Espreso. Global

Khodorkovsky warns West of war with China if Russia wins in Ukraine

17 February, 2023 Friday

Russian military victory in Ukraine will encourage Beijing and lead to a war between the US and China over Taiwan

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin's regime, said this in an interview with the Washington Post ahead of a speech he will deliver to world leaders at a major security and defense conference in Germany this weekend.

“A lost war in Ukraine is a stepping stone to war in the Asia Pacific. You need to understand that when even a big guy is hit in the face, a number of other guys will start to doubt whether that guy is really that strong, and they will want to go for his teeth. … If the U.S. wants to go to war in Asia, then the most correct path to this is to show weakness in Ukraine as well,” Khodorkovsky said in the interview with The Washington Post in London, where he now lives.

Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison in Russia before being pardoned by Putin in 2013, said that increased Western military aid to Ukraine and ensuring its victory is the only way for the United States to avoid a similar military conflict with China.

This weekend, Khodorkovsky is scheduled to speak at the Munich Security Conference, where he and two other opposition figures, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and Yulia Navalnaya, wife of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were invited instead of Russian government officials.

Their invitations are a clear rebuke to the Kremlin for 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 landmark speech rejecting the West in 2007 and where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is normally a familiar face.”

Russia refused to participate in last year's conference, which took place just before its invasion, saying that the event was "turning into a transatlantic forum" and "losing its inclusiveness and objectivity."

Christoph Heusgen, the security conference chairman, said that Russian officials would not be invited as long as Putin "denies Ukraine's right to exist."

In the interview, Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man as the main owner of the Yukos oil company, said that the West now has a choice between three paths in its strategy to support Ukraine.

According to Khodorkovsky, the current trajectory, despite recent agreements to supply the latest battle tanks, is only gradual military support and opens the way to a protracted and risky war.

“In this situation, there are no guarantees that Ukraine will be able to sustain the current level of losses, and political disputes in the United States ahead of the 2024 presidential election could push lawmakers to cut off arms supplies and economic aid.”

“If the West considers that Ukraine has enough strength to continue to lose 350 to 500 people a day in killed and wounded, and if they can ensure a guaranteed and constant supply of weapons and ammunitions, then fine. But this is a very big risk,” he noted. In the meantime, he said, Putin could seek to respond “asymmetrically” by destabilizing governments in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East, as well as potentially in the West.

The second way involves a rapid and significant increase in Western military aid, including long-range missiles and fighter jets, which would allow Ukraine to destroy Russian supply lines.

“The only thing that can break the situation on the battlefield is aviation. Everything else is secondary,” Khodorkovsky said.

“While Western support for Ukraine has been stronger than many expected, “it doesn’t cancel the fact that the West has to do a lot more,” he said.”

Assistance has often trailed events on the battlefield, and “by the time you begin to give these missiles and tanks, it’s already going to be too late. … If in three months, the front moves toward Kyiv, they will give planes, but then it will be too late because there won’t be any airfields left,” he said.

“The third way would lead to 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 considers that if something has happened before, it often happens again in the same way in the future,” Khodorkovsky said. “And he is not often wrong in this. Thinking retrospectively, he sees that each time he has begun a small, new war he is able to consolidate society around him, and he has seen the Americans walk away time and again. … But if he ends the Ukraine operation successfully for himself, then the national patriots who are now his main source of support won’t allow him to stop and the next war will begin.”

Although Russian aggression will continue beyond Ukraine, any victory for Putin in Ukraine will push China to attack Taiwan, he added. “When I hear from Americans who say we need to choose between aid to Ukraine and aid to Taiwan because we can’t extend to both, it seems so primitive that I have the feeling it must be a trick,” he said.

“Any negotiated settlement in which Ukraine is forced to agree to cede territories such as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will strengthen the position of the 'hawks' on whom the Russian president has to rely to gain public support for the war. Putin would then be "forced under pressure" to launch further attacks on Ukraine, Khodorkovsky said.”

Khodorkovsky has long used his Open Russia Foundation to fight Putin's regime and now sponsors a number of projects of the Russian political opposition. His latest book, “How to Slay the Dragon”, calls on the West to begin preparing for a post-Putin, post-war regime in which Russia's presidential system is to be dismantled and replaced by a parliamentary republic.

A rapid escalation of Western support for Ukraine to end the war quickly and defeat Russian forces would be “best for Russia,” Khodorkovsky said. “Fewer people will die and the buildup in strength of the terrible national patriots will be less,” he said.

Otherwise, the country will face a much deeper collapse. According to him, the longer the war lasts, the more likely it is that Russians will stop blaming their government for the deaths of their loved ones and will put the blame on Ukraine.

“According to Khodorkovsky, a protracted conflict is also risky for Putin, who faces resentment from each side of a deeply divided elite: the hawkish nationalist patriotic camp, which believes Putin must act more decisively and radically to win Ukraine, and the more liberal-minded camp, which sees the war as a terrible mistake.”

So far, there are no signs that anyone will act against the authoritarian president. But if it becomes clear that Putin is losing the war, Khodorkovsky says history could repeat itself, with regional governors refusing to take orders from Moscow, as happened in 1999 when a weakened President Boris Yeltsin was forced to resign.

Putin is holding on for now. “The propaganda is still able to convince people that they are winning on the front,” Khodorkovsky said, adding that even a botched conscription effort had not undermined Putin. “The mobilization went through more easily for him than many expected,” he said, adding: “It’s a question now of what happens on the battlefield. Everything else has an absolutely marginal meaning.”

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