western countries could recruit Russian engineers, for example, and make it very easy for them to immigrate.

The loss of such people is much more painful for Putin than economic sanctions. Moreover, the West could benefit from such professionals, since there is a shortage of skilled workers despite the recession.

These days, the media have been saying that Russia wants to sell gold to get money. When will Russia be broke?

Russia’s gold reserves will last another three years. At least.

Putin is apparently pulling together hundreds of thousands of soldiers to launch a new major offensive in the coming weeks. How far will the Russians get with this attack?

It is obvious that Putin is planning such an attack. However, Putin will only make his decisions at the last moment. It will depend on the forces at his disposal at that moment. This in turn will depend on the missiles that Ukraine will get and who will have air superiority.

UN Secretary General António Guterres warns that Putin could now start a nuclear war. How far will he actually go?

Churchill said that the danger of nuclear war should be eliminated forever. For as long as the atomic bomb can remain an argument, it would quickly become the only argument in a dispute. Who can stop Putin in his suicidal intent?

A nuclear war would be pointless. It would come down to a response by the US, which could wipe out Putin’s troops with conventional weapons alone. The families of the Kremlin elites would also be wiped out. Everyone knows that.

You are planning, together with other well-known opponents of Putin, to build a new Russia. What do you want your country to look like once Putin is gone?

There are two paths. One is the Yugoslavian model, in which Russia would be divided into several states. That would be very dangerous and could lead to nuclear conflicts and new dictatorships.

I advocate the path of complete reconstruction and the development towards a parliamentary and federalist model – similar to Switzerland. There is a lot of support for this model in the cities.

When will that be?

It will take at least twenty years. Russia’s development is currently where Germany was shortly after the end of the Second World War.

How are you proceeding?

We have to convince Russian society of our model. For that we need the media. The elites should know that there is a way out of their situation without having their heads chopped off. In addition, we want to convince the West not to use the sanctions to divide Russia, but to rebuild it.

In Russia, the media is controlled. How do you want to get your idea across to the people?

YouTube and social media are still open. At the moment we are influencing ten to fifteen million people with our content.

Moreover, we are in contact with elites covertly. Russia is not Colombia, where resistance is making itself felt in the mountains. The resistance in Russia will only become visible when the regime starts to stagger.

Great hope rests on you. Garry Kasparov said that you are the man of the hour for the time after Putin. What does he mean by that?

I know how to build a new structure for a new government. Only a few in the opposition have experience with that.

Would you be willing to take over as president in a new Russia and become Putin’s successor?

In a new Russia, there should no longer be a president – whether me or anyone else. Any president would once again pursue the same goals as Putin, and there would be a new dictatorship. Therefore, this office must disappear.

Then perhaps a ministerial post for you?

Garry knows that I am not a politician. I am an experienced manager who knows crisis management. Besides, I’ll soon be sixty. I can no longer work fourteen-hour days, seven days a week. I don’t want burnout.

Do you think Putin will run again in the 2024 elections?

As it looks now, he wants to. If he loses the war, he certainly won’t come back.

They say Putin is ill. What do you know about his state of health?

I don’t know how he is. But he is certainly not seriously ill.

You’ve been living in London for eight years, where there have already been several poison attacks on Russian enemies of the state. Are you not afraid?

Many people work in a profession where they are exposed to risks – journalists too… Nevertheless, they do their job. Risk is also part of my job.

Has there already been an attack on you?

Not since I was released from prison.

The media say that the Kremlin has put a $500,000 bounty on your head.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, has announced this publicly. But it did not come from the government itself. Putin would have more effective methods if he wanted to catch me.

After your release from prison, you lived in Rapperswil (a town near Zurich), but moved to London after only one year. Why didn’t you stay on in Switzerland?

The question should be why I came to Switzerland in the first place. My wife likes Switzerland, which is why she sent the twins to school there during my imprisonment.

When I was released, I moved in with the family and waited until the school year was over. I always had my office in London. I had to make a decision because Swiss law does not accept a second office in another country.

What are your relations with Switzerland today?

We still have a house in Rapperswil that my wife in particular always visits. I used to spend weekends in Zurich. It’s a good place to get my thoughts in order.

How has Switzerland changed in your eyes during your imprisonment?

Switzerland is a country where hardly anything changes. When I returned to Switzerland after ten years, the shops were still the same.

Even the shop windows were still the same! Manor [a Swiss department store chain] closing was probably the biggest change for Zurich in recent years.

Now Jelmoli [another Swiss department store] is also scheduled to close at the end of 2024.

Is that true? That’s almost a revolution for Switzerland!

How do you judge Switzerland’s behaviour in the war?

At the beginning, I strongly criticised it when it wanted to maintain absolute neutrality. Even though it is not in the EU, it is part of the European area and cannot ignore European opinion – from a moral point of view.

In the meantime, it has revised its opinion, frozen Russian accounts and also accepted Ukrainian refugees.

At the end of next week, you will make an eagerly awaited appearance at the Munich Security Conference. What will you say?

I have two main points. Firstly, I call on Western countries to poach Russian specialists in order to weaken Putin’s potential and at the same time strengthen their own economies.

And secondly, I will try to convince the West to keep Russia as one country and not let it disintegrate despite the war.

Interview originally published in German in Blick and in English and Russian in SWI swissingo.ch