PARIS – There is no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to liquidate Vladimir Milov.
Milov has been a Russian on the run since 2002. Today he is unmistakably the most menacing desperado on Putin’s Most Wanted Fugitive list. But the mild-mannered graduate of Moscow State Mining University is neither a devil of a lawyer nor an academic outcast who rails against the war in Ukraine. The 50-year-old former deputy energy minister is Putin’s most frightening nightmare precisely because he speaks in tongues.
Milov’s language is built on BTUs, BOPs and FPSOs, the odd-sounding and complex acronyms used in the oil and gas industry, the business whose profits underpin Putin’s Ukrainian bloodshed.
In an interview with Paris-based The Daily Beast, Milov says the proverbial conclusion of Putin’s amateurish control over the 10 or so energy companies responsible for policing Russian oil and natural gas can easily be translated into English, Russian or Klingon.
“Putin is no longer able to profitably sell Russia’s energy,” says Milov, seated in a conference room overlooking the Seine. “Russia is losing money on discounted deals it has made with countries like India and Turkey.”
Perhaps the only dynamic harder to digest than Putin’s big energy problem is understanding the ruthless reality of being Vladimir Milov.
Milov’s troubles began in 2002 when the Kremlin ordered him to present a plan to restructure oil and gas giant Gazprom. At the same time, Putin put the finishing touches to his 2003 plan, which seized the majority-state-owned company’s main competitor, Yukos, and sent its founder, now-exiled dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to count birch trees in Siberia for ten years over ambiguous facts Allegations of fraud, tax evasion and other economic crimes.
“Putin condemned my plan as dangerous for Russia’s national security,” says Milov. “Meeting with Putin was always funny,” he adds. “I kept asking myself, ‘How did that little gray mouse become President of Russia?'”
It was a question Putin answered by jailing Milov’s friends and fellow reformers, Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, both of whom survived botched assassination attempts. Another anti-Putin activist friend of Milov’s, physicist and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down in 2015, two days before he was due to attend a rally against Putin’s war in eastern Ukraine and the looming financial crisis.
According to Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, since late February, Putin has arrested about 18,000 dissidents at a rate of about 88.8 per day. Milov says rounding up enemies is one of the few things Putin is really good at, and as far as he’s concerned, changing the KGB’s name to FSB was a sclerotic attempt to cosmetically rebrand the secret police.
“The KGB has so far visited the homes of about 60,000 people and threatened them with jail if they protest against Putin, the war or anything else,” says Milov. “The knock on the door quickly echoed through the entire community. The atmosphere of fear is very strong.”
Milov eventually slithered into the relative safety of Lithuania, where he works with numbers, collaborates with dissident groups, and decodes what he says, the mostly fake statistics designed to fool the West into believing Russia is an energy behemoth.
“You have to understand, it’s the KGB always there,” is how Milov describes his life on the run from an insane superpower whose diabolical leader this week mobilized an additional 300,000 troops and again threatened to use nuclear weapons against western capitals.
“I can’t and can’t afford to ask myself if I’m scared.”
Milov is caught between two stools over weak sanctions against Putin’s some 6,000 oligarchs, only between 46 and 200 of which have been effectively shut down, according to the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
“The sanctions aren’t taking effect as quickly as the West thought,” says Milov, pouring sugar from what appears to be a sealed packet into a cup of lukewarm coffee from problematic sources. “But Russia’s industrial production has dropped by 60 to 80 percent and Putin is already back in the Stone Age when it comes to high technology.”
Milov slowly stirs the white crystals without batting an eyelid. “Russia will not collapse,” he adds. “It will degrade under Putin until the country is completely detached from modernity.” His long fingers tap the paper cup. He sips.
“The Russian people are scared,” says Milov after he’s safely finished his coffee. “I can’t and can’t afford to ask myself if I’m scared,” he adds. “The great awakening will come when the Russian people find out what he did in Ukraine. They will be ashamed and will send Putin away to stand trial for war crimes.”
Though the likelihood of Putin pleading his case before an international jury seems remote, Milov insists the calculations mean Putin has much less time to roam freely around the Kremlin than his publicists would have the West believe.
“More than 4.5 million Russians work part-time and don’t get paid enough,” says Milov, firing numbers with the fury of a Gatling gun. “That’s 13 percent of a workforce that hasn’t seen wage growth in 20 years. The exodus of Western oil companies has cut energy production by at least 25 percent, and Putin is burning tens of millions of dollars of our natural gas stocks on TV to show the West it doesn’t care.”
Milov flicks an olive pit into his empty mug and claims the sanctions will have a profound long-term impact “regardless of how many heads Putin bangs with patriotic propaganda,” he says.
“Putin believes he has complete energy dominance and can outlast the West,” Milov adds. “Tell me, what oil or gas trader would be willing to sign a futures contract with him? Russia is gone as an important energy supplier. Any company that cannot pay its bills goes bankrupt.”
Milov dismisses as ridiculous Putin’s ridiculous plan to build a gas pipeline from Siberia to China. “That would cost $200 billion, which Putin doesn’t have,” Milov explains. “He is unaware that China has a significant domestic supply and long-term contracts with foreign suppliers. Don’t think Putin is going to sell some energy to China now, because he’s selling it to them domestically at a 30 percent discount and mostly tax-free. Russia makes no money from this deal. It loses money and lots of it.”
Another red herring is Putin’s move to ship crude oil to India and Asia. “It’s all discounted,” says Milov. “No profit. It takes more than a month for a tanker to reach India, and that’s not counting the traffic bottlenecks that add at least $10 a barrel to Russia’s costs. There are no significant long-term profits in Asia.”
Milov’s biggest concern is Israel and the deteriorating economy in hard-currency-poor Turkey. “Both governments are luring Putin with deals, particularly on digital components and hardware, but they are raising the price by 300 percent over free market costs.”
For now, Milov is keeping a brave face, especially by looking at his numbers. Western leaders, he advises, should do the same. It’s a waiting game, albeit a deadly one.
However, Milov believes that Putin’s behavior has changed drastically. “He’s running all over the world now, a rug begging for help,” he says. “It might seem like a small detail, but it’s an important psychological detail. Putin needs help and he’s not getting much of it.”
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