Garry Kasparov – the honest dissident

Along with murdered dissident and former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, now presumably locked away for life, Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, is one of the most influential members of the Russian opposition against Vladimir Putin. Between 2005 and 2015, he was primarily active in Russia. Shortly before the assassination of his friend Nemtsov February 2015, he went abroad publishing his book “Winter is coming”. I know of no better documented, better argued and more convincing account of the Putin dictatorship. Qualifying remarks come to mind only with reference to his statements about Western democracies. As the world has witnessed to its dire consternation, the president of the world’s leading democracy, Donald Trump, almost casually turned his country into a dictatorship. Capitalism was and is always in danger of tipping over into a new feudalism (and thus dictatorship) if it elevates the principle of “the winner takes it all” to its maxim. Freedom exists only if it is also defended against its exploiters. When Kasparov published his book in 2015 (!) Donald Trump was not yet in power, and Putin had just annexed Crimea. There are few books that have so prophetically foreseen who Putin is and what he will do to his country and the world and even fewer books that retain their relevance over so much time. In what follows, I limit myself to quotations from this remarkable book, with the italicized highlights mine.

What Kasparov stands for

 Communism goes against human nature and can only be sustained by totalitarian repression. /This is perfectly true for states, but not necessarily at the personal level of families, friends, and small religious communities. We endure material inequality only because there are islands of helpfulness and sharing where it is not tolerated/. Das ist vollkommen richtig für Staaten, aber nicht unbedingt auf der persönlichen Ebene von Familien, Freunden und kleinen religiösen Gemeinschaften. Wir ertragen materielle Ungleichheit nur, weil es Inseln der Hilfs- und Teilungsbereitschaft gibt, wo sie eben nicht geduldet wird.

Putin

What has he made of Russia?

In 2000, when Putin took charge, there were no Russians on the Forbes magazine list of the world’s billionaires. By 2005 there were thirty-six. In 2008 there were eighty-seven, more than Germany and Japan combined, in a country where 13 percent of our citizens were under a national poverty line of $150 a month.

In less than six months after Putin’s taking office, two of the most influential oligarchs in Russia were in exile, the constitutional power structure of the country had been shifted dramatically toward Moscow, and free media outlets were falling like dominoes. Six months!

Putin’s character

Since 2000, Mr. Putin has been the ultimate international political performance artist… Time magazine named Putin its 2007 Person of the Year.

The exact same things could have been said about Adolf Hitler in 1938, when he took his turn as Time’s Man of the Year.

Yes, he /Putin/… blatantly lies about some things when it’s convenient, but on the big issues like centralizing power and his contempt for democracy and civil rights, he speaks plainly and has a good track record of backing up what he says.

The presidential election of March 4, 2012, the most fraudulent in Russian history, was proclaimed “fair and clean” by the state-controlled media.

/No burning of books/ Instead, they /Putin’s men/ simply confiscate the books as “extremist materials,” as was done in 2012 with 250,000 copies of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov’s book detailing Putin’s corruption.

Putin is no master strategist /this judgment of 2014 could now be substantiated. In February 2022 Putin wrongly believed Ukraine would fall within three days/. He’s an aggressive poker player facing weak opposition from a Western world that has become so risk averse that it would rather fold than call any bluff, no matter how good its cards are.

In 2000, Putin didn’t know he wanted to be a dictator. (Unlike Hitler and Stalin, whose early writings and statements made their dreams all too clear.)

As for Putin being popular, I still hear this one all the time. Are you sure? Then why has he spent so much time and effort dominating the media, eliminating rivals, and installing a complicated system of rigging elections large and small? If Putin is so popular, why not have free and fair elections and a free media?

How to explain his success?

The Kremlin’s subjugation of the Russian press was, along with the rise in oil prices of over 700 percent, the biggest reason behind the perceived success of Putin’s regime. The oligarchs of the 1990s may have been robbing Russia blind, but at least we could find out about it in the news.

During Putin’s tenure /from 2000 to 2014/ the price of oil went from $10 a barrel to over $100.

Russia is the largest oil producer in the world, despite only minimal modernization of the Soviet infrastructure. It is this flood of oil wealth, transforming Russia into a dictatorial petro-state, that has enabled Putin to create the illusion of stability at home and to buy off or threaten his critics abroad.

Right now, no matter how they really feel about Putin and their lives, they /Russians/ see him as invincible and unmovable. They see him getting his way in Ukraine, taking territory and waging war. They see him talking tough and making deals with Merkel and Hollande. They see his enemies dead in the streets of Moscow.

Putin’s methods

The Putin government wasn’t cracking down on corruption, it was sanctifying it. It was a unique method of cleaning up the town that involved deputizing one set of “entrepreneurs” while demonizing another.

