Russian opposition figure and former owner of the Yukos Oil Company Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a press conference with Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs at the "Esperanza" hotel in Paunguriai village

Russia must change its power structure to get back on a democratic path, opposition figure says

Russian businessman and opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky recently released a new book, "The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putin’s Power Gambit — and How to Fix It." He spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about Russia, President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine.

The World

Russian opposition figure and former owner of the Yukos Oil Company Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a press conference with Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs at the "Esperanza" hotel in Paunguriai village, Aug. 20, 2021.

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/File photo

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a businessman and Russian opposition figure, and the former chief executive officer of the Yukos Oil company. He was a political prisoner for a decade between 2003 and 2013, sentenced under the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Khodorkovsky also founded the Open Russia foundation with the aim of "building and strengthening civil society in Russia." He enlisted global figures such as Henry Kissinger and Lord Rothschild to serve on the board, among others. The group had to temporarily cease operations in 2017 after a decision by Russian courts, but is currently operational outside of the country.

Khodorkovsky recently released a new book, written with Martin Sixsmith, called "The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putin’s Power Gambit — and How to Fix It."

He joined The World's host Marco Werman from London for a discussion about Russia, Putin and the war in Ukraine, speaking through interpreter Elena Cook.

Part I

Marco Werman: We'd like to focus on your new book and your own personal story. But first, the question that is on everyone's mind, what is Vladimir Putin thinking at this moment? How close is he to pulling the nuclear trigger?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Well, what Putin is thinking about now, you should ask of Putin himself, or a psychiatrist. But if you try to evaluate him as a pragmatic person, if you think he is a pragmatic person, at the moment, he's still thinking that mobilization might help him. And [while] it is not clear to him that, in fact, mobilization hasn't helped him, at the next stage, which is using nuclear weapons, that next stage is not going to happen. This is the topic for the next year, for the beginning of the next year.
So, you've sat across the table from Putin many times. You've incurred his wrath. Who do you think Vladimir Putin is listening to right now? Like his advisers, are they people you once knew?
Today, there's no point in thinking that somebody is imposing some solutions or decisions [on] him. He's taking his own decisions. But among his entourage, his inner circle, there are, of course, people like [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, Mr. [Ramzan] Kadyrov. The majority, however, consist of people proposed by Mr. [Yury] Kovalchuk. This part of his inner circle is controlled by Kovalchuk, and they have maximum access to Putin. They have his ear.
So, are you saying there's nobody around him who can provide some opposition or some kind of dissenting opinion?
Well, over the last 20 years, those people who were in conflict with Putin, or [opposed] him, expressed different points of view that Putin didn't like, they have been removed from his inner circle. Today, when the level of risks for people in his entourage has growing much higher, we can see that conflict has arisen in his inner circle. At the moment, these conflicts sometimes break through into the public domain, which haven't affected Putin himself directly. Whether anyone in these conditions could tell Putin face-to-face something he doesn't like to hear, of course this might happen. Whether Putin is ready to acknowledge this unpalatable truth, I don't think so.
But when you hear him talking about using a tactical nuclear weapon, is there anyone around him who would say, "Not such a good idea"? Does anyone dare to question him?
I think that Putin, himself, realizes full well that using nuclear weapons is not really the best idea. He's not quite as crazy as that. I think what is more likely is that the part of his circle who are crazy and who understand that they're going to be responsible if the war is lost, they would bear the responsibility, this part of his entourage are trying step-by-step, to pressurize Putin into getting him to fight to the very bitter end, including using nuclear weapons. If Ukraine were to receive the necessary number of weapons in order to finish the war off this year, we would say with confidence that Putin's opinion about the use of nuclear weapons will not have formed. However, if this conflict extends for another year, it's quite likely that the combination of this pressure that he experiences from his inner circle and his own depression as a result of an obviously lost war, this might lead to the fact that he discovered that he's cornered, and by the beginning of spring next year, he might come to use nuclear weapons.
Do you think you understand Putin's own personal limits?
I think what you have in your head is something quite bizarre. You think that there are some red lines? There are no red lines, in fact. What I think is that there is a perception, a feeling for the situation, and that largely is connected to the tiredness that is accumulating with the psychological aspects, the depression, that is accumulating and growing as well, with the constant pressure of his entourage. And this is developing, this is flowing dynamically. This is not to say that there is some red line that you step over and you launch nuclear weapons. No, this is not the case. "I feel, (I, Putin), I don't like it. I feel really badly. And then I get to the stage, where I don't care anymore. And then I'm launching nuclear weapons." This takes time. So, what is important now is to finish off the war as soon as possible rather than extend it for a long period of time.
Mr. Khodorkovsky, today you live in London, and from that perch you wrote your new book, "The Russia Conundrum," a sort of manifesto for a post-Putin Russia. Do you think Putin has long in power?
Having started the war with Ukraine, he has reduced the time in power. If, before the beginning of this war, I thought that the likelihood of him staying in power until 2036 was quite considerable, now I think it's more likely that by 2026, 10 years earlier, he's going to either disappear or he [will] be taken out of that chair. But this would largely depend on the results of the war in Ukraine. Let's suppose that if Putin were offered by the West, those conditions that Elon Musk had suggested recently, I think it's quite likely that Putin, today, would want to accept those conditions and he would stop at the borders of those four regions. But the accumulated inertia, those national patriotic forces that have formed during this new military operation would not allow him to stay in these negotiations and ceasefire for a long time. And, I think, within a few months or maximum a year, we would have another war, a new war with those million people who have been mobilized, conscripted, drafted, this Putin's army with a defense industry that will have changed to a military production manufacturing regime. And this would be a much harder continuation of the existing war.

