Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny says Vladimir Putin will stop at nothing to maintain his "monopoly on power" and accused the Russian president of launching a war against Ukraine in order to enrich himself and his inner circle.
"I really hope that he doesn't press the nuclear button right before his death and doesn't want to take the rest of humanity with him to the grave," Navalny said in a joint May 28 interview with the Russian-language services of RFE/RL and VOA.
"But I don't see any barriers or limits, or actions that he won't take in order to keep his power atop all of Russia," Navalny added.
In the wide-ranging interview, Navalny accused Putin of instigating the war in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv's forces that has killed more than 6,100 people since April 2014, calling the Kremlin's role in the conflict a "crime."
"It's not just a political mistake, it is a crime against both the Russian Federation and the Russian people, and an international crime," he said. "What needs to be done? This war must be stopped."
Russia rejects accusations by Western governments, NATO, and Kyiv that it is providing weapons, soldiers, and training to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, where a tenuous cease-fire is in place. The Kremlin claims that Russian citizens fighting alongside the rebels have gone there voluntarily and independently.
"We know precisely who started the war in Ukraine: It was Putin and his circle," Navalny said. "And he did it in order to maintain his monopoly on power so that he can keep, among other things, his exclusive right for him and his people to enrich themselves."
Navalny also criticized Russia's leadership in the case of two Russian men captured by Ukrainian forces during a firefight in eastern Ukraine.
Kyiv says the two men are active members of the Russian military, an assertion backed up by video testimony the captives gave from a Ukrainian hospital where they were being treated for wounds, though Moscow claims they were not enlisted at the time of their detention.
Navalny said in the interview that Moscow should exchange Ukrainian pilot and parliament member Nadia Savchenko, who has been jailed in Russia since July, for the two men.
Navalny, a prominent Putin critic and leading opposition figure, was driving force behind antigovernment street protests in Moscow in 2011-12. He garnered some 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, losing to the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, in a ballot he called rife with fraud.
Navalny is currently serving two suspended sentences following convictions on theft and embezzlement charges. He and supporters say the prosecutions were groundless and are part of a Kremlin campaign of retribution for his opposition activities.
His recent efforts have been aimed at uniting Russia's disjointed array of opposition parties ahead of the country's 2016 parliamentary elections.
Sanctions And Crimea
Navalny told RFE/RL and VOA that he supports Western sanctions against Russian officials and "oligarchs" in response to the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory in March 2014 and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
But he said he does not support the West's so-called "sectoral" sanctions targeting the broader Russian economy because they hurt the Russian population.
"Sectoral sanctions have hit economy very hard, without a doubt," he said. "They have hit Russian citizens. And that is why I, as a Russian citizen, support [Western] sanctions against individuals but am against general economic and sectoral sanctions. But they have worked. There is no doubt."
Navalny also criticized Russia's "seizure" of Crimea but said there is no easy solution to the standoff over the Ukrainian peninsula.
He reiterated his earlier stated position that a "fair" referendum should be held in Crimea to determine the status of the region, which a majority of UN members say was annexed illegally by the Kremlin.
"The only thing that can be done is to conduct an honest referendum that will include a long period of preparation in which Ukraine and Crimean Tatars and all interested sides can conduct extended campaigns," Navalny said. "Then we will conduct a referendum, and based on the results of that referendum, a decision can be made."
His position on Crimea has put him at odds with some in the liberal wing of his political base who believe Russia should return the peninsula to Ukraine.
Navalny said that from a strategic standpoint, the Crimea annexation "is bringing great harm to Russia, and it's even brought great harm to the so-called 'Russian world' that Putin is supposedly defending."
"All we got out of it is a huge country [Ukraine] with a population of 40 million that simply hates us now," he said. "But the Crimea problem is not a problem that can be solved quickly."
The Kremlin's annexation of Crimea came swiftly on the heels Russian special forces' occupation of the peninsula and a hastily organized referendum that Kyiv and Western governments dismiss as fraudulent and illegal.
Putin said in March that the annexation, which sparked a surge of patriotism across broad swaths of Russian society, was necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and reclaim Russia's "historical origins."