The corruption of the oligarchs has been moved inside the Kremlin walls where it has expanded to staggering levels. The media, which was free to criticize Yeltsin, is entirely at the service of the Putin administration.

Putin’s message… turned out to be that of a mafia don. Either you swore loyalty to the capo to steal within his system or your freedom and your assets could disappear overnight.

This became Putin’s mafioso calling card: if you challenged the power vertical, he wouldn’t just go after you and your assets, but also your employees, friends, family, and anyone who dared to defend you.

The common thread throughout his domestic and foreign policies was his effort to trade on fear—the fears of Russians that their country was under attack from hostile external forces (Chechens, NATO, or free marketeers; usually all of the above)

This is what Putin has wrought in order to keep his grip on power: a culture of death and fear that spans all eleven Russian time zones and is now being exported to Eastern Ukraine.

/All over the world/ The autocrats… are eager students of their predecessors. They make careful study of how to gradually remove rights without allowing rebellion, how to crush dissent and hold sham elections while keeping favorable travel and trade status in the West, and how to talk peace while waging war.

The terrorists and their teachers and the dictators and their enablers are quick to point out every hypocrisy, every double standard.

Totalitarian regimes everywhere love to tell their citizens that for all their professed interest in democracy and human rights, Americans and Western Europeans are just as corrupt as their own leaders.

Dictatorships feel the perverse need to fulfill protocol, to have elections and trials even though the conclusions are foregone.

‘A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.’ Putin’s Russia is a perfect example of this truth.

Putin and mafia fascism

It is not out of ignorance or a desire to shock that I compare the cowardice and conciliation displayed today by the leaders of the free world toward Putin with the desperate, futile, and ultimately ruinous appeasement policies of the 1930s toward Hitler.

As I said in the introduction, back in 1936 even Hitler was no Hitler. He was already viewed with suspicion by many inside and outside Germany, yes, but he stood beaming in that Berlin Olympic stadium and received accolades from world leaders and stiff-armed salutes from the world’s athletes. There is no doubt that this triumph on the world stage emboldened the Nazis and strengthened their ambitions.

Certainly Putin’s arrogance and language remind us more and more of Hitler, as do the rewards he’s reaped from them. For this he can thank the overabundance of Chamberlains in the halls of power today—and there is no Churchill in sight. War comes from weakness, not strength.

/If you want to find the best description of what Putin really is/ Go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. The Godfather trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out The Last Don, Omerta, and The Sicilian.

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.

The minions and the oligarchs are loyal to Putin because he is the capo di tutti capi and he offers them protection. They can do as they like in Russia, and as long as they stay loyal they can get rich and take their money to America, to London, wherever.

Boris Nemtsov, my longtime friend and colleague in the Russian opposition, was murdered in cold blood in the middle of Moscow on February 27, 2015.

He /Putin/ then brazenly sent a message of condolence to Nemtsov’s mother, who often warned her fearless son that his actions could get him killed in Putin’s Russia. Hours after Boris’s death, reports said that police were raiding his home and confiscating papers and computers.

Putin’s enemies are often victims and his victims are always suspects. Boris was a passionate critic of Putin’s war in Ukraine and was about to finish a report on the presence of Russian soldiers in Donbass, a matter the Kremlin has spared no effort to cover up.

It‘s just the same in the West!

/Just think of digital surveillance – but/ Citizens behind the Iron Curtain were not terrified of the intelligence services because of data collection. We lived in fear because we knew what would happen to us if we gave any hint of dissent against the regime.

Brutal totalitarianism does not begin with surveillance by a liberal democratic state. It begins with terror, it begins with violence, and it begins with the knowledge that your thoughts and words can end your career or your life.

Russian aggression promoted by Putin

Russian and Russian-backed forces in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia finally succeeded in provoking a shooting war with Georgia /8.8.2008/. Having prepared for this moment for months, Russian ships blockaded Georgian ports and Russian forces sped into Georgia and occupied several cities.

July 17 /2014/ when Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MH17) was blown out of the sky over Eastern Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people aboard. The local separatist leadership immediately boasted about shooting down what they had thought was another Ukrainian military plane, only recanting their statements and deleting their posts when it was revealed to have been a civilian aircraft.

At the end of February 2014, for the second time in six years, Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops across an internationally recognized border to occupy territory.

This act made Putin a member of an exclusive club, along with Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević, as one of the very few leaders to invade a neighboring nation in the nuclear age. A few weeks later Putin outdid Milošević by formally annexing Crimea, as Hussein did with Kuwait.

Putin’s tactics are easily, and accurately, compared to those of the Austrian Anschluss and the Nazi occupation and annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938. There was the same rhetoric about protecting a threatened population, the same propaganda filled with lies, justifications, and accusations.