Part II

To listen to the second part of this interview, click on the audio player below.

Right now, though, no one is around Putin to provide contrary, dissenting opinions, as you said. What is the state of opposition and dissent across Russia? I mean, so much of the opposition is now in exile or in jail or they've been killed.
We have three types of opposition to the regime in Russia. One is the communists who, at present, have almost merged with Putin. The second are national patriotic forces. These are those people or the moving force of the war in Ukraine at the moment, the moving factor. And the third one is democrats. I wouldn't call them liberals, but these are democrats, democratic forces. And this part of the opposition, at the moment, is experiencing a lot of change. Those democrats who stood for legal methods of fighting the regime, participating in elections, peaceful protests, that part of the opposition is slowly losing their influence on society. Those people in opposition who are gaining influence, are those who think that to confront this regime, it can only be done by force, or at least by threat of force, threat of violence. And I think this process will come to fruition within the forthcoming few months.
Will it really happen that quickly, given the strength Putin's security forces have over the country?
Well, people will mobilize, they are mobilizing, and there are already draft offices, conscription offices burning, being set on fire in the dozens. Mobilization has been declared. People are going to find themselves on the battlefield and they will be coming back, both injured or deserters with weapons in their arms. These are the processes which will take a few months, perhaps until the summer of next year. And this will grow and become much more obvious, much more significant, and politically, this is quite fast.
Mr. Khodorkovsky, in the 2000s, you led the important oil firm, Yukos, and you famously challenge Vladimir Putin face-to-face on live TV in Russia. That video has basically disappeared from the internet. Take us back to that point in time. What were you trying to accomplish?
Has it really disappeared from the internet? Quite recently, I looked at the link and it was still on YouTube. That was the point in time when Russian businesses wanted to move on to become transparent. Our company, Yukos, was one of the leading Russian companies at the time, and we wanted to have an IPO in America. At the time, the Sarbanes-Oxley Law was adopted in the US that demanded that companies control corruption practices within their own companies if they wanted to do an IPO in the stock market in the US. So, my colleagues in the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs decided to go to Putin with a proposal and say to him, "Let's start global work cleaning up, getting rid of corrupt practices in the country." Unfortunately, it turned out that Putin, in fact, had already decided the opposite. He had already decided that he was going to make corruption one of the linchpins of his regime. With the help of corruption, he decided to control his closest circle, and fighting corruption was something totally unacceptable. And that was clearly obvious in that video when we're talking about corruption. Putin, contrary to what any normal politician would do, who in any case would say, "Oh yes, let's fight corruption," and then would do nothing. Putin didn't even find it in himself to say those words.
That event ended with a lengthy jail sentence for you. You were one of the most powerful men in Russia at the time, and you ended up in a gulag, a Siberian labor camp. You say prison changed you and your view of the world. Can you explain what you mean?
When I left to go to prison, I was a businessman. Ten years of prison made entrepreneurship less interesting for me than it was for me before jail. I suddenly realized, in myself, that it is impossible to be free in business if the whole country is not free, if people in the country are not free. And fighting for democracy was first and foremost the main objective that had to be resolved, that had to be achieved, even compared with economic issues.
Can you imagine going home again, Mikhail Khodorkovsky? And where do you consider home?
Home, for me, as well as for many other people, is the place where my family and my friends are. At the moment, this circle has been dispersed across a whole range of countries. But if we are talking about my native land, my motherland, my fatherland, it's Russia. It's the only one. And I would like to be able in my lifetime to see that Russia has come back onto the path of democratic development. And if I can do anything to promote it, I will do it. If and when Putin leaves the political stage, or just dies, this possibility will arise with a quiet livelihood inside the country. And then for Russia, it would be dangerous to have this idea of searching for a good or kind czar. There could never be a kind czar in Russia. Such kind czars, like Gorbachev, lose power. What is important for Russia is to change the structure of power. Russia should become a parliamentary republic. Russia should become much more federalized in its makeup. But it should remain as Russia. And in that case, the world would have a non-aggressive neighbor and Russia would be at the possibility of democratic development. And whatever I can do in order to put it in place, I will do.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks out against Russia's intervention in Ukraine

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