Next year Leonid Nevzlin will mark 20 years since his escape from Russia and immigration to Israel. When he fled Russia in 2003, Yukos, the oil giant at which he served as vice president, was forcibly broken up and Nevzlin’s associates were arrested and thrown into Siberian prisons on what many claim were trumped-up and politically motivated charges of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering.
Meanwhile, the Russian government demanded that Israel extradite Nevzlin, whom it accused of murder, several counts of conspiracy to commit murder and financial crimes. Israel has repeatedly refused.
Nevzlin has long been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government was behind the arrests and dismantling of Yukos. Earlier this year, he publicly renounced his Russian citizenship in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
I first met and interviewed Nevzlin in 2007, when his extradition back to Russia was still a very real possibility. Though the threats from Moscow haven’t ceased, he’s been able to establish himself as an influential businessman and philanthropist in his new home. He’s also been waging a legal war and an information war against Putin, whom he calls a “psychopath” and a “criminal.”
Nevzlin has for years claimed that Putin’s Russia operates like an organized crime ring and that cooperating with it endangers democratic and liberal agendas. Meanwhile, Western dependence on Russian oil, gas and economic trade continued to grow.
As bombs fell on Kyiv, and Ukrainian towns and villages were virtually wiped out, it appeared that Nevzlin sadly had been vindicated.
In an exclusive interview with Zman Yisrael, the sister site of The Times of Israel, Nevzlin describes his thoughts about Putin’s rise to power back in the ’90s, explains why the world can’t let Ukraine lose, and offers his thoughts on what brought Russia to choose authoritarianism again.
The interview was conducted in Hebrew and translated by the author.
The Times of Israel: You have lived in Israel for almost two decades but still closely follow what’s going on in the post-Soviet space, and you personally know — and support — many opposition figures in Russia and Belarus. Did Putin’s war in Ukraine surprise you at all?
Leonid Nevzlin: At first I did not believe in such an absurdity, but when American intelligence kept saying that Putin was planning an invasion during the “military exercises” in Belarus, it was already clear to me that he was concentrating the forces to attack.
This is not a state leader but a leader of a mafia with a vengeful and cowardly personality
It was something I just couldn’t comprehend. And then everything became clear to me: This is how a psychopath behaves when someone takes his toy — he starts a war of attrition. It does not make sense, but then you understand this is not a state leader but a leader of a mafia with a vengeful and cowardly personality.
The war has been raging for more than four months now. [Author’s note: This interview was conducted in late June 2022.] The Ukrainians have managed to make some tactical victories and most importantly they are still fighting, but the Russian army seems to be concentrating its efforts on the Donbas and succeeding — albeit very slowly — in taking over a number of strategic points. What will happen next? Can Ukraine win? How would you envision such a victory?
In my opinion, a Ukrainian victory means a complete return to the 2014 borders. That is, including the Crimean Peninsula and the entire territory of the Donbas, including Luhansk and Donetsk. The Ukrainian flag must be flown in both Sevastopol and Simferopol [key ports in the Crimean Peninsula]. Any other scenario will not justify the hardships and immense suffering of the Ukrainian people.
Of course, if Ukraine wins, it means that Putin will lose — and that he will lose power, as well, just like the final tsar, Nicholas II, after World War I and the Russian Civil War that broke out in its wake. Unfortunately, Putin is also familiar with these scenarios. He can also make do with some partial progress and present it as a big victory.
If he takes over the entire Donbas region and shows his citizens that he won and “destroyed the Nazis,” enlarged Russia’s territory, connected the Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula and gained control of the Sea of Azov, Russian propaganda will do the rest.
Do you think Putin’s goals in Ukraine have changed? If so, what did he want initially and what does he want now?
This is the bad part. If at first he was aiming for the renewal of the Soviet model and the annexation of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus to Russia, then now everything has changed. Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine. We understand it from this unbearable violence and the horrific nature of this war.
He destroys Russian-speaking cities, he destroys human beings. This is his way to take revenge — against Ukraine and against [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky. He slaughters Ukrainians and destroys the infrastructure. Anyone involved in the restoration work will have to clear the rubble and build from scratch.
