For more than a decade, chess champion-turned human rights activist Garry Kasparov has been warning the world that Russian President Vladimir Putin would do anything to retain and expand his power. Now Kasparov is expanding his criticisms into book form: This fall, he will publish “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”
“Kasparov wants this book out fast, in a way that has potential to influence the discussion during the [U.S.] primary season,” explained David Steinberger, president and chief executive of the Perseus Group, whose PublicAffairs imprint has acquired the title.
Kasparov, now based in New York, said in a telephone interview this week that the rise of Putin is part of a wider challenge — “a conflict of modernity and the past.” Excerpts from our conversation:
Q. You’ve written extensively about Putin in recent years. What can we expect that will be different or new in this book?
A. My first article warning about Putin was on Jan. 4, 2001, in the Wall Street Journal. At that time I couldn’t imagine how far he could go. After the annexation of Crimea and his blatant aggression against Ukraine, I felt it was time to present my views in a more organized fashion. The book will put everything in historical perspective. There is a delusion in the West of Putin being a reliable partner, that he is indispensable for [dealing with] Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program, the war on terror and a climate solution. Putin was very smart by playing all those cards all those years.
But the book is not just about Putin — it is about a conflict of modernity and the past. I will analyze the overwhelming failure of the free world to build safer and more politically advanced international institutions at the end of the Cold War. The book starts in 1989, explains how Russia missed its opportunity to reform and ends with a global picture. It is not a biography, but there are many anecdotes of my personal interaction with Russian, American and European leaders — and the outcomes of those engagements.
You have compared Putin to terrorist groups like the Islamic state.
Islamic State, Kim Jong Un [and] Putin are united in their recognition that the triumph of the free world — liberal democracy and market economy — destroys their power base. Putin is the most dangerous among them, because he has nuclear weapons and an enormous amount of money.
But the downward trend in energy prices is undercutting Putin’s power?
Obviously, you don’t need an advanced degree in economics. But you can’t say it is just because of oil prices. Stagnation began early, because of Putin’s inability or unwillingness to reform the Russian economy, make it competitive and diversify. The model of Russia as a pipeline has enriched Putin’s cronies and funded repression. I don’t think Putin for a moment thought he’d face the situation where he would have to cut expenses.
This model can exist as long as the [Russian] population at large is either neutral or depressed, as long as they can keep people out of the streets. Whether they can do it for a long time remains to be seen. There is a middle class in Russia. It is not significant, but it is there, concentrated in big cities like Moscow. Are they prepared to accept a decline in living standards and a stalemate for the future? They have no choice but to recognize that Russia is now a pariah state, which kills chances for young people.
Some form of uprising is inevitable if the current model is not changed. Even if oil prices stay at $50 [per barrel], it seems like the Russia economy will be able to function for another year and a half, because they’ll run out of money. That is not Garry Kasparov — that is their own forecasts.
What do you make of the Obama administration’s response to Putin?
Many politicians on both side of the Atlantic understand that strong measures against Putin are vital, but they are clinging to this concept of Russia being a partner. From history we know one thing: The sooner we stop the aggression, the lower the price we will pay. While it is tempting to do nothing and look for forms of appeasement, it means tomorrow we will pay a higher price. Being strong does not guarantee you will avoid war, but appeasement guarantees that you will not avoid a major war — and that it won’t be at a moment of your choosing.
Every time Western powers look for a compromise, Putin pushes harder. The U.S. is weakening its position by saying what it won’t do. If you want to to stop him, tell him what you will do. But this administration has been gradually moving in the right direction.
The threat that Russia poses to the United States came up in 2012, in a debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Romney instinctively made the right call and was treated as a laughingstock. Today, nobody can ignore the global challenge to civilization by backwater regimes, whether religious regimes or dictatorships.
The whole idea of having the book come out in late October or early November is so it can be part of the primaries debate. Americans will have great interest in hearing the politicians’ views on global issues. Whatever happens in Russia will have major effects, negative and positive, in the rest of the world.
Your title obviously evokes the “Game of Thrones” series. “Winter is Coming” is the motto of House Stark. Is that deliberate?
I thought it was perfect — a catchy title, but it also reflects the concept. History cannot end, [it] is seasonal, and we are approaching a season. We better be prepared for that and not be shocked that after so many years of complacency we’re suddenly stuck with new old problems.
Are you a fan of the show?
I’m a big fan.
Who would Putin be in “Game of Thrones”?
I’m, tempted to say Tywin Lannister. The difference between Putin and the personalities in the series is that they’re either born to rule or they spent their lives fighting for it. Putin never fought for it; there was an element of luck or fate that brought him to the top. Tywin Lannister was far more advanced as a politician; he could not rely on pure luck.
The Lannisters knew that they were born to rule. Putin knows he can’t leave. He knows he will die in the Kremlin. It could be biological or it could be something else. This is the golden cage curse.
You ran for president of Russia in 2007. Do you have any further political aspirations in Russia?
My Russian Twitter [following] is much smaller than my English [language] one, but I write quite regularly in Russian. I don’t have any plans because right now any flight back to Russia would be a one-way ticket. I will be available if the moment comes to get involved. I have no plans, because no one can predict when and how the Russian regime collapses. If I’m asked somehow to be engaged to reduce the negative effects of this collapse, I will be available. But this is not my only aspiration in life.
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