“This tragedy is happening now. It's a challenge for the U.S. It's a challenge for all democratic worlds. It's not going to be the last challenge of this sort,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, a former politician and a confidant of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, mere hours after Russia invaded Ukraine. “Brace yourself for more.”
Exiled from Russia in 2015, Ashurkov now works to expose Russian corruption and cronyism in the highest levels of government. Ashurkov runs the Anti-Corruption Foundation from London and spent the last few days in Washington, D.C., for meetings with Biden administration officials and U.S. lawmakers about weakening Vladimir Putin’s grip globally.
These meetings came at the right time: Thursday morning, Russian forces launched a coordinated, multi-city attack on Ukraine. As Ukrainians heard explosions in major cities throughout the country, many tried to flee. Later Thursday, the United States and other Western allies announced another round of sanctions targeting Russian banks and top Putin cronies.
Ashurkov spoke with VICE News about Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, what Putin wants, and if sanctions will really work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
LIZ LANDERS: Vladimir, did you think that Putin would actually go this far?
VLADIMIR ASHURKOV: No. What's happening really was inconceivable. We were thinking, what's Putin's end game? We were calculating different scenarios, but I didn't think that he would do this irrational, full-scale invasion.
What do you think Putin wants?
I think he really takes issue with the independence of Ukraine. Ukraine, as being probably the closest of the Soviet republics to Russia, and embarking on the democratic path, really irks him. I also think he needs to keep up external tension so that domestically the population is sort of in awe of what's going on, and [not focused] on economic conditions.
Putin has been in power now for quite a long time. Do you see this move in Ukraine as tied to a potential legacy that he is trying to leave behind? Why is he doing this now?
It's totally irrational. It's not in the interest of Russian people. If Russia governed according to democratic values, according to rule of law, this wouldn't be happening. But you know, when people are in power for so long, they get out of touch with reality. So yes, he has a vision of grandeur of himself, of the Russian Empire. And I think that's what's driving this new escalation.
The Russian Empire, as opposed to reuniting the Soviet Union?
I think he will take as much ground as he can. Just over the last few months, we've seen Russian troops in Belarus. We've seen Russian troops in Kazakhstan. We're now seeing them in independent Ukraine. I hope it doesn't come to this—but the Baltic states, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, may be on his horizon as well. And they are NATO members. And how NATO will react to potential provocations on this front—the NATO resolve remains to be tested and seen.
How do you think your family, your friends are going to react to this? It seems like there will be quite a lot of bloodshed on both sides.
We have to put it in context—the war didn't start yesterday. Over the last eight years, over 14,000 people died in the east of Ukraine. So I don't think it will be a popular war in Russia. I see it on social media. I talk to people in Russia. But the oppression of independent voices in Russia has increased significantly over the last couple of years.
What are your recommendations to the Biden administration right now?
I think there are short-term actions such as sanctions, but there has to be also a long-term strategy. This conflict is going to stay with us for quite some time. So the U.S. needs a long-term strategy of dealing with this assertiveness that turned into aggressiveness of the Russian authorities. And I think more broadly, the West has been functioning in cooperation and coexistence with autocratic regimes like the Russians. I mean, if Russia was a democratic country, this wouldn't have happened. There was no appetite for bloodshed and expansion in Russia until Putin was no longer controlled by any checks and balances. So I think there [has to] be a big reconsideration of foreign policy—can the U.S. really coexist with authoritarian regimes where crazy people like Putin can come to power?
How can the U.S. target these kinds of people in a way that makes Putin and some of his top aides and cronies actually feel economic pain?
So we talk about personal sanctions. It's a blunt instrument, and there is no silver bullet that will make Putin change his behavior. But sanctions are important in that they serve as a punishment against those that are involved in corruption and human rights abuse. They also serve as a deterrent, maybe not so much to Putin but to the political and economic elites of Russia that are enabling this state and these aggressions.
As a Russian politician, I was sort of reticent about recommending wide economic sanctions against Russia because they, in contrast with personal sanctions against oligarchs and enablers and cronies, will directly negatively affect the life of average Russian citizens. But I think I have to say to the world, to the U.S. government, that really undermining the economic power of Putin's regime is really in the interest of the world and the Russian people as well.
Do you think this could be a success for Putin, and what does that mean for an opposition movement?
Listen, we are dealing with an asymmetrical situation. On one side, we have Putin, who is the single decision maker. He's unconstrained by checks and balances within Russia. And on the other side, we have the western world, which is a collection of actors with different interests, different strategies. Politicians are answering to their parliaments, to their electorates. They have to be transparent. So it's hard. And a skillful tactician like Putin will use the disagreements and discord between the Western countries to his advantage. So it's a difficult situation. Could this be a success for Putin? I think it’s already terrible for Russia. It's horrendous and there will be both short term consequences and long term consequences for Russia and and for Putin. In terms of opposition, naturally, when a country is involved in external conflict, you can expect that there will be further crackdown on independent voices in Russia, on media, on activists, and others. Unfortunately, that's the situation that we'll have to deal with.
Inevitably there will be a cost, both in terms of sanctions and the countermeasures from the West. War in Ukraine is not going to be a walk in the park. The Ukrainians have shown great resolve in defending their country even though militarily the balance is very largely skewed in favor of Russia. And it's not a popular war within Russia; Russians will see their standards of living deteriorate and they will see more repression against civil freedoms. Unfortunately, they will also see coffins with soldiers returning from the battlefields.