At first, there were rumors that he wanted to divide the Ukrainian assets among the oligarchs close to him. If that were the case, he wouldn’t have destroyed the [steel plant] Azovstal, but would have taken it over in order to later pass it on to his associates.
That’s the way Putin fought in Syria, and that’s the way Hitler fought in World War II. Did you see the field in Donbas that was sown with bombs and explosives? That’s his vision for Ukraine. The war will go on for a long time.
You’ve compared Putin to Hitler and mentioned Syria and Chechnya. What has the world missed about Putin during his 20 years in power?
The West convinced itself that with the fall of the Berlin Wall it won the Cold War and that Russia was no longer a threat
There were a few who got it — for example the late United States senator John McCain. He understood it very well. The others were either populists or bureaucrats, not really leaders. The problem is that the West convinced itself that with the fall of the Berlin Wall it won the Cold War and that Russia was no longer a threat.
They thought so because in the 1990s Russia was crying and begging for help. It was ruined. However, after the financial crisis in 1998, oil and gas exports increased and Russia progressed toward a market economy. It gradually became a reliable energy supplier and Western investment started to flow to Moscow.
Back then, they thought that the economy was stronger than anything else. This was the first mistake. Another logical mistake was engulfed in the belief in the Russian electoral process. In fact, free elections in the country ended in 1996, and even before that they were not totally free.
A lot happened in the 1990s. The Soviet Union disintegrated and then-president Boris Yeltsin tried to establish a democratic regime. At the same time, the bread-hungry population thought they’d had it better before the collapse of the USSR. Why do you think the democratic experiment failed?
For me it was a time of freedom, of unlimited possibilities. I acknowledge of course that a large part of the population lived in extreme poverty during the 1990s. In my opinion, the poverty was not deeper than during the Soviet period, since even those who had money at that time could not take advantage of it because of the shortages and the lack of goods.
If there were transparent and fair elections today, the Communist Party would get the majority of the vote
For many years, Putin’s propaganda has tried to instill in the minds of the people one simple idea: that the Soviet Union was a perfect social state. But as a matter of fact, the 1990s were very difficult in all the countries that were building capitalism upon the ruins of socialism. By the 2000s, the situation would have stabilized. But we failed in this process — we skipped from the Soviet Union to modern Russia, which was built in exactly the same way. I am convinced that if there were transparent and fair elections today, the Communist Party would get the majority of the vote.
Do you remember what you thought when you learned that Putin — a KGB man — would become president? You were then a very senior businessman, supporting the liberalization of the economic and political system.
Yeltsin and his people wanted to stay in power as long as possible — at least four years — then gradually hand over the reins to Putin, who as the head of the Federal Security Service was behind the discreditation operations that were meant to eliminate the political competition — prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Yeltsin’s people saw Putin as the heir to the “dictatorial soft-line” and hoped that he would sort things out in the rebellious Chechnya, take care of the media — that is, take it from the oligarchs — and dismantle Yukos.
Putin outplayed them, of course. At the time he was very soft and kind. He said, “I do not want to hold the reins, do not need such responsibility, I just want to run Gazprom,” and maybe become an oligarch like Boris Berezovsky. Of course, it was just a game.
I also felt that along with Putin, Roman Abramovich also came to power — and that made me feel very bad. In my opinion, he is a corrupt man with a criminal orientation. He is not a self-made man, he is a crook. I said that then to all my friends, but they refused to act. [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky told me then, “We are doing our thing and not interfering in these appointments.”
I had a feeling that the man Abramovich was promoting — Putin — was a crook and a criminal. Back then Abramovich was a junior partner, and now there is equality between them — I do not believe Abramovich is less influential. He does what he pleases and Putin approves of it. Also in terms of the huge funds they control, they are one team — Putin and Abramovich — like a pair of policemen, the bad cop and the good cop.
In 2003 Putin accused Khodorkovsky and all the Yukos officials of embezzlement and tax evasion. He threw Khodorkovsky and the others into prisons in Siberia and took over the company. This dramatic event was preceded by a takeover of the free media — first and foremost of Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV channel. Security forces broke into the channel’s offices and took over by force, replacing the locks. Was this incident not a warning sign?
