Mikhail Khodorkovsky: The West must deal with the bandit Putin now, or wait for the worst
Mikhail Khodorkovsky / I have been waging a personal war with Vladimir Putin for almost 20 years. This led to my being imprisoned in Russia for ten years and then being deported, with a warning that I would face life in prison if I ever returned. Do I know the man who did all this to me? I think yes. That is why I look with despair at the defeatist approach of Western leaders like Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Naftali Bennett.
It is difficult for me to judge how their actions are viewed by their electorate. However, I know very well how they are perceived by Mr. Putin, sitting at the end of his long table. They fly to Moscow, call him, ask him to stop, but assure him that they will not intervene and do not want him to perceive certain movements as provocation. The president sees all this as a weakness and it is extremely dangerous.
Part of the problem is that the current leaders of Western countries have never dealt with bandits. Their experience and education is related to the interactions between statesmen. The principle of behavior of these people is that both parties accept each other in the interest of the electorate or their subjects. War is bad for them, and the use of force is the last resort.
This is not the case with Vladimir Putin. He grew up in the KGB, an organization that relied on the force and disregard of the law. While working in St. Petersburg City Hall in the early 1990s, he was responsible for the informal interaction of law enforcement agencies with gangsters. St. Petersburg at that time was perceived in Russia as Chicago was seen. Instead of smuggled whiskey, gangsters sold drugs and oil.
Times changed, but his ways of solving problems and situations did not change. Some of the conversations between his confidants and known criminals, made public after an investigation by Spanish prosecutors, help us understand how the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the poisoning of Alexey Navalny relate to the state. Such actions are the norm for the president because he is a thug by nature.
Even after more than 20 years in power, having gained a strong image and self-confidence, a bandit will always remain a bandit in terms of his perception among those around him. It is a drastic mistake when seen as a normal statesman. Russia's foreign partners fail to understand who he really is.
I have a lot of experience in dealing with bandits. After spending ten years in Russian prisons, I can say that the most dangerous thing is to show them any weakness or insecurity. Any step towards their demands, without a clear demonstration of strength, will be perceived as weakness. By their logic, if Western countries say they will not give up on Ukraine and yet do just that, it means they are weak. And that makes it possible for Mr Putin to look to other neighbors, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which were also formerly part of the Russian Empire.
You have to understand that Putin, in his head, has long been at war not with Ukraine but with America. And now America and NATO seem to be retreating. He is not the only bandit who perceives the situation this way. Other thugs are also watching and waiting their turn as America’s humiliation echoes around the world. The Balkans are worried again, Iran is attacking US bases. At some point, America and NATO will take revenge, but until then, they will be plagued by crows and vultures in different parts of the world. The habit of impunity among bandits does not go away so quickly. And that means a worse, even bigger, war is likely to happen.
You probably do not believe it. But keep this in mind: Putin managed to raise his profile when he took office, in 1999, with the war in Chechnya. Medvedev solved the problem of controlling his "interim presidency" by going to war with Georgia in 2008. After going to war on Putin's orders, Mr. Medvedev was forced to abandon his modernization agenda. Putin solved the problem of lowering his rating in 2013-14 by invading Crimea.
Now, the war in Ukraine alleviates any strife over a decade of economic decline. The economy will continue to collapse, as a result of corruption and sanctions. A river of coffins will return home to Russia because guerrilla warfare cannot be stopped. The condition of the population will continue to deteriorate. And in 2024 there will be elections.
What will be Mr. Putin's solution? It will be another "special operation". Moldova is very small, so it is likely to be in the Baltic states or Poland. If Putin does not stop flying over Ukraine, NATO will have to fight it on the ground.