After years as Soviet and then Russian chess Grandmaster, former World Chess Champion, and writer, Garry Kasparov delved into the world of political activism, taking on an opponent far more challenging than Deep Blue: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kasparov joined Jim Braude and guest host Andrea Cabral on Boston Public Radio to discuss his latest book, Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.
Highlights from the interview include:
You discuss in the book at length about the ways in which Vladimir Putin has cast himself in terms of global foreign policy as either a savior in certain groups or an indispensable partner, can you explain what you mean by that and the impact that has had on the western world?
We could separate Putin’s rule into phases. In phase one, he needed friends. It was very important for him to define his power in Russia, and to sort of calm down the opposition, basically to have an argument against all of us. Because whatever we said, having access to very limited media in Russia, he could come through by showing his pictures with Bush, Blair, Berlusconi, the leaders of the free world. The peak of this propaganda campaign was in 2006 in St. Petersburg where Putin was a host of a G8 Summit, and having him be in the center of the leaders of the free world… for any older Russian who had some sympathy for the movement, it was hard to believe that we criticized Putin for not being democratic. That was phase one, but phase two was different. As every dictator runs out of enemies inside a country, Putin needed enemies outside of the country. That predicted that eventually he would try to move on, first beyond Russian borders to the former Soviet Union, because he already said several times that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century. The first thing he did—and let’s not forget, he was a KGB officer in his previous life—the first thing he did as president was to restore the soviet anthem. That’s Freudian. Even in the year 2000, he was already dreaming about the restoration of soviet power, and given the chance, he would move for that. Unfortunately, the very timid reaction of the western world to his invasion of the tiny republic of Georgia, and the crackdown on Russian opposition, and eventually his invasion of Ukraine, created a monster.
How dangerous is Putin to the world?
He’s getting more and more dangerous everyday. We learn from history books, a dictator who is not opposed at one point believes that he is invincible. Unfortunately that also convinces people surrounding him that he is so lucky and so powerful that you should stop thinking about ousting him. We saw it, unfortunately, in the thirties, in Germany when Hitler had been climbing to power. Every year added to his belief that he could do whatever he wanted. Many moments were stopped to miss him at an early stage.
You've compared Putin to Hitler before. Do you really think that’s an appropriate comparison? why?
I don’t want us to find out what happens if he really turns into Hitler, because he has nukes. But again, we should not make the mistake of saying, ‘oh, it’s Hitler from the history books’ because there was Hitler 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936… you can read about this Hitler in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, London Times… for god’s sake, Hitler was the ‘Man of the Year’ in Time Magazine in 1938! We can look at other dictators; what happens is they are unopposed? It has a negative effect outside of their realm, but also it brings down all the attempts, even thoughts, about challenging them. Putin knows it quite well, that’s why he’s been so active in promoting his invincible image outside of Russia. That was the whole purpose of his very well-rehearsed trip to New York, to the General Assembly of United Nations, and his meeting with Obama, the reluctant handshake… which was trumpeted on Russian television, a 24/7 propaganda machine for Putin, seen as the great triumph of a Russian leader who was not afraid to go to the belly of the beast to meet President Obama and to demonstrate that he didn’t care at all about his strengths. The next day, Russian planes bombed not the Islamic State, but American-backed rebels in Syria.
There’s a Boston Globe columnist who writes for The Crux,which is a segment that deals with Catholicism. He wrote about Vladimir Putin now making himself the savior of Christianity in the Middle East, and being one of the few national leaders to speak for it. Even though they seem to understand who Putin is, the response of Christians in this area of the country has been to say, ‘well, at least he’s taking up for us where no one else will.’
Yes, but we should not listen to what he says, because he is a KGB officer, he is a dictator. He is using his tongue to actually cover his thoughts. Look at what he has been doing. Look at the bombing targets in Syria. He has been deliberately avoiding targeting the Islamic State, and he has been steadily destroying anti-Assad opposition backed by the United States and the international coalition. He and his Iranian allies, I believe want to preserve ISIS as a potential threat that could go against Saudi Arabia. Putin needs higher oil prices for his domestic purposes. He also needs permanent conflict—war of everybody against everybody. All against all, and ideally for him, he could drag in Saudi Arabia, which is the largest oil resource in the world, and don’t forget—Israel is not far away. The moment that you have these two countries engaged, the whole Middle East could blow apart.
Let’s talk about the title of your book— are you a huge Game of Thrones fan?
Absolutely. It was quite a unique case in publishing history—I think the publisher did not ask for a second title. They accepted it immediately, because it reflects the idea of the book. The history goes through seasons, it’s not aligned, it’s in seasons, it’s cyclical. Unfortunately now, we are facing these dangerous times, and as in the book, it’s not just climate, it’s more of the dark and dangerous time ahead of us, and how long it will last will depend on how well we’re prepared.
And that’s inevitable?
It is inevitable because evil doesn’t disappear, you can’t eliminate evil completely. We were in a joyful mood in 1991—1992, and we ignored the fact that if you do nothing to strategize for the future, somehow the evil will find its way back.
You keep using the term “unopposed”— do you mean unopposed by the West, or by the Russian people, or both?
Both, in this case, but at a certain point, it’s opposing a dictator from inside, it’s impossible. My friend, the great opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, he was the last one who stood tall against Putin’s Russia.
Did Putin kill him?
Look, he was killed in Putin’s Russia, 200 yards in front of the Kremlin, and we still don’t know who did it. I don’t believe for a moment that in Putin’s Russia today, anybody could go after Boris without at least a note from the boss.
Describe how you think the West is not doing what it should be doing?
When we look at dictators versus democracy… in chess terms, (which I’m comfortable with) dictators are much better at playing the sharp, tactical game, which is all about survival. It’s all about the next day. If I survive the next day, we’ll see what happens next week. The power democracy is based on institutions, a strategy, which means we can come up with a plan that can continue, even if the government changes. Unfortunately, between 1991—1992, there was no attempt made by several administrations in this country, and a European counterpart, to come up with a plan. The same plan Harry Truman came up with in the late 1940's, opposing communism and building institutions like NATO, Voice of America, the CIA, which eventually helped win the Cold War.
The timing of your book is not coincidental, it’s right in the middle of a presidential season. Who is best amongst the people running for president to do what you think they need to do to contain Vladimir Putin?
From what I heard and saw, I like Marco Rubio most, because he’s Cuban. It’s something that you don’t have to explain to a Cuban; communism, dictators, about the KGB… many people will say these things, for instance Mitt Romney was right saying four years ago [the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century] but he didn’t believe in it. For him, it was just a sound byte. Rubio knows it, and I can feel it, it’s from inside. So far, I like what he’s said, and hopefully the final debates between the nominees will be concentrating on the global issues, and we’ll see the restoration of the same foreign policy that eventually led to the victory in the Cold War.
Garry Kasparov is a former World Chess Champion and the author of Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. To hear more from his interview, click on the audio link above.