The West should have acted years ago in arming Ukraine with weapons and imposing sanctions on Russia — a move that would have “100 per cent” deterred Vladimir Putin since launching his invasion earlier this year, believes Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled oligarch-turned-dissident .
Mr Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia before his persecution and imprisonment by the Kremlin, said Western governments bear “significant responsibility” for the conflict in Ukraine, having failed to take action against President Putin after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The former oil and gas tycoon, who at one point had a personal fortune estimated to be worth £12.38 billion, compared the West’s inaction to being slapped by a gangster and handing over money.
“When a gangster comes to you, not just a London hooligan, but a proper gangster, and he slaps you in the face, all you can do is to give him your wallet in the hope that he’s not going to get your trousers off, ” Mr Khodorkovsky told The Independent.
“Of course, there is some significant responsibility. The annexation of Crimea in 2014. People decided that they can continue business as usual.
“Putin took it as a weakness. And we have what we have.”
In February 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula — setting the foundations for the current war — in a violation of international law that was widely condemned by the western world.
Russia was expelled from the G8 and slapped with a series of economic sanctions as a result of the annexation. Russian officials were hit with travel and transaction bans, overseas assets were frozen and bilateral talks regarding military matters, space and visa requirements were halted.
Further sanctions were imposed as the war in Donbas escalated throughout 2014, but the west never attempted to restrict the Russian economy to the extent it has today, nor were arms and military equipment readily supplied to the Ukrainian government.
In failing to do so, the Kremlin was emboldened to launch an invasion of the country nearly a decade later, Mr Khodorkovsky believes.
“If they had put the sanctions then like they did now, and if Ukrainians had been given the military weapons like they have been given today, then, with 100 per cent probability, Putin wouldn’t have gone into war now,” he said . “But what happened, happened.”
However, Mr Khodorkovsky, who was stripped of his wealth by the Kremlin and thrown into jail in 2003 for challenging the Putin regime, also questioned the extent to which the current package of sanctions were slowing the Russian war machine.
The International Monetary Fund expects a 10 per cent contraction of Russian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a result of the measures, but analysts do not believe they have been effective in a military sense.
Some have also argued that the recovery in Russia’s currency since last month and recent reductions by the central bank in previously sky-high interest rates shows that Moscow is coping with the sanctions regime.
“I think sanctions nowadays, it’s not a possibility to stop the war,” said Mr Khodorkovsky, now a leading critic of the Kremlin after his release from prison in 2013. “They will limit Putin’s militaristic possibilities, but not now — at a later stage.
“The only way to help Ukraine is through weapons and the education of the Ukrainian military. That’s all.”
Despite the need to continue supporting Ukraine, countries are beginning to turn their focus away from the war, Mr Khodorkovsky added. “It’s a problem, a problem, and Putin understands that. He uses time like his support from him.”
Nonetheless, Nato this week announced it would be increasing the number of forces on high alert to over 300,000 from 40,000 — the biggest overhaul of the alliance’s defense since the Cold War.
The military alliance also confirmed that it will expand troop deployments in European member countries that are closest to Russia and strengthen air defences.
Mr Khodorkovsky said that, in the eyes of Kremlin officials, Nato was seen as weak and unwilling to act if Russia invaded its Baltic neighbors — countries that President Putin still considers to be part of the “motherland”.
If such a scenario was to unfold, that would spell the “symbolic” end of Nato as an institution, Mr Khodorkovsky added. “A lot of countries who are now part of Nato will decide it is not a guarantee of our security,” he said.