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Dissident: Putin Regime is Built on Contradictions

An undated photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin Russian Presidential Press and Information Office Photo

An undated photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian Presidential Press and Information Office Photo

One of Russia’s most prominent dissidents told the Atlantic Council on Wednesday that “the system built by [President Vladimir] Putin is contradictory” because it is “a centralized, vertical structure focused on one man” who can be limited in his view and distracted by competing demands.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., Mikhail Khordovsky, founder of Open Russia and exiled in 2013 for his opposition to the regime, said the contradiction also lies in a system that can easily mobilize resources for a single task, such as supporting Russian separatists in Ukraine, but “is limited by the number of tasks one person (Putin) can hold in his mind” at the same time.

Even though relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War, Khordovsky, speaking through a translator, warned the West against making strategic agreements, including ones involving Ukraine, with such a regime. “There’s no guarantee they are going to be carried out.” He added, “Any decision can be changed by one person.”

Khordovsky, who once ran Russia’s giant oil company Yukos, said that for Putin now, the regime’s best choice in Ukraine is to “put a freeze on the conflict,” rather than call back the separatists or dramatically expand it.

While the West does not see the conflict there as one between the United States and Russia, he said 84 percent of the Russian people do.

“If arms start being shipped to Ukraine, transformation [in Western thought] will go” to believing it is a conflict between the two larger powers.

“Is the American administration ready to step into this conflict and win? It is impossible to scare someone” by threat alone. If there is no follow-through, the United States will appear to have been the loser, he said.

He said the long-term reality in Ukraine is it could turn into “a constant, constant conflict situation,” similar to that on the Korean Peninsula.

Capital “markets are already closed,” Khordovsky said, in answering a question on the impact of the first round of sanctions on Russia for its involvement in Ukraine. The later-imposed sanctions on technology “will become noticeable in the medium-term and long-term” if the West remains united in imposing them. He added that Putin said he expected the sanctions to ease within two years.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at The Atlantic Council on June 17, 2015.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at The Atlantic Council on June 17, 2015.

Khordovsky said the regime’s propaganda efforts have been very successful “in replacing one set of terms with another.” To retain power, “the ruling regime is in desperate need” to keep tensions high with the West, and the information war waged through state-controlled media does that.

But there is hope for the future that Russia could be a member of “The Euro-Atlantic” community and have access eventually to NATO and the European Union, he said.

“One hundred and twenty million [of Russia’s 140 million citizens] live in the European part of the country and the number is increasing” of those who say they support concepts such as an independent judiciary, the orderly transfer of power, and local control over spending.

“Russian citizens want to be confident about tomorrow.”

“I am in favor of Russian competing for leadership” in the post-Soviet space with neighbors such as Ukraine and Belarus, he said.

Even in a Russia without an authoritarian regime, Khordovsky did not see it returning Crimea to Ukraine or making compensation for its seizure in 2014. While the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control from the United Kingdom might be an example, he said the matter “won’t be solved quickly and easily” in Russia.

Khordovsky said examples of how countries can change by improving relations with the West include Germany, Japan, Italy, South Korea, and China, which led to better economic opportunities for their citizens and in most cases political openness.

In contrast, “Putin’s Russia is heading down the road to self-isolation.”

In answer to a question, Khordovsky said, “To my regret, part of the Russian bureaucracy is organized crime.” Citing his own experience as a prisoner, he said “from policeman to general,” they “were taking away property from people in jail” and “were not afraid of any consequences in doing this.” The practice continues today; he mentioned Chechnya as an example of how widespread corruption was.

But he did not predict an immediate collapse of the Putin regime and cited areas of common interest between it and the West—combating terrorism, the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and the rise of China.

  • Roy Clingenpeel

    Similar to Obama’s dream of the Islamic socialist United states, Putin to take over the Ukraine like we are doing through the UN want to give Israel to the Palestinians. Similar contradictions only the media considers Obama the good guy and Putin the bad even though they are running neck to neck with their dictatorships.

    • Secundius

      @ Roy Clingenpeel.

      I think your confused Sir. Isn’t the GOP trying to introduce “SHARIA LAW” into the United States, to Forcibly Force Restrictive Laws on American Women from BEING American Women…

  • Jim Valle

    The word everybody is dancing around and not saying with regard to Putin’s ideology is “fascist”. With some modifications due to our contemporary World, Putin is closely following Hitler and Mussolini’s playbooks. Think about it. A rubber stamp Duma much like the Reichstag of the ’30’s, a mixture of capitalism and state controlled enterprises, a small band of men clustered around a single leader who overshadows them both individually and collectively, a noisy and very public rearmament program, military adventurism around the fringes, massive propaganda campaigns replacing ordinary news, and on and on. Like Hitler in the ’30’s Putin counts on the fact that everyone around him would like to avoid armed conflict at all costs giving him the leeway he needs to nibble away. Think of the Eastern Ukraine as today’s Sudetenland and you get the picture. Ironically, it is a state crime to mention fascism or refer to it in any way in Russia.

    • Secundius

      @ Jim Valle.

      I haven’t danced around it Sir, after awhile you get tried of being Redacted All the Time by the Mysterious USNI News Fo-Police…

  • Nikita Ponomarenko

    It’s all nice and well, but the man’s name is actually not “Khordovsky” but “Khodorkovsky” (Ходорковский in Russian). And he might be a dissident, but in order to preserve right impression of this man: he was one of oligarchs, who ruled Russia and 1990’s and he was the most ambitious one. He challenged Putin and lost. Khodorkovsky story is Russian sort of “Reynes of Castamere”, only now we don’t usually slaughter people…
    He’s right about most his assumptions, although it doesn’t really seem that Russians see democracy as a stability garantee. Neither Russia is likely to follow South Korea or Japan. I wish those hopes were true, but it’s doesn’t seem wise to believe them.
    Otherwise Khodorkovsky shows outstanding knowledge of situation (after being in jail for 10 years), good strategy. He was always the smartest man in Russian opposition and now he’s doing the smartest thing – he’s staying out of Russian politics.

    • Secundius

      @ Nikita Ponomarenko.

      Smart Man, or one of Putin’s Famous Polonium Pu-210 “Fast Track Weight-Loss Diet Pill’s”…

  • Frank Langham

    Perhaps this vertical structure really does present some easily exploitable weaknesses. … “Death Of A Thousand Cuts”, as it were. … The Chinese and the Russians already seem to be doing this “Low Intensity, Quasi Warfare” … Just nibble at Vladimir and increase his mission-load, so that he cannot afford to sleep or travel (as much). … I am not talking about instigating any *new* proxy conflicts but we certainly CAN take a holistic and comprehensive approach toward giving Vlad PLENTY to do. … And I DO mean a multi-dimensional approach. … If we (NATO/USA) have a department or a division that specializes in any aspect of competitive engagement, from propaganda, to cyber, to diplomatic, to economic, to Psy-Ops, to low-level espionage and subterfuge, then those resources should be employed … But with true stealth. … No “smirks” or “quips” … No “gotchas” (no tipping our hand) … Just a very comprehensive, persistent campaign to complicate his personal existence and that of his immediate power-base. … I think that THIS, is the “take-away” from this expert assessment (from this published article). … Additionally, the USA has been fairly successful in combating domestic organized crime, to include turning rival factions against one another. … Some of these same techniques and resources may be brought into play, with regard to power-struggles, within the Russian and the Moscow “Mafia”.