Ilya Ponomarev offers an eminently sensible critique of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine from a pro-Russian point of view. Ukraine and Russia, he says, are inextricably bound by culture and history, but by launching a military action, Putin has driven Ukraine into the arms of NATO and ensured that Ukrainians will oppose any union with Moscow. “He has accomplished exactly the opposite of his agenda,” says Ponomarev, a legislator from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
It says a lot about the current state of Russia that, for articulating this view and for casting the sole vote in the Duma against the annexation of Crimea, Ponomarev is being vilified in state media and on a billboard in the center of Moscow as a “national traitor.” The leader of his own party has asked Putin for leave to expel him or lift his parliamentary immunity so that he can be prosecuted. On a tour of Washington last week, the 38-year-old self-styled socialist conceded with a shrug that he may well be tried on trumped-up financial charges when he returns home.
“The pressure is there,” the bearded, boyish Ponomarev cheerfully told me in his near-flawless English. “They are playing on our nerves. They are making the atmosphere extremely unpleasant. They want to drive us to make the decision to emigrate.”
Not a few of Putin’s opponents have embraced that option following the Russian leader’s sharp turn toward domestic repression and nationalist adventurism in the past two years. Ponomarev, who has a wife and two children in Russia, says he’s staying. “Let Putin emigrate,” he quipped.
That makes him one of the last opposition voices still heard in Moscow — and also an example of how dramatically Russia has pivoted since the Obama administration’s first term, when then-president Dmitry Medvedev was wooing Western investors and the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations appeared to be flourishing.
Then, Ponomarev, a technology maven whose professed ideology didn’t stop him from earning a small fortune as an investor, was one of the chief promoters of the Skolkovo Foundation, a Medvedev initiative that aimed to attract entrepreneurs and capital to a Russian version of Silicon Valley. Ponomarev’s particular project was Skoltech, a private research university created in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The initiative is now wildly out of sync with a regime that has defined itself in opposition to the West and its values. Many of the would-be Russian entrepreneurs of Stolkovo have fled — to Lithuania or Ukraine or even Belarus, now regarded as less politically hazardous than Moscow. Ponomarev has gone from being part of the Kremlin’s loyal opposition to a de facto dissident whose continuing support for technological and economic integration with the West has left him virtually alone. “When they saw where Putin was going, everyone in my party suddenly became more loyal to him than the United Russia party,” Putin’s own organ, Ponomarev said. “I was the only one who remained the same.”
He’s infuriated his fellow legislators by casting solo votes against a ban on international adoptions and anti-gay legislation. He supported U.S. sanctions against those involved in the death of reformist lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He addressed the anti-Putin demonstrations that erupted in Moscow in 2011 and participated in the May 2012 Bolotnaya Square protest, the savage repression of which marked the beginning of Putin’s turn. He is still threatened with charges in connection with Bolotnaya, and authorities have told him he is under investigation for supposed financial irregularities connected to his Skolkovo work.
At the height of the popular protests two years ago, Ponomarev predicted that Putin would be ousted by now. Like many people, he didn’t anticipate the ruler’s tack toward right-wing nationalism. The regime, Ponomarev now says, has become “Bonapartist,” dependent on foreign adventurism and populist pandering to Russians dependent on state welfare.
“It’s pretty popular,” he said. “Moscow’s middle class is liberal and really tired of Putin. They will still turn out for a demonstration. But the rest of the country says, If you want to go back to the ’90s” — when Russia was rudely democratic but chaotic — “we’d better stick with Putin.”
Ponomarev still thinks Putin is doomed. But the collapse, he says, won’t have a domestic trigger. Instead, he predicts a foreign shock will be decisive — like the Franco-Prussian war that brought down the last Bonaparte. That could happen in Ukraine, where Ponomarev sees Putin as trapped: “If he withdraws and tries to decrease tension, he will be seen as a traitor by the nationalists, who will say he is weak and too dependent on the West.” But if Putin continues to sponsor armed separatists, capital will continue to flee his own country. Ponomarev is betting the total loss will hit $150 billion, or $1,000 for every Russian.
“Putin can’t afford to suffer a defeat in Ukraine. The regime wouldn’t survive it,” Ponomarev declares. That makes the ongoing struggle over Russia’s neighbor sound much more dangerous than most people in the West understand.
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