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European leaders should avoid the mistake of negotiating an end to the Ukraine war with Vladimir Putin because "he is not a statesman but a bandit."
That's the stark warning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled businessman who was once considered the wealthiest man in Russia and is today a leading critic of the country's president.
Since the Kremlin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, several leaders, notably President Emmanuel Macron of France, have been engaged in phone calls with Putin in a bid to change his mind – to no avail.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and European Council President Charles Michel have all held unsuccessful calls with their Russian counterpart.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer even travelled to Moscow to meet with Putin in person.
This diplomatic campaign has been harshly criticised by Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy, as well as by Poland and the Baltic states, who consider the calls a form of appeasement with an alleged war criminal.
In an interview with Euronews, Mikhail Khodorkovsky struck a similar note on the matter.
"The leaders of the major European countries still believe they can negotiate something with Putin without demonstrating their force and that they can talk to him from what he perceives to be a weak position. And this is a dramatic mistake because he is not a statesman like they are but a bandit," Khodorkovsky said.
"And what does a bandit do in this kind of situation when he considers himself strong and when he's being pushed to make a step towards them? He tries to finish his victim off."
COVID quarantine 'changed Putin's mindset'
The businessman then noted that Putin's self-imposed isolation during the coronavirus pandemic altered his perception of Ukraine and led him to order the invasion, ignoring the profound changes the country has gone through since the 2014 Maidan revolution.
"I don’t believe that Putin has any strategic plans. I don’t think about him as a strategist," Khodorkovsky said.
"Russia is a very big country, and we have a lot of people suggesting different scenarios. And one of those scenarios corresponds to Putin’s view of what should be put into practice," he added.
"What we observe in Ukraine now is related to the COVID quarantine that Putin imposed on himself in his bunker together with some of his most aggressive friends."
For the past two years, Putin has lived in a carefully controlled virus-free bubble, with access restricted to his closest confidents and advisors.
The excessively long table the president uses to welcome most foreign leaders has become the perfect symbol of his adamant desire to maintain strict social distance and prevent a COVID-19 infection. US intelligence officials have previously speculated about the impact of this extreme seclusion on the president's mindset.
"This [invasion] is a mixture of pragmatism – a desire to make himself more popular with the electorate – and some paranoid fear of what is happening in the neighbouring country [Ukraine]," the former oligarch said.
"He’s afraid of those democratic changes and of the independence Ukraine has gained."
War will end 'on battlefield'
Once an energy tycoon with close links to the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky was imprisoned over charges related to fraud and money laundering, a judicial process that was widely condemned as politically motivated. After his release in 2013, he went into exile in Switzerland and launched the civil initiative Open Russia.
Asked about how the war will end, the businessman quoted the prediction made by Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief.
"I was surprised by Mr. Borrell. He is a European bureaucrat, and I didn’t expect any tough words from him, but he said some very correct words: this issue won’t be solved around a negotiating table but on the battlefield," Khodorkovsky said.
"Of course, we will have negotiations at the end of this war, but first of all this conflict will be solved on the battlefield and there is no alternative to that."