He was the richest in Russia. Now the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (58) warns against believing that Putin will stop at the borders of Ukraine.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky (58) was Russia’s richest ruler, and his position as head of the country’s largest oil company gave him direct access to President Putin.
It all ended abruptly when Khodorkovsky spoke out loud about corruption in Russia.
The oligarch spent ten years in prison for what human rights organizations described as punishment for criticizing the Kremlin. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is one of those who knows best what Putin can do.
When VG spoke to him on the video line from self-imposed Russian exile in London, he had a clear message about Russia’s war in Ukraine: Don’t think you can negotiate with Putin.
To this day, I see no other way than to clearly show Putin that he is losing. Until Putin is gone, he says, Europe will face big and serious problems.
misunderstanding of the West
Khodorkovsky was known in the 1990s and early 2000s as a hard-liner and pessimist. Like many other oligarchs, he was criticized for his unscrupulous exploitation of Russia’s precarious economic situation during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He is now a 58-year-old businessman who has worked since his release from prison in 2013 from London to try to change the board of directors in Russia through Open Russia.
Khodorkovsky believes that the West has misunderstood something important about Putin’s war.
– You think that Putin has not yet crossed the borders of Western countries. But as for Putin, he already has it.
Khodorkovsky thinks it is quite clear from Putin’s propaganda that he is already at war with NATO and the United States.
– The choice you have to make now is either to defeat Putin on the territory of Ukraine, or you have to fight against him on the territory of one of the NATO countries. Then he tells VG that we are facing something much worse.
The West’s Big Mistakes
Khodorkovsky is well aware of the periods of power in his homeland, because he owned the oil producer Yukos, which made him the richest man in Russia in 2003 with an astounding fortune of 120 billion crowns.
Oil is also the key word when the former oligarch talks about the grave mistake he believes Western countries made ten years ago, which is to rely on Russian oil and gas.
Even then, Western countries had to see the way Putin behaved Russia, and began switching to securing energy from other sources. Well, better late than never. The Russians believe that the West is paying the price for its delay today.
The West is now dependent on an authoritarian regime, and Putin uses this as leverage, summarizes the regime’s critic in VG.
If Europe completely stops buying oil and gas from Russia, how quickly will the country’s economy collapse, Khodorkovsky was asked recently on Hard Talk.
– If Putin is forced to redirect oil and gas to the Asian market, he will lose half of his income. This is half of the state budget. Will he be able to continue the war in such conditions? It’s hard for me to say that I’m not a martial expert. Khodorkovsky replied, but from my point of view it would be a serious setback.
He cheated Putin
A video of President Putin’s immediate reaction to the corruption allegations made by Khodorkovsky was used in 2003 in the Citizen K documentary.
It shows Putin’s immediate and coherent response to the allegations. Ten years in prison in Siberia did not stop Khodorkovsky.
The former oligarch told VG that he did not want to punish Western leaders for not seeing the danger posed by Putin, because he “was himself deluded” when he met the president several times in the years from the late 1990s to 2003.
Putin is able to adapt to what people want to see in him. I know that because I tried it myself. I would like to see a young democratic leader of the new Russia, and he showed it with pleasure. Has it changed? I really think he was pretty good at pretending, he told VG.
He had previously told the BBC that he “regrets every day” that he may have been Putin’s aide to take power.
Nevertheless, Khodorkovsky allows himself a small stab at Western leaders for their approach to the man who has now conquered a neighboring country.
– It has now been nearly twenty years since I realized it was someone else, while West realized it three months ago. Of course, they could have realized it in 2014, but then, for some reason, they saw a different path. I hope this will open our eyes to the fact that we are dealing here with a dictator, with whom we can only interact through the exercise of power.
He paints a little tale for a VG reporter, as a little prick for Europe’s leaders.
– Do you know this garden shovel? It hurts a lot if you step on the tip of the shovel, and the stick melts completely in your face. But when it does happen—not once or twice, but three times, maybe four times—it is legitimate to ask if you would like it, he says, smiling heartily at his banter.
Russia has now lived for three months under the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States to affect those in power, defense, and the financial market in Russia.
VG asks do you think the penalties hit those you are supposed to hit.
“In the long run, of course, the Russian economy is hit hard by sanctions, especially given that sanctions slow down the ability to produce weapons, and therefore the Kremlin’s opportunity for aggression,” Khodorkovsky said.
Sanctions are also intended to affect the oligarchy, a term that Khodorkovsky, perhaps above all, used for many years.
The oligarchs are Putin’s agents and he uses them, or at least tries to use them to influence Western political systems. This means that Putin has a strong grip on them and they do what he tells them to do. From this point of view – the businessman says that it is very important to ban bank accounts and prevent their influence on Western policies and the Western economic system.
20 years of “personal war”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky has now spent nearly twenty years in what he describes as a “personal war against Putin”.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov told VG in 2018 that he believed Khodorkovsky was “Putin’s biggest threat”.
The fight against Putin cost a lot, not only to the man himself, but also to Khodorkovsky’s sons and wife, who lost him for ten years while spending time in Siberia.
Does he regret what he did in 2003 when he challenged Putin in front of television cameras and the public? Khodorkovsky thinks about it.
Of course, if I had known what Putin was really capable of, I would probably have been less public and confrontational in my criticism. Will I then be, to this day, like my former colleagues about Putin? He says I don’t know. I would say not at all, but I don’t know. Then he adds, “It is possible that we are made in such a way that we convince ourselves that we are good people, even when we are not.”
The Russian businessman paused a little.
– But still I have to say, when I look back 20 years in time, I am happy. Of course I am not happy that I spent 10 years in prison, but I got out of this system. I can, without hesitation, look into the eyes of my children and friends. I have nothing to be ashamed of now.
No good Caesar
Despite nearly ten years in London, Khodorkovsky still gives interviews only in Russian. He describes himself as a “guest” in the UK, and would like to return to Russia.
To VG in 2018, he said he hoped that would happen soon, and four to five years from now, he hoped Russia would be a democracy similar to the West.
He tells VG that the war in Ukraine has changed a lot.
– I think today that what I dreamed of, that Russia would become a democratic republic, is not possible. Now I think one should share power among the regional authorities, and establish a parliamentary republic.
It will be a heavy operation, says the Russian, in part because Russian propaganda has a huge impact on the Russian people, but he believes it is Russia’s best chance now.
Do you imagine becoming the next president of Russia?
Khodorkovsky smiles with brown eyes behind his secret glasses.
Am I willing to contribute where I can, if I so desire? Yeah. But, and this is what I want to stress very strongly: the West seems to believe that the “evil Tsar” can be replaced by the “good Tsar” who will come and save the country. In Russia there are no good tsars. The accumulation of power is always an evil for our vast country.
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