What Ukraine means for the US role as global ‘tough guy’

September 26, 2023

Interview by Matt Berg and Eric Bazail-Eimil

If the US doesn’t help Ukraine decisively win its war against Russia, Washington’s adversaries are likely to feel emboldened to challenge its military dominance, a prominent Kremlin dissident tells NatSec Daily.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is on a campaign to keep aid flowing to Ukraine, arguing that pursuing negotiations with Putin would harm Kyiv.

For the moment, the US is still seen as maintaining the global order, “and that order is propped up by the public perception that the US is a fairly tough guy,” Khodorkovsky said in an interview in our office Wednesday afternoon.

But he argued that’s changing.

Washington has suffered significant losses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the past two decades, proving that the US military can be successfully fought, Khodorkovsky said. If Ukraine fails against Russia after receiving more than $100 billion in aid from Washington, that “tough guy” image could shatter, he said.

“A loss in the Ukraine — or an unimpressive win — would immediately, not in the mid- or long-term, but immediately, right away — result in a whole bunch of problems for the US,” Khodorkovsky said through a translator. “My fear is that there will be a great deal of others who would actually want to find out just how tough America is,” he said, calling out China by name.

Mick Mulroy, who served as a deputy assistant defense secretary during the Trump administration, told NatSec Daily that while he prefers the term “leader of the free world” over “tough guy,” he mostly agrees with the Russian dissident’s assessment.

Mulroy’s ideas on what could follow: the US could face direct attacks or become involved in more conflicts, especially if Russia attacks a NATO country.

Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who was once Russia’s richest citizen, spent a decade in jail before being pardoned by Putin. He maintains contacts with activists and people who work in Russia, he said later in our conversation.

“There is a consensus opinion among the elites that starting the war was a mistake,” he said. But, he added, many of them feel they now have no choice but to back it: “At this point, there’s no alternative to it. It’s a war that we have to win. Otherwise the country will fall apart. Propaganda has been very effective.”

Meanwhile, Putin is banking on the 2024 presidential election turning the tide in Moscow’s favour, Khodorkovsky said, adding that the Kremlin head wants former President Donald Trump to win and pull US support from Ukraine.

“This is being discussed there right now, along the lines of we just have to wait it out until Trump is elected, and it will be a much easier situation for us to deal with,” the exiled businessman said. “Putin has very high expectations regarding Trump.”

That’s because of Trump’s view of the war in Ukraine: “The expectation is that … Putin will be able to accomplish the goals that he set out to from the beginning,” Khodorkovsky said. Trump hasn’t said he would entirely end aid to Ukraine, but he has been critical of the amount being sent.

When asked if he expects Russian election interference again next year, Khodorkovsky shrugged.

The article was originally published in The National Security Daily