While the political and media intrigue continue to swirl around former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, one of Russia’s most famous dissidents is warning the West about how Vladimir Putin operates and what making nice with Moscow will mean.
“Putin’s agenda is very simple. He has to stay in power for the rest of his life. But staying in power for a dictator is not as elementary as it may look for people in the free world. You always have to come up with a new narrative, with a narrative you can sell to the brainwashed population,” said Garry Kasparov, a former longtime World Chess Champion who is now a fierce pro-democratic critic of Putin.
Kasparov is also the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.” The book is a stark warning about the threat Putin presents to the free world and what he sees as America’s failure to confront it.
Putin is seemingly in the American headlines on a daily basis, in stories ranging from Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 elections to its prominent role in Middle East affairs, including the defense of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Kasparov says Putin’s swagger on the international stage is merely a means of distracting his people from their problems at home.
“The Russian economy is in a state of free fall. Oil prices are no longer as high as they used to be. So Putin needs something new. He made the simple choice, typical of every dictator who, after losing his domestic agenda, is replacing it with a very aggressive foreign policy,” said Kasparov.
“His aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, fomenting a war in eastern Ukraine, his support of his Syrian client Bashar al-Assad, his meddling in the internal affairs of many European countries, it created a new staple for Putin’s domestic propaganda,” said Kasparov.
And he says all of it is pursued with one goal.
“Vladimir Putin is fighting the free world, which is being presented in Russian media as an evil threatening Mother Russia, and Putin is the indispensable leader who is the only chance for Russia to survive in such unfriendly surroundings,” said Kasparov.
As for the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, Kasparov says that is par for the course for Putin.
“Now he’s attacking electoral institutions in Holland, in France, in Germany, in Italy. He was behind the Brexit campaign in the UK, the Italian referendum, the referendum in Holland earlier last year. Putin’s main goal was and still is to undermine the very concept of democracy, of free and fair elections,” said Kasparov.
And all these efforts are paying off. Kasparov says Putin is immensely popular despite the problems inside Russia.
“All these things are boosting Putin’s image among the Russian elite. We know from history that no one attacks dictators when a dictator looks strong,” said Kasparov.
While investigators say they have found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in their various communications, Kasparov is extremely critical of Trump for seeming to admire strongmen like Putin and being very reluctant to criticize him publicly.
“Throughout the campaign, Trump criticized everyone and everything. He criticized his fellow Republicans, his Democratic opponent. He criticized NATO. He criticized U.S. elections. He criticized Meryl Streep. He made this endless list but he has never criticized Vladimir Putin,” said Kasparov.
On the policy front, Kasparov is concerned by Trump’s criticism of fellow NATO members and says any actual distancing by the new administration would be seen by Putin as an open door of opportunity.
“If the United States, for some reason, decides to renege on its traditional alliances, it will leave Eastern Europeans facing a Russian threat without U.S. backing. That means Putin will have free hand to influence many of these countries that are currently NATO members or in the EU, even without using direct military force,” said Kasparov.
Trump believes that better relations with Russia will be more productive than frosty ones, but Kasparov cautions that good relations with Putin come at a steep price.
“There’s no way you can win as an American leader by cutting deals with Russia at the expense of America’s traditional allies or at the expense of the values that helped America to win the Cold War and to spread its influence worldwide,” said Kasparov.
“If Russia wants to have good relations with America, that’s fine, but so far Putin has demonstrated that his interest is to step up confrontation and he’s only willing to accept concessions, not real negotiations,” said Kasparov.
Kasparov blasted President Obama for his passive approach to Russian aggression and he is urging Trump not to be too conciliatory when meeting with Putin.
“Countries like Russia, which violate international order and had the first annexation of territory from a neighboring country since 1945 in Europe, I think this country should be treated accordingly. Any attempt to show weakness by being an appeaser like Obama did is always treated by Putin as an invitation to continued aggression,” said Kasparov.
Kasparov implores Trump to study Putin’s history in order to get a clear picture of who he is really dealing with.
“He should study Putin’s record and understand that Vladimir Putin always had ideas about rebuilding Soviet influence. This is the man who said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. This is the man who said, ‘Once KGB, always KGB.’ I could go on and on,” said Kasparov.