Russian exiled leader: Post-Putin era may be ‘months’ away

Monitor Breakfast

Russian exiled leader: Post-Putin era may be ‘months’ away

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Mr. Ponomarev was also a key founder of something called the Congress of People’s Deputies – a kind of Russian parliament-in-exile composed of opposition leaders and other former Duma members. The 93-member body held its first meeting last November outside Warsaw.

The point is to prepare for a post-Putin Russia, and reform the federal government into a decentralized parliamentary democracy, Mr. Ponomarev told reporters Wednesday over coffee at the Monitor’s Washington bureau.

First question: Why is he in Washington?

“We’re trying right now, firstly, to establish a formal relationship between the congress and the different parliaments of the world. So we’re talking to members of Congress about this,” Mr. Ponomarev says, though when pressed, he won’t name names.

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“It’s moving slowly, but still moving. And also, what we want very much to encourage people in Washington to do is to start a discussion about the postwar future of Europe, Russia, in general, how the war would end,” he says.

Mr. Ponomarev, who says he’s “no novice in this city,” is aware of the deep sensitivities around any discussion in Washington about “regime change” in Russia. People here are “extremely reluctant” to discuss this, he says, describing the Biden administration as “extremely cautious.”

In fact, he adds, “I don’t want any other countries to be involved in the regime change. I want this to be the cause for Russians to do.”

Still, he suggests the United States needs to be a bit less reactive in its approach to the war. The weapons supplies to Ukraine are “fantastic,” he says, expressing deep gratitude. “But at the same time, what’s the endgame? This is something that we want to encourage people to think about.”

Mr. Ponomarev, a onetime tech entrepreneur from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, also asserts that the post-Putin era may come sooner than many people think.

“Being inside Ukraine, I see a lot of signs that it’s a feasible option this year,” he says.

To the assembled reporters, this seems rather optimistic, given that Ukraine’s monthlong counteroffensive has only made incremental gains. Mr. Ponomarev acknowledges that his assertion might seem self-serving.

“Obviously there’s a certain political part of that statement,” he says. “We need to inspire people. We need to say that yes, it will happen tomorrow. But really, we are not years away. We are months away. Maybe it would be the end of this year, maybe it would be the beginning of next year, but I’m absolutely convinced that it would not be like 2025 or later.”

Mr. Ponomarev points to “Ukrainians entering Crimea” – which he clarifies to mean retaking control – as the sign that Mr. Putin is finished. “I will say [there’s] like 80% certainty in my mind that Ukraine would enter Crimea this year. And 80% certainty that if Ukraine is in Crimea, that political changes from Russia will start.”

“Crimea is what this war started from, it has sacred meaning,” Mr. Ponomarev says.

Following are more excerpts from our discussion, lightly edited for clarity:

The recent mutiny by Russian paramilitary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin gave the world a very different view of Mr. Putin. He’s no longer seen as the leader in iron-clad control. What does this tell us?

Putin is fundamentally changing his strategy of how he wants to be seen in the West. In the past, he wanted to be seen as the great macho guy, the alpha male. … But right now, I think he wants to be seen as weak. He wants to be seen as a vulnerable person because he perfectly realizes that the main fear in [Washington] is that if he falls, it would be chaos – civil war, nuclear arms, Russia collapses.

He’s playing on this distinction between Ukraine not losing or Ukraine winning. … And a significant part of the American establishment wants something like [the war] to be just settled down, we’ll return to business as usual, because the downside of Russia being defeated could be more dangerous than Putin winning in Ukraine.

You were critical of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution because you said it was dominated by nationalist and neoliberal forces. Part of Mr. Putin’s justification for this war is that Ukrainians are dangerous right-wing nationalists, and many Ukrainians are very sensitive about this characterization. How significant is this nationalist presence in Ukraine today, and how big a threat do you consider it to be?

I was never critical of the revolution. To me, I was stating the obvious, that it was dominated by right-wing forces, nationalist forces. … [Today] at the front, those people are the core of the resistance. They are the most devoted patriots, and there is a major shift in the position of the society towards this pretty radical nationalist position. Emotionally, it’s fully understandable. Do I think it would be sustainable, [that] there would be some radical nationalist coming to power? No, I don’t think so. In 2014 parliamentary elections, pretty much all the radical nationalist movements failed. In general, it’s the lack of the left that is the problem.

Why do you believe Ukraine will retake Crimea? The counteroffensive is going very slowly.

We will make this offensive successful because just simply the Ukrainian army is way better organized. … It has the spirit, and the Russian army just simply doesn’t know what it’s fighting for. Just be patient; everything will happen.

You are meeting with parliamentarians around the world as you seek to build support for a democratic parliamentary government in Russia. Are you meeting with members of Congress [in Washington]?

Congress, that is [who] is meeting with us without hiding. The executive office right now is very shy of announcing this. We are planning most likely in the fall a large event on the Hill, but let them speak first.

Are you heading back to Kyiv next?

Firstly, I go to Japan. They have a lot of interest. What our congress is doing generates a lot of interest there.


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