Crimea was forced to hold a sham referendum over joining Russia a few weeks later, a vote that took place on the Kremlin’s preferred terms, at the point of a gun and with the result never in doubt.

Negotiating with another country’s territory as collateral has a long history. The most obvious example is from 1938, when Hitler graciously offered not to take all of Czechoslovakia in exchange for getting the Sudetenland without any complaints from Britain and France.

Putin – a danger for the entire world

If Milošević had accepted the Rambouillet peace deal months earlier /February 1999/, he could have prevented the creation of over a million refugees, the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and the destruction of Serbia. President Milošević torpedoed this deal with the open support of Russia, which categorically objected to the presence of an international police force in Kosovo.

Moscow has become an ally of troublemakers and anti-democratic rulers around the world. Nuclear aid to Iran, missile technology to North Korea, military equipment to Sudan, Myanmar, and Venezuela, making friends with Hamas; this was how Putin repaid the West for keeping its mouth shut about human rights in Russia for eight years.

A completely different path: Russia versus Czechoslovakia

The playwright Havel—the artist, the dreamer—lived two-thirds of his life under a Communist regime and knew that liberty had to be fought for with every weapon on every front.

Havel presided over the collapse of Czechoslovakia without a drop of blood being spilled at a time when Yugoslavia was in the middle of a horrific civil war. He created the foundations of a democratic establishment free of ties to the Communist and KGB past while Boris Yeltsin failed to root out the entrenched bureaucracy, the nomenklatura, and left a KGB successor.

Principles matter, results matter, and Havel succeeded like few others.

Ukraine

He /Putin/ denied there were ever Russian troops in Crimea for a year and then in a Russian documentary aired on March 16, 2015, proudly described deploying thousands of Russian special forces to the Ukrainian peninsula.

I warned in an article in the French paper Le Monde on February 24 /2014/ that “if Putin cannot have all of Ukraine under his fist, he would settle for partition”.

Ukraine … has a lower rate of anti-Semitic incidents than nearly every other country in Europe where statistics are recorded, including France and Germany.

Putin won’t back down or be kicked out of Ukraine until credible threats to his power create a split among his elites and advisors. Right now they have no incentive to bet against him.

If NATO nations continue to refuse to send lethal aid to Ukraine it will be yet another green light to Putin.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine /2014! in Crimea/ is no more tolerable if you believe he felt threatened by NATO expansion than if you don’t believe he felt threatened. Telling Ukrainians they provoked Putin by rejecting him and moving toward Europe is like telling a harassed woman she should wear longer skirts.

The West and Russia

Why was the West no longer a role model at the end of the 90s?

In August 1991, when Boris Yeltsin’s administration took over, the majority of Russians were prepared for a partnership with the civilized world. This mood had all but disappeared by 1999, a casualty of the persistent nationalist campaigns of Russian political leaders.

Yeltsin’s reform team, led by Yegor Gaidar and Chubais, started selling things off at a frantic pace at absurdly low valuations. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, already two of the wealthiest and most influential oligarchs, acquired their huge energy firms, Yukos and Sibneft, for less than 10 percent of their real value.

When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions.

Russians saw no benefits from the supposed blessings of elections and the free market.

/But:/ We still had a mostly free media /up to the year 2000/, with programs that openly criticized our politicians and their ideas. The brilliant satirical puppet show Kukly had raked Yeltsin over the coals for years on NTV. The government was not the sacred cow it would soon become.

Despite the challenges, by 2000 Russians lived in the same dimension as the rest of the civilized world, and we measured success and failure in our lives by the same standards.

There was chaos, but Yeltsin never attacked individual freedoms.

How Putin’s Russia plays its trump cards

Unfortunately, Putin, like other modern autocrats, had, and still has, an advantage the Soviet leadership could never have dreamed of: deep economic and political engagement with the free world.

Even after Western firms were repeatedly betrayed, cheated, and threatened by their Russian partners and kicked out of partnerships or the country, they came back looking for more like beaten dogs to an abusive master.

Putin was welcomed as a full member of the G7, which is supposed to represent great industrial democracies. For those who excuse the invitation due to Russia’s size and influence, note that China is not a member.

Today’s dictatorships have what the Soviets could scarcely dream of: easy access to global markets to fund repression at home. Not just the petro-states like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, but the /Western/ manufacturing states as well.

International help for Russia

There was more than rhetoric involved in the… bizarre attempts to prop up an old foe. Billions of dollars in Western aid and loan guarantees were provided to keep the USSR on life support. Germany alone extended an $8 billion aid package that was part of the agreement on German unification. Germany’s financial commitments to Russia would balloon to $45 billion by 1992 and they included money for sending Russian troops home and even building housing for them in Russia.

