Russian President Vladimir Putin will do anything to accumulate and preserve power and the world will descend into greater and greater chaos unless the United States and other free nations stand up to him, according to legendary chess champion and Russian democracy advocate Garry Kasparov.
Kasparov has been fighting for greater freedoms in his native Russia for decades. After 20 years as the top-ranked chess player in the world, he retired in 2005 to devote his full energies to be a leading voice against Putin and his assault on liberty. Kasparov’s new book is “Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”
In the book, Kasparov chronicles the stunning swiftness with which Russia embraced freedom, only to begin handing it back to Putin by the end of the 1990’s. In the intervening 15 years, Kasparov says Putin has not revealed any grand goals or overarching principles.
In our subsequent interview, he said Putin’s modus operandi is actually quite simple.
“Putin’s strategy, if you may call it a strategy, in fact is the tactics of survival. He must stay in power in Russia and to stay in the Kremlin, he must come up with a good rationale for the Russian public,” said Kasparov.
He says that gets tougher for Putin given the current state of Russia.
“The economy’s in terrible shape and nobody expects it to get better, especially with oil prices around 50 (dollars per barrel) and unlikely to rise dramatically in the near future. Of course, that’s one of Putin’s goals, to create mass chaos and wars in the Middle East in expectation that could effect oil prices the way he wants it,” said Kasparov.
As Putin feels the heat economically, Kasparov believes the plan is to rally the Russian people around his response to manufactured threats.
“When you run out of enemies in Russia, as with every dictator he has been looking for enemies elsewhere. His image as a strong leader who could defy the United States, who could send Russian troops abroad, who can annex territories of the neighboring countries; this is what he sells the Russian public,” said Kasparov.
He says the Russian public relations campaign is constantly working to burnish Putin’s reputation.
“Russia today, from the eyes of Putin’s propaganda machine that has been working 24/7 and is really poisonous and brainwashing, represents our country as a fortress of good surrounded by evil and Putin is the only savior who can protect Mother Russia against the global conspiracy,” said Kasparov.
In the book, Kasparov says Putin and his cronies are far different than the old Soviet regime, noting that Putin and his allies do not simply want to repress freedoms and have a vacation home on the Black Sea. Instead, he says they want to get very rich and live the high life and gain influence throughout the world.
Kasparov says that approach is a greater threat than the USSR.
“It’s a greater threat because, unlike the Soviet Union, we’re dealing with a full-blown one-man dictatorship, and it’s much less predictable. The Soviet Union was an existential threat, but there was the Politburo, there was the Central Communist Party and there was a system that tried to protect itself,” said Kasparov.
“Here you’re dealing with a situation where any threat to a dictator could be dealt with by the whole power of the Russian state,” he added.
He believes there are no limits to what Putin will do if he feels threatened.
“He thinks if it helps him to stay in power for another year, he will do absolutely anything,” said Kasparov.
Putin’s lust for power is only part of the story Kasparov tells. He says the failure of the U.S. and our allies to confront Putin is a major problem and he spares no criticism for President Obama.
“Obama’s response to Putin, if you may call it a response, was very weak and I think it destroyed the reputation of the U.S. presidency globally. It will take a considerable amount of time for a new president to restore this credibility,” said Kasparov.
“If you don’t have credibility and no one takes your word seriously, and who will after Obama’s infamous red line in Syria two years ago, then force remains your only argument,” added Kasparov.
He says Putin is taking full advantage of Obama.
“That’s what happened with all dictators in the past. They have been growing in their strength and arrogance while seeing there was no adequate response from the free world,” said Kasparov.
Kasparov’s biggest frustration with the West is that once the USSR collapsed, the U.S. and others abandoned it’s firm demands for Russia to embrace a free society.
“I believe that many mistakes were made in the ’90’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, everybody was in a cheerful mood and nobody wanted to think about the right strategy for the future,” said Kasparov, who says every president since George H.W. Bush adopted “intellectual self-deception” and pursued a vague engagement strategy that has only enabled Russian leaders to consolidate power.
Even now he says those who refuse to stand up to Putin are offering a false choice.
“Some people say that if it’s not negotiation or diplomacy or concessions, then war is the only alternative. Before we look at boots on the ground a as a last resort, there are so many economic and financial options to bring the Russian economy to the ground and to destroy the foundation of Putin’s power in Russia,” said Kasparov.
What would work? Kasparov says the focus should be on energy.
“Creating alternative sources of oil and gas supply, which can be done by America and Europe, will hurt Putin badly,” he said. Kasparov says the Russian economy is so dependent upon oil and gas that if the U.S. and Europe flooded the market with energy alternatives to the nations of western Europe that Russia’s financial health would implode.
Kasparov has been a strong, public critic of Putin for years. Many others who have spoken out over the years have met mysterious deaths. Does Kasparov worried that he may be targeted?
“Yes I do. That’s why I work in New York, not in Moscow,” he said.
But he is quick to add that he feels he must continue to highlight what Putin is doing.
“I believe I have no choice. It’s a moral imperative, especially after my close friend and colleague, great opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down in front of the Kremlin on February 27th of this year,” said Kasparov.
Kasparov is pessimistic that democracy will return to Russia anytime soon and he says whatever follows Putin will likely be messy.
“I don’t expect that the fall of Putin’s regime will lead to democracy. Putin has steadily destroyed all democratic institutions. You don’t have democratic components to rebuild democratic institutions instantly. Most likely it will be chaos,” Kasparov.
That being said, Kasparov says playing nice with Putin and allowing him free rein in perpetuity simply cannot be an option.
“Even if the price of bringing down Putin looks high, tomorrow the price will be higher and the day after tomorrow it could be unbearable. That’s why the sooner we can bring Putin down, the sooner we can start rebuilding Russia, the better the chance Russia will join the family of civilized nations and will start playing a constructive role, not a destructive one,” said Kasparov.