“The Putin I knew was different,” said Mr. Kassianov during a rare interview, by videoconference, with AFP.

Mikhail Kassianov, Prime Minister from 2000 to 2004 before going to the opposition, estimates that the war could last up to two years, but still believes that Russia will resume a “democratic path” one day.

Aged 64, the former minister of Mr. Putin, who worked for the rapprochement between Moscow and Western countries, explains that he did not think, like many Russians, that a war would break out.

He explains that he finally understood what was looming three days before the invasion, when Mr. Putin convened in a well-ordered staging the members of his Security Council for a meeting broadcast on television.

“When I watched that meeting of the Russian Security Council, I finally understood that yes, there would be a war,” he says.

“I know these people and looking at them, I saw that Putin was not himself. Not medically, but politically,” he adds.

Dismissed by the president in 2004, Mr. Kassianov joined the opposition and became one of the Kremlin’s fiercest critics. He now leads the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS), a small liberal party.

– “Cynical and cruel” system –

According to his ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Putin, a 69-year-old former KGB agent, has built a system based on impunity and fear since he came to power in 2000.

“These are the achievements of a system which, with Putin’s encouragement as head of state, began to operate even more cynically and cruelly than in the later stages of the Soviet Union,” he said. he.

“Basically, it’s a KGB-like system based on total impunity. It’s clear that they don’t expect to be punished,” he continues.

Mr. Kassianov said he left Russia because of his opposition to the Russian offensive in Ukraine but refused to tell AFP in which country he was, citing security reasons.

Boris Nemtsov, a critic of Mr Putin to whom Mr Kasyanov was close, was shot and killed near the Kremlin in 2015. And Alexei Navalny, the Russian president’s pet peeve, was jailed after surviving poisoning in 2020.

“If Ukraine falls, then the Baltic countries will be next” on the list, assures the opponent.

He added that he “categorically” disagreed with the idea that Vladimir Putin should not be humiliated, and against calls for Ukraine to accept territorial concessions in exchange for peace.

“What would Putin have done to deserve this?”, he denounces: “It is far too pragmatic a position. .

– “Immense challenges” –

For the post-Putin period, Mikhaïl Kassianov thinks that his successor will be at the orders of the security services, but that he will not be able to control the system in place for very long and that democratic elections will eventually be organised.

“I am sure that Russia will return to the path of building a democratic state,” he says, estimating that it will take a decade to “decommunize” and “depoutinize” the country.

“It will be very difficult, especially after this criminal war” in Ukraine, he warns.

For Mr. Kassianov, one of the priorities will be to repair trust with European countries, which he considers Moscow’s “natural partners”.

While the Russian opposition is often described as too divided to beat Mr. Putin, the former Prime Minister also believes that the war in Ukraine has changed the game.

“After the tragedy we are witnessing, the opposition will unite. I have no doubt about that,” he said, while stressing the magnitude of the task that would then await him.

“We will have to rebuild everything from scratch. We will have to start a whole cycle of economic and social reforms again,” he said. “These are immense and difficult challenges, but they will have to be met.”