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Trump damaged Russians' opinion of America, exiled Putin critic says

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be Russia’s richest man, also called for President Joe Biden to use targeted sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Former President Donald Trump’s time in power damaged the image of the United States among ordinary Russians, according to one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongest critics.

The handover of power and the Capitol riot, “dealt a blow to the reputation of America as the moral leader in the world, particularly in the eyes of the Russian public,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky told NBC News in an exclusive interview in London.

The former oil magnate, once believed to be Russia’s richest man, also called for President Joe Biden to use targeted sanctions against Putin’s inner circle.

“Western leaders shouldn't deal with Putin as a leader,” Khodorkovsky, 57, said. “They should understand that the man in front of them is a mafia boss, a totalitarian ruler, a godfather.”

Putin last year referred to Khodorkovsky as a “fraudster.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, in February.Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / Reuters

Khodorkovsky was exiled from Russia in 2013, after spending 10 years in prison for fraud, tax evasion and other economic crimes. Several international human rights groups said the prosecution was political retribution for his public criticism of Putin and funding of opposition parties in Parliament and he became a symbol of what critics say is the Kremlin's abuse of the courts for political ends. His sentence was criticized by the U.S. and Europe.

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After dabbling in small business as a Moscow student communist leader under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms of the late 1980s, Khodorkovsky was still in his 30s when he emerged from the cutthroat chaos of the Soviet collapse as one of the wealthiest "oligarchs" under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

But his company Yukos was broken up and sold off, most of it going to state oil company Rosneft, allowing the Kremlin to reassert control over much of the country’s oil sector.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil magnate, once believed to be Russia's richest man.NBC News

Pointing to “discord and fragmentation in American society” and false claims that the U.S. election was rigged, Putin and his allies had used the final weeks of the Trump presidency to boost their own cause, Khodorkovsky said. They used the chaos in America to cast doubt on the U.S. system and praise their own, he added.

But, he said, four years of Trump have shown that American institutions are “very strong.”

“They're resistant even to populists like Trump,” he said, adding that Putin had “destroyed institutions in Russia.”

The recent protests against the detention of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny will not be enough to change the system, Khodorkovsky said.

Navalny, 44, was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison last month after a Moscow court turned his suspended sentence in a 2014 fraud case into a full custodial term. The European Court of Human Rights had previously deemed that the conviction was politically motivated.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during the announcement of a court verdict in Moscow, in February.Simonovsky District Court / Reuters file

The decision came days after thousands of people were detained across Russia in rallies supporting Navalny, who was poisoned and almost died while conducting a corruption investigation in Siberia in the summer. He was airlifted to Germany for treatment after Russian doctors found no signs of poisoning.

It was later determined that he had been poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, which Navalny claims was ordered by Putin. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.

It emerged Sunday that Navalny had been transferred to a penal colony in the Vladimir region, according to a statement from the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission, which defends the rights of prisoners and has access to people in custody.

The Russian state-owned news agency TASS said Navalny will serve his term in penal colony No. 2 in the town of Pokrov, about 60 miles east of Moscow.

An officer walks near the gate of the penal colony N2, where Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been transferred Monday.Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP - Getty Images

Khodorkovsky said peaceful protests would not work if trying to remove Putin from power. "If they want to change the regime, they should be prepared to use force," he said.

Pointing to Navalny’s poisoning and the deaths of other high-profile Putin opponents, Khodorkovsky said he was “quite resigned” to the idea that he could also be targeted.

“I've had so many risks in my life," he said, “I've faced them, and perhaps, if necessary, I'd have to do it again. Putin has the resources of the whole country; if he decides to remove me, the only thing, of course, that could save me would be God.”

Reuters contributed to this report.