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Mikhail Khodorkovsky says Putin unlikely to have interfered with US election but savors widespread belief that he did

Exiled oligarch says Kremlin head likely to continue using this tactic with other western democracies in future

CNN  — 

A former Russian oil tycoon who became a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin has said he believes the Kremlin leader is savoring the widespread belief he influenced the US election, and warns that the Russian president will likely repeat the ruse of appearing to hack western democracies in the years ahead.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky said Putin had probably not changed the result of the November election, but would use the appearance that he had done so to perturb other western democracies.

“For Putin it was very important not so much to demonstrate some direct influence on the American election process – because it’s not very possible in reality – but to show that (he) is capable of such influence,” Kodorkovsky said in an exclusive interview with CNN.

“He deals with politicians who depend on elections as opposed to him, who doesn’t. And now, with help of Western press that actively brings it to light, he will use this card in his relations with his counterparts from democratic counties as a threat to influence election process.”

Khodorkovsky granted the interview ahead of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exiled oligarch spoke to CNN at the central London offices of his Open Russia foundation, which is recruiting experts in government and preparing a team to takeover Russia’s creaking bureaucracy should the current Putin administration collapse.

How Putin sees Trump

For Khodorkovsky, the biggest danger of the bromance between US President-elect Donald Trump and Putin is the moment when the two leaders realize they have misjudged each other.

“Putin perceives Trump as plain, weak and controllable. Trump perceives Putin as clear and sincere,” he said. “As soon as they feel themselves being deceived – and they are two quite emotional people … there might be a very serious conflict.”  

Thousands of Russians carry placards of political prisoners including Khodorkovsky and a banner reading "Freedom!" during an opposition rally in Moscow in 2013.

Once Russia’s richest man, the billionaire – who recently found part of his fortune accessible again when Irish courts unfroze €100 million ($104.5 million) of his funds – said the Kremlin was likely surprised by Trump’s victory.

“It was a complete surprise for him when Trump won. On the one hand, it seemed as a good thing: (Putin) makes it seem to Russians as if Trump is the person that he appointed as the president … On the other hand, it’s bad for (him) … because if America stops being an enemy then it would be unclear how to explain economic failures to the Russian population.”

Related: The good, bad and ugly of warmer US-Russia relations

Tillerson could ‘master’ secretary of state role

Kodorkovsky ran Russian oil giant Yukos until 2003. He was later convicted of tax evasion and fraud – charges he argued were politically motivated – and jailed for ten years.

While at the helm of Yukos, the vocal Putin critic first met ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson – named recently as Trump’s nominee for US secretary of state. The American multinational had tried to buy a part of Yukos but negotiations stalled. Kodorkovsky faced unrelenting persecution by the Kremlin and with his company dismantled as a result, ExxonMobil found an easier investment relationship with state oil giant Rosneft, now headed by a Putin confidante, Igor Sechin.

Rex Tillerson, pictured in 2008, has worked for ExxonMobil for the last four decades and has steered the giant global firm since 2006.

Khodorkovsky recalls meeting Tillerson and seeing a “very strong manager,” who could easily master State Department bureaucracy.

“I know from my own experience that business and politics, especially international politics, are absolutely two different things. When you actually go into international politics, everything changes completely. There are no rules, common rules at least. And there’s no enforcement mechanism that could enforce those rules.”

Read Gates on Tillerson, Russia: ‘Being friendly doesn’t make you friends’

Trump’s choice in Tillerson has come under fire from critics who question whether there would be conflicts of interest given the nominee’s previous business dealings with Russia.

Khodorkovsky said Tillerson’s close relationship with Sechin – still one of the most powerful men in Russia – might be a problem for either of them.

“I’d say I don’t know for whom this is a problem. The fact that he knows them too well could be a problem for America (and) it could be a problem for Sechin and Putin. And the issue (here) depends on values.”

He believes Tillerson would have kept his hands clean during the years he worked in Russia.

“He isn’t that person, considering his status and pay (wages), that could have been bought back then when he conducted negotiations in Russia,” Khodorkovsky said, before he added, “Again, he’s undoubtedly isn’t that person who has been and could’ve been bribing in Russia.”

Opinion: Can Tillerson succeed as secretary of state?

What life behind bars taught him

Khodorkovsky’s own life story has in many ways mirrored the chaotic rise and fall of Russia.

Once a youth activist on the Komsomol (the Soviet youth organization), Khodorkovsky got his first taste of capitalism as a small trader back in the 90s. He made billions in the rough and tumble of the post-Soviet economy, creating the oil giant Yukos.

But his political ambitions were seen as being at the heart of Putin’s decision to allow prosecutors to chip away at his business empire and fortune in 2003, eventually landing him in jail for a decade. Those wilderness years – in remote prison colonies – have, he said, shown him the basic hope and decency at the heart of people.

“There was one moment that opened my eyes on things,” he recalled. “The prison’s administration wanted to make my punishment harsher. So they tried to make different convicts say all sorts of lies about me. But none of the inmates agreed. No one. When I asked them why and they said that that’s because I haven’t done anything bad to them, so they weren’t morally able to set me up.”

This picture taken late in 2013, shows a view of the Penal Colony No. 7 where Khodorkovsky was held near Segezha, 300 km (186 miles) south of the Arctic Circle.

He added: “During those ten years in prison, I saw that there’s a lot of kindness even amongst possibly the less than nicest part of Russian society … They might’ve made a mistake, behaved wrongly, had a difficult life but still had something in their soul you can rely on.”

More from Khodorkovsky: ‘I do want regime change in Russia’

Planning for a future without Putin

His Open Russia society is planning for the day after Putin leaves power, a potentially perilous and chaotic time. Yet Khodorkovsky expressed hope that Putin would choose to step down voluntarily and peacefully, even if, that might leave him exposed to the vengeance of those he has wronged.

“I’d actually want to believe very much that Putin will find the strength within himself to go and leave the country in as good state as it’s possible after what’s been done (to it),” he said.

“I hope very much that he’ll find some internal courage to risk, yes, to risk his own fate, his personal fate, and go.”