Only a small part of the elite understood that then. Ordinary people believed that it was a mere dispute between the oligarch and the Kremlin, between Putin and Gusinsky. We understood that it was a trap and even helped Gusinsky. I was invited to a “conversation” in Lubianka [headquarters of the FSB, successor to the KGB].
The regime never forgave us. There was also the story of the takeover of Berezovsky’s assets, and in 2004 Putin was reelected. I, already in Israel, supported the liberals — Irina Hakamada and Grigory Yavlinsky.
They ran and received a small percentage of the votes, but the procedure looked like a fair election to many. In 2005, all the world leaders went to participate in the victory parade in Russia, despite all that was already known about Putin and the nature of his rule.
Then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also participated in the Victory Day parade in Moscow in 2018, after the Russian invasion of Crimea. He also used a photo with Putin for his “Another League” political campaign in 2019.
Inside, Netanyahu is a dictator, and Putin serves as an example and role model for him
So, for now, Netanyahu has not said a word about Ukraine — and he probably will not say a word in the future. He admires Putin and is afraid of him. Inside, Netanyahu is a dictator, and Putin serves as an example and role model for him.
I think in Israel the attempt to recreate what Putin did in Russia will not go smoothly because there are enough people here who will oppose the move. However, what Netanyahu has done so far, he did so that he could be Putin. This mistake should cost him dearly.
Israeli elections will take place in a few months, and I have not yet heard Netanyahu’s opponents draw any parallel between the situation in Likud and the war in Ukraine. In the election, Israeli politicians must also consider the Ukrainian factor.
Partnership with dictatorial states — which may be essential in the short term — can also be a great danger in the long term
Most Israelis oppose this war, and the public’s attitude toward Putin has undergone a great deal of change. In this case, the problems of Europe are also the problems of Israel. It is impossible to behave as if we live on a desert island.
Partnership with dictatorial states — which may be essential in the short term — can also be a great danger in the long term. One must be very careful — world leaders with an authoritarian tendency can easily connect with each other if there is no system that restricts them.
But it is mostly due to Russia’s presence in Syria that the Israeli leadership tries to remain neutral in this conflict. Also, some in Israel still believe that Russia will push Iran out of Syria. What do you think?
In a geopolitical sense, [former US president] Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu made a critical mistake and gave Putin a foothold in Syria. It’s bad for us, it’s very bad for Israel.
Is Putin not antisemitic? I am convinced that any authoritarian and anti-liberal regime inevitably leads to antisemitism
Israel likes to point out that Putin is not antisemitic. The treatment of world leaders in Israel is often largely determined by how they treat the Jews in their countries.
Is Putin not antisemitic? I am convinced that any authoritarian and anti-liberal regime inevitably leads to antisemitism. No personal contact of “court Jews” with the Kremlin can stand in the way of another wave of antisemitism in Russia.
[Author’s note: Following this interview, it was reported that former Moscow chief rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt’s contract was not renewed by the Jewish community because he refused to support the war in Ukraine. Goldschmidt is now in Israel.]
It seems that even in Israel, as an ardent supporter of liberalism you remain in the minority. If there were fair and transparent elections in Russia today, your liberal friends there would not win.
I have never been afraid to stay in the minority, it is true. As for Russia, if there were sudden elections, after all the years of propaganda there is no doubt that liberal leaders would not win.
If there were to be a change, there would have to be preparations before the election. The problem is, of course, not the people — neither here in Israel nor there in Russia — despite those who miss the “strong hand” and despise democracy. The main problem is the long tenure of certain leaders in power. In Israel there is also the powerful propaganda of Likud and Netanyahu.
So change must be a very long process.
In the Russian case, I can think of a mechanism from 1917 that led to the resignation of Tsar Nicholas II and the transfer of power to the Russian parliament — the formation of a temporary coalition government and then the establishment of a constitutional council to establish a new constitution.
In theory, this process is supposed to take several years. At the moment I do not see any positive development for Russia. To become a reformed and free country it must first stop being an empire. We are still in the era of the disintegration of the Soviet empire. So, in 1991, everyone said the process was completed with almost no bloodshed. It turned out that the killing was delayed for later.