Russian Duma Dissident Believes West Must Save Ukraine to Defeat Putin

Foreign Policy interviews Russian Duma member Ilya Ponomarev.


One year ago, on March 18, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would annex Crimea. Two days later, the issue was brought before the Duma. The vote was overwhelmingly in support of Putin’s plan, a resounding 445 to 1. The lone vote against belonged to Ilya Ponomarev.

With the conflict in Ukraine showing little sign of coming to a peaceful resolution, Ponomarev now is calling on the West to take up a more active role in reforming Ukraine’s political system and supporting its economy. “The economic and political success of Kiev would be a major blow to the Kremlin’s narrative on Ukraine. The West has a chance to show the world — and Russians in particular — what it has to offer,” Ponomarev, a two-term member of the Russian Duma, told Foreign Policy in an interview on Wednesday. “Unfortunately it is missing this opportunity.”

Last week, Ukraine received $5 billion in financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, the first tranche of a $17.5 billion package that will be disbursed between now and 2018. Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalia Jaresko has said the current package is not enough to stabilize Kiev’s fragile financial system, and without the necessary anti-corruption reforms, that sum could have even less impact, Ponomarev said.

Since bucking the Kremlin line on the Crimea annexation vote, Ponomarev has been banned from his homeland and accused of funneling money from the Skolkovo Foundation — an organization that supports high tech startups — to finance anti-Putin protests. Ponomarev now lives in exile in the United States, working with entrepreneurs in the Russian diaspora and awaiting for the case against him to expire.

Though he has been banned from Russia, he is still an active member of the Duma, smuggling his voting card to allies in Russia to vote on legislation. He says that since his constituency voted him in, they are the only ones with the power to revoke his mandate.

But despite Ponomarev’s best attempts to keep up with his duties in the Duma, he hasn’t been able to do much more than watch as events in Russia and in neighboring Ukraine have continued to spiral out of control.

The most recent calamity to befall Russian politics was the Feb. 27 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and according to Ponomarev, his killing was likely not ordered by Putin. Rather, Ponomarev sees the murder as a reflection of a deepening conflict within the Russian security services triggered by the Ukraine crisis. “Before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, politics was off limits for the security officials. But the conflict has given them a bigger voice and this power dynamic has changed,” Ponomarev told FP. The warring factions, according to Ponomarev, are the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, and the FSB, the KGB’s successor, on one side. On the other stands the Interior Ministry and the FSO, which is mandated to protect state officials, including Putin himself.

This shift has left Putin’s inner circle off-keel, as the Russian president tries to balance the competing interests of increasingly ambitious factions within the security services. And according to Ponomarev, this is the reason for Putin’s mysterious 10 day public absence. “I believe he was taken by his security detail to his residence in Valdai while things behind the scenes calmed down,” Ponomarev told FP, referring to a town about half-way between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

As Putin has slipped in and out of the public eye, Western officials have been furiously debating whether to ship arms to Ukraine’s beleaguered government. Ponomarev believes that would be a mistake, as it would not only signal America’s direct involvement in the conflict but would commit Washington to a policy it is not fully equipped to carry out. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the top U.S. army commander in Europe, made a similar point to reporters on Tuesday, when he said that “providing weapons isn’t a strategy.”

Ponomarev believes that the United States needs to provide military support to Ukraine but avoid fueling perceptions that the conflict there represents a showdown between Russia and NATO. “I would advocate to work with other eastern European governments, such as Poland or the Baltic countries, to send their old weapons from before they joined NATO to Kiev,” Ponomarev told FP. “Such a move would undermine the Kremlin’s internal message that the war in Ukraine is a civilizational conflict between Russia and the West. Instead it would show that all of eastern Europe is just as against this as Washington or Brussels.”


Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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