World Bank making its largest project loan ever of $610 million to help rebuild Russia’s oil industry. The story goes that Russia was humiliated by the West when the USSR collapsed, leading to resentment and mistrust. They say the Cold War victors “lost Russia” first by not providing enough assistance and then by expanding NATO too aggressively.

Russia’s alleged role as a victim

In Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton includes in his concise definition “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.” The myth of Russian humiliation at Western, especially American, hands fits the victimhood model perfectly.

Clinton treated Yeltsin in good faith throughout, provided Russia with intelligence on Iran, began to massively demilitarize Europe, and even helped disarm other ex-Soviet states with the effect of guaranteeing Russian preeminence.

Ukraine was giving up the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world under heavy pressure from Russia and the United States.

Russian Natural Resources: Weapon and dependence

Europe /in 2014/ buys four-fifths of Russia’s energy exports, giving it tremendous economic leverage over Putin, who has made the Russian economy totally dependent on oil and gas. But instead of aggressively developing alternative supply routes in order to be able to use that leverage to stand up to Russia, Europe dithers and cries foul when Putin blackmails Eastern Europe with the gas supply as winter approaches.

/Already/ In January 2009, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to hundreds of thousands of people in half the countries of Europe.

Western appeasement policy

The hypocrisy of condemning weak dictatorships while embracing strong ones destroys American and European credibility and undermines any attempt at global leadership.

Putin is always quick to exploit any opportunity to justify his authoritarian ways, but in many cases it is Western leaders and press looking to make excuses for Putin and to avoid calling him a dictator. This is a genetic strength and weakness of the free world, the desire to be “fair and balanced” and to “show both sides of the story” even when it means giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who hasn’t deserved it in over a decade.

Western leaders have protested over the potential costs of action in Ukraine at every turn only to be faced with the well-established historical fact that the real costs of inaction are always even higher /that’s exactly what we see since february 2022/.

Western mendacity: war against the weak, backing down from the strong

The Western intervention into the Libyan civil war had lessons for other rogue regimes… To Iran it said, “Hurry up!” Gaddafi had publicly given up his nuclear ambitions years ago, to much global acclaim.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il could kill thousands, do whatever he liked, but was untouchable because the North Koreans had ignored all of the “Unacceptable!” cries from the rest of the world and detonated a few buckets of nuclear slop.

For three years, the sum total of President Obama’s policy toward Russia has been: “We give, Russia gets.”

Powerless United Nations

Strict adherence to the UN’s resolutions by President Bush in 1991 ultimately spared Saddam – and prolonged the Gulf crisis indefinitely /as vetoes mostly render concerted actions impossible/

Russian opposition

In Russia the opposition isn’t trying to win elections; we’re trying to have elections.

Dissidents in the West

Every society has its dissidents, not just dictatorships. They speak for the disenfranchised, the ignored, and the persecuted. Listen to them now, because they speak of what is to come./Unfortunately that is not true, see the attached article about Stefan Nold/

World War III?

The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded. There were, and always are, a range of responses.

/In 2014/ Putin said he’d been ready to put Russia’s nuclear arsenal at the highest level of alert over Crimea. He says things like this because he knows the impact it will have in the West.

… the supply of defensive military weaponry /to Ukraine in April and May 2014/ would have forestalled the invasion currently under way, or at least raised its price considerably and thereby made the Russian public a factor in the Kremlin’s decision-making process much earlier. Those like me who called for such aid at the time were called warmongers, and policy makers again sought dialogue with Putin. And yet war arrived regardless, as it always does in the face of weakness.

What shall we do?

We must be sincere and make an overwhelmingly attractive case. But this does not mean coddling or tolerating violent extremists or those who create them, at home or abroad. An open society that cannot defend its citizens will not be open for very long. A society that won’t fight for freedom will lose it, a truth immortalized by Reagan’s statement that freedom “is never more than one generation away from extinction /witness Donald Trump/.”

If they truly wish to honor my fearless friend /Boris Nemtsov/, they /Western powers/ should declare in the strongest terms that Russia will be treated like the criminal rogue regime it is for as long as Putin is in power. Call off the sham negotiations. Sell weapons to Ukraine /as valid now as it was in 2014/ that will put an unbearable political price on Putin’s aggression. Tell every Russian oligarch that there is no place their money will be safe in the West as long as they serve Putin.

Ukraine should be defended as if it shares a border with every free nation in the world. This means providing arms with which it can defend its borders and financial aid to stabilize the economy Putin is trying so hard to destroy.

As the world’s largest economy, military power, and energy consumer, the United States reaps great benefits from global stability. (While big fossil fuel exporters like Russia benefit from instability, which tends to raise the price of oil.)