If any ordinary person predicted trouble ahead for the cocky and seemingly untouchable KGB-regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, you might say he ought to have his head examined.
But if the head happened to contain one of the most formidable brains of our era, you might at least listen to the argument. Garry Kasparov, legendary world chess champion and now a leader of Russia's political dissidents, possesses such a brain. And having peered two or three or 10 moves into the future, Kasparov says that Putin's petro-Kremlin autocracy may be more brittle than it seems as it approaches a promised presidential succession next year.
Putin, who traveled to Munich this weekend to alternately bash and condescend to the West, certainly doesn't seem to worry, and why should he? German prime ministers jump onto his payroll as they leave office. Foreign oil executives thank him obsequiously as he pockets their fields. Political opponents abroad turn up poisoned, neighboring countries are bullied, and Putin pays no price. He sells weapons to Iran, and U.S. officials are grateful that he's not doing worse.
At home, meanwhile, he has systematically neutered anyone and anything that might challenge him: the press, big business, parliament, political parties, governors, mayors, civic organizations. Kasparov, who has helped gather the remnants of opposition from across the ideological spectrum into an umbrella group called Other Russia, admits it's an uneven match.
The regime raided Other Russia's office in December and confiscated all the books and documents it could find. When the group tried to stage a rally, 600 people were detained on their way to Moscow, and the few thousand demonstrators who made it were surrounded by police in far greater numbers. Noting how stolen elections became the focus for popular uprisings in Ukraine and elsewhere, Putin changed election law to make it almost impossible for an opposition candidate to qualify for a spot on the ballot.
"If we have to evaluate our chances today -- slim to none," Kasparov says, noting how the absence of political space constricts any strategizing. "If you're at risk of being mated in one or two, you can't think about pawn structure for the long term."
And yet Kasparov -- fast-talking, exuberant, indignant one moment and laughing sardonically the next -- clearly relishes the fight. He was, after all, the youngest world champion ever, who famously took on the darling of the Soviet chess establishment and prevailed, and then took on the world chess establishment, and then IBM's Deep Blue -- and remained, through ups and downs, the world's No. 1-ranked player for longer than anyone else in history.
"He may not be a politician," says a senior U.S. official who knows him, "but he's proved to be a masterful dissident opposition organizer, and unfortunately that's what Russia needs right now." Kasparov, 43, has "passion, toughness, fearlessness and a good organizational head, both operational and conceptual."
And Kasparov believes that not all the challenges are on the opposition's side. As Putin contemplates retirement, he needs a successor strong enough to preserve the regime but not so strong as to challenge whatever wealth or power Putin intends to take with him, Kasparov says.
Beneath Putin a half-dozen would-be heirs battle each other in a "lawless jungle," and "they know that the winner in the battle will eat the others alive." Many Russians feel left out of the oil boom that has brought skyscrapers and Ferraris to Moscow. And the regime's repression of Other Russia reflects an anxiety unsurprising in rulers who have stifled most channels of free expression and complaint.
"If we succeed in uniting behind a candidate and that candidate is not registered, it could lead people to rally," Kasparov says. "And 50,000 might be enough for the regime to collapse because of its paranoia."
Ultimately the regime's vulnerability lies in its basic nature, Kasparov suggests. In the system Putin has created, Kasparov sees elements of feudalism ("local bosses loyal to the top man in exchange for rights to loot the region"), Mussolini-style corporate fascism and old-style KGB brutality. But in the end, "this is not the geopolitical monster of Soviet times. This is all about money. The government is business. It's about Gazprom, it's about Rosneft."
Coincidentally, when I asked Turkey's visiting foreign minister last week about energy politics and relations with Russia, he said, "Putin himself is an expert in this. He studied very well. He is like the CEO of an energy company."
"Putin leads a ruling elite that has very different dreams than in Soviet times," Kasparov says. "They're all thinking about their great life in the Cote d'Azur."
How they may behave if they see their faction losing out, and their wealth in danger, is not easy to predict. Which is, in the end, as far out on a limb as the chess master will climb: "You can probably count on an interesting year ahead of us," he says. Then he prepares to fly home and make it more so.