Garry Kasparov really, really wants to checkmate Putin’s Russia
Garry Kasparov’s new book about Russian politics, Winter Is Coming, should be called something else, maybe, “The Worst Long, Dark, Miserable Winter of Your Life is Coming and It Will Destroy Every Last Shred of Your Pitiful Humanity.” In short, says Kasparov, the prognosis for Russia is beyond bleak as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power.
In the course of just over 250 pages, Kasparov manages to compare Putin to Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. He links Russia to North Korea, Iran, and all the miserable rogue regimes of the world — a group that Kasparov refers to as “the enemies of the free world.” For good measure, he even includes a reference to Tywin Lannister of “Game of Thrones” in the title. It’s hard to think of a book that suffers from a greater case of Russophobia.
Just consider some of the terms Kasparov uses to describe Russia within the book: A “KGB police state.” A “modern one-man dictatorship.” “The biggest and most dangerous threat facing the world today.” “A “ruling junta.” A “petro-state.” The “highest and final state of bandit capitalism.” An “Orwellian” state. For Kasparov, the people at the helm of Putin’s Russia are capable of committing nuclear terrorism, ethnic genocide and the cold-blooded murder of any rivals or enemies (including journalists and opposition activists). The one analogy Kasparov enjoys the most, though, is comparing Putin’s Russia to a mafia state worthy of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather:
“The rise of Vladimir Putin and his St. Petersburg clan has been described as Machiavellian, but it is better described by the achievements of Don Vito Corleone: the web of betrayals, the secrecy, and the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Puzo’s books. […] A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: a strict hierarchy, extortion, intimidation, a tough-guy image, a long string of convenient deaths among leading critics, eliminating traitors, the code of secrecy and loyalty, and above all, a mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia…”
You can see where Kasparov is going with all this. Winter is Coming is a strident call for regime change, a knock on the West for putting up with Russia for so long, and an urgent call for tougher measures to strangle (financially, although perhaps also physically) Putin’s inner circle.
As Kasparov sees it, the West has been too afraid to stand up to Putin and the rotten corpse of the Soviet Union. Every step of West has been an appeasement, starting with Putin’s sudden ascension to power in 2000, the “seamless transition” between Putin and Medvedev in 2008, and ending with the latest steps in Ukraine. Morality and exceptionalism — two traditional underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy, says Kasparov, have been sacrificed or ignored for fear of upsetting Putin.
To make his case that Putin (and Russia) must be stopped, Kasparov works through all the well-known examples of the past 15 years that point to what he says is the rot at the heart of Russia. By now, these examples are so familiar to a Western audience that they can often be referenced with just a single word— Khodorkovsky, Beslan, Nord-Ost, Chechnya, Litvinenko, Pussy Riot, Crimea, MH17, Eastern Ukraine and Boris Nemstov.
Building up case after case is Kasparov’s ultimate gambit to force checkmate. Any combination of moves for Putin and Russia is a losing combination. Putin’s high approval ratings? A sham. Attempts to find rapprochement with the West? Total appeasement. The hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics? Epic corruption. Kasparov employs the dark parable of The Scorpion and the Frog over and over again to illustrate that Putin can no more change his nature than a scorpion can change its nature.
But this relentless focus on regime change leads to some own Orwellian “newspeak” from Kasparov in Winter is Coming:
Engagement = Appeasement
Liberalization = Corruption
Diplomacy = Imperialism
Opinion = Propaganda
Kasparov’s logic to checkmate Putin is the following: Explain that engaging with Russia is a form of appeasement, of the same kind used by the West to deal with Hitler in 1938. Then, explain that any liberalization within Russia is just another clever attempt to enrich Putin’s cronies or crush the opposition. Then, suggest that any diplomatic overtures by Russia to solve the world’s problems are just an opportunistic way to expand Russia’s imperial reach. Finally, make the case that any attempt to change global public opinion is just more propaganda.
As a result, says Kasparov, the West should squeeze, intervene and force Russia to do what it wants. If that means getting rid of Putin, says Kasparov, then all the better.
Kasparov himself says this in the book, in vivid terms: “By 2008… the only way Putin was going to leave the Kremlin was feet first, either in a box or dragged out by a mob.” In the penultimate chapter of the book comes yet another hint of regime change:
What might have happened had we marched on the Kremlin and the Duma that night? If we had established a camp in Red Square 100,000 strong and prepared battlements? Would the people have followed us? Would the thousands of police have opened fire? Would we now be free, or dead?
Kasparov hints that the threat of regime change is the only thing that can convince Putin to change course. He even suggests that arming Ukraine with heavy weaponry — to show Putin that the West really is serious — is the only way to go.
To back up his case, Kasparov says that all the “Putin would never…” arguments (as in, “Putin would never start World War III”) from Western leaders and pundits are just cowardice and rubbish. And that’s the problem with books about Russia like Winter is Coming that call for regime change — they might actually provoke the kind of global confrontation that the West has managed to avoid for over 75 years. Kasparov should know this: in the game of chess, a player backed into a corner may have to recklessly sacrifice pieces on a chessboard in order to avoid final checkmate.