Ex-Oligarch Says Putin Sees War With the West Already Underway

The U.S and its Western allies fail to understand that from Putin’s perspective, they are already at war with Russia, said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former head of Yukos Oil Co.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2014.
By Annmarie Hordern, Saleha Mohsin and Nick Wadhams
April 06, 2022 | 09:14 AM

Bloomberg — The U.S and its Western allies fail to understand that from President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, they are already at war with Russia, said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former head of Yukos Oil Co. who was once the country’s richest person.

With the U.S. and major powers ramping up sanctions on Moscow, supplying weapons to Kyiv, and training Ukraine’s military, Putin views his nation as essentially being at war with America and Europe on Ukrainian soil, Khodorkovsky said in an interview in Washington.

Western arguments drawing a hard line between conflict on Ukrainian land and the spread of war into NATO members’ territory are a nuance that means little to Putin, said Khodorkovsky, whose falling out with the Russian leader in the early 2000s led to him spending nearly a decade in prison before going into exile.

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“Putin has said from the very beginning that this war includes them,” said Khodorkovsky, 58. Putin “thinks NATO is weak and that they will not defend the Baltics” if Russia attacked those nations, all former members of the Soviet Union. If that plays out, he said Putin believes “NATO will collapse and that means that American” global influence will plummet.

U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly said that they would honor the alliance’s central charter calling an attack on one an attack on all. But since Ukraine isn’t a member of the alliance, other nations have declined to send their own forces to the country’s defense or take actions -- such as enforcing a no-fly zone -- that would be seen as offensive action against Russia, effectively expanding the conflict.

Russia, meanwhile, has argued that NATO’s eastward expansion has become an existential security threat, even though Ukraine wasn’t being seriously considered for membership.

With the war now in its second month, Khodorkovsky said he thinks the U.S. needs to show Putin “a consistent policy of force,” noting that economic sanctions alone don’t scare him. And he added that despite Western hopes, he doesn’t believe sanctioning current Russian billionaires will have much impact on Putin’s thinking about how to proceed in Ukraine.

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Officials at Russia’s embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Khodorkovsky is in Washington, where he met with U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on Friday and with officials of the National Security Council on Tuesday, according to a State Department official. White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Khodorkovsky, who also met with foreign policy experts at the Atlantic Council, said he’s been asked about Putin’s state of mind and how he sees the war unfolding. He said he came to Washington after meeting with “important people” in Germany, without naming them.

The former executive praised President Joe Biden’s warnings to Putin against using weapons of mass destruction in the Ukraine war, saying that was a sign of effective communication with the Russian leader. And he said that while he believes much of the world interpreted Biden’s comments that Putin should no longer rule Russia incorrectly, the remarks were important.

“If the U.S. wants to be a moral leader, it has to make a moral statement,” he said. Biden said his remarks didn’t indicate a policy of regime change, but that he was “expressing the moral outrage I felt.”

Khodorkovsky once had a fortune estimated at $15 billion, according to Forbes. He was among the earliest generation of Russian businessmen who became wealthy in the years after the Soviet Union collapsed.

In the interview, Khodorkovsky said he hasn’t met with Putin in 18 years, around the time he was stripped of his wealth and later jailed on tax evasion and money laundering charges that he has said were retribution for supporting political parties opposed to the Russian leader. Freed in 2013, he now lives in London.

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