Newsletters / Mikhail Khodorkovsky: ‘Putin has embarked on a route that is going to lead to his demise’

Henry Mance in conversation with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s most prominent dissidents, who believes regime change will happen — but only by force

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a boy in the Soviet Union, he spent summers with his great-grandmother in Kharkiv. “It was a long time ago, and I thought I’d forgotten all those years,” he says. “But when I saw the footage of the Kharkiv bombing, and when I saw people [taking refuge] in the Kharkiv metro, everything just turned upside down inside me.”

The Kremlin’s “next step is going to be the air blockade of Lithuania. It will allow Russian aviation to fly right through between Russia and Kaliningrad. Then Nato will face a question of what to do.”

“For sure, Putin is going to lose eventually. If he wins now in Ukraine, he will, because of domestic problems, start a war with Nato. And eventually he will lose that war. Had it not been for so many casualties, I would have said that I’m actually quite happy, because he has embarked on a route that is going to lead to his demise. But this specific victory in Ukraine depends entirely on the west.” If the west fails now, it may face a “very long, hot frontier in Europe, 2,500km long.”

He [Khodorkovsky] dismisses those, including Henry Kissinger, who want to make concessions to Putin. “With all respect to Henry Kissinger, he has a notion of Putin as some kind of projection of Leonid Brezhnev . . . [But] Brezhnev was no gangster. Second, Brezhnev fought [in the second world war]. He, and people around him, realised that war is the worst thing. Putin has never fought. He has no understanding of what wars are like. He understands computer games and wars on his laptop.

“[Kissinger] doesn’t realise that you don’t find agreement with a gangster when you’re talking from a position of weakness. He doesn’t realise that, for Putin, a war is just a normal way of getting his electoral ratings up. He has started wars four times.”

Ultimately Russia’s future will be decided as it always has been, Khodorkovsky argues, matter-of-factly. “Regime change in today’s Russia can only come via force. It could be Putin’s entourage, it could be the army, or it could be society . . . This is another reason why Putin and [Belarusian dictator Alexander] Lukashenko do not dare to arm the people. [Ukraine’s Volodymyr] Zelenskyy didn’t really fear his own people and he handed out arms. If Putin hands out 40,000 AKs in Moscow, he will not be with us tomorrow.”

What about Khodorkovsky’s belief that Russia could one day be a normal European country?
“Nothing has happened to destroy this idea. Russia is part of Europe. The fact that Germany had Hitler did not turn Germany into a non-European country . . . Putin is trying to turn Russia eastwards, but this is too much for one lifetime.”

In 2000, oligarchs supported Putin taking power, believing he did not pose a threat to them. Did Putin change or did they misjudge him?
“It would have been nice for me to say that he was different before, because that would mean that I didn’t make a mistake. He has changed of course. But fundamentally he remained what he was: a KGB person and a gangster, which is one and the same.

And who is Khodorkovsky in reality? He comes across not a martyr or even a politician — he dislikes posing for photos, for starters — but a clever man and an unyielding one. “This is a result of undervaluing my life,” he explains. “In prison, your own life is not worth much . . . I would suggest that people look after their lives and value them. But if circumstances demand, there is no point in being afraid, because when you’re afraid, you die all the time.”

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On the spot

The book that influenced you? Hard to be a God (1964) by the Strugatsky brothers, science fiction writers. Their books describe what is happening in Russia now exactly.

Was Boris Berezovsky murdered? I can understand why it could have been suicide.

Does your life have another chapter, after this one? I hope so.

What do people get wrong about you? A lot of people in Russia think that I want to lead them. They don’t realise that this is a hard job, and I’ve had enough.

Originally published at the Financial Times


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