“A lost war in Ukraine is a springboard to war in Asia-Pacific,” Khodorkovsky said in the interview with The Washington Post in London, where he now lives. “You have to understand that if even a big guy gets punched in the face, some other guys start to doubt that guy is really that strong, and they want to go for his teeth. … If the US wants to go to war in Asia, the most correct way is to show weakness in Ukraine as well.”
Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison in Russia before being pardoned by Putin in 2013, said stepping up Western military aid to Ukraine and securing victory was the only way for the United States to achieve such a military conflict with China.
Khodorkovsky will speak at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, where he and two other opposition figures, former world champion Garry Kasparov, and Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, have been invited instead of official representatives of the Russian government .
Their invitations represent a clear rebuke from the Kremlin over Putin’s war in Ukraine. It is the first time that members of the opposition have been invited instead of Russian officials to the security conference, a high-profile event where Putin gave a historic speech in 2007 rejecting the West and where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov normally gives a speech. familiar face.
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Russia declined to participate in last year’s conference, held just before the start of its invasion, saying the event “turned into a transatlantic forum” and “lost its inclusiveness and objectivity”.
Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the security conference, has said official Russian representatives will not be invited as long as Putin “denies Ukraine’s right to exist”.
In the interview, Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man as the main owner of the Yukos oil company, said the West now has three options in its support strategy for Ukraine.
The current trajectory, despite recent agreements to provide advanced main battle tanks, represents only incremental military support and paves the way for a protracted and risky war, Khodorkovsky said. In this situation, there are no guarantees that Ukraine can sustain the current casualty rate, while political disputes in the United States ahead of the 2024 presidential election could prompt lawmakers to cut arms supplies and economic aid.
“If the West believes that Ukraine has enough strength to continue to lose 350 to 500 killed and wounded a day, and if they can ensure a guaranteed and constant supply of arms and ammunition, then fine,” he said. “But this is a very big risk.” In the meantime, he said, Putin could try to respond “asymmetrically” by destabilizing governments in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East, and possibly in the West.
A second path would be for the West to quickly and significantly increase military aid with long-range missiles and fighter jets that would allow Ukraine to destroy Russian supply lines.
“The only thing that can break the situation on the battlefield is aviation,” Khodorkovsky said. “Everything else is secondary.”
While the West’s support for Ukraine is much greater than many expected, “this does not alter the fact that the West has much more to do,” he said. Aid is often lagging behind events on the battlefield, and “by the time you start giving these missiles and tanks, it will already be too late. … When the front moves towards Kiev in three months, they will give planes, but then it will be too late because there are no more airports,” he said.
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A third route would see Washington and its allies eventually “turn around and leave as they did in Afghanistan and as they did in Syria and other places,” he said.
“Putin is a person who thinks retrospectively and he believes that if something happened before, it will often happen again in the same way in the future,” Khodorkovsky said. And he’s not often mistaken about that. Looking back, he sees that every time he’s started a small, new war, he’s been able to consolidate the society around him, and he’s seen Americans run away time and time again. … But if he successfully ends the operation in Ukraine for himself, then the national patriots, who are now his main source of support, will not allow him to stop and the next war will begin.”
While Russian aggression would continue outside Ukraine, Khodorkovsky said, any perceived victory for Putin in Ukraine would also encourage China to move into Taiwan, he said. “When I hear Americans say we have to choose between aid to Ukraine and aid to Taiwan because we can’t expand to both, it seems so primitive that I feel like it must be a ruse,” he said.
Any negotiated settlement that would force Ukraine to agree to cede territory, such as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, would harden the position of hawks, whom the Russian president has been forced to rely on to solicit public support for the war. to drum. Putin would then be “pressured” to carry out further attacks on Ukraine, Khodorkovsky said.
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Khodorkovsky has long used his Open Russia Foundation to fight Putin’s regime and is now sponsoring a range of Russian political opposition projects. His most recent book “How to Slay a Dragon” calls on the West to prepare for a post-Putin, post-war regime in which Russia’s presidential system must be dismantled and replaced by a parliamentary republic.
A rapid escalation of Western aid to Ukraine to end the war quickly and defeat Russian forces would be “best for Russia,” Khodorkovsky said. “Fewer people will die and the build-up of strength from the terrible national patriots will be less,” he said.
Otherwise, the country faces a much deeper collapse. The longer the war goes on, the more likely the Russians will stop blaming their government for the deaths of their loved ones and instead blame Ukraine, he said.
According to Khodorkovsky, a protracted conflict is also risky for Putin, who faces resentment from both sides of a deeply divided elite: the aggressive nationalist patriot camp, which believes that Putin must act more decisively and radically to conquer Ukraine, and a more liberal minded camp that sees the war as a terrible mistake.
So far, there is no sign that anyone will act against the authoritarian president. But if it becomes clear that Putin is losing the war, Khodorkovsky said history could repeat itself with regional governors refusing to take orders from Moscow, as they did in 1999, a situation that ultimately left the weakened president, Boris Yeltsin, forced to resign.
Putin has so far held his own. “The propaganda is still able to convince people that they are winning at the front,” Khodorkovsky said, adding that even a failed conscription attempt had not undermined Putin. “The mobilization went easier for him than many expected,” he said, adding: “The question now is what happens on the battlefield. Everything else has absolutely marginal significance.”