Kasparov enunciated his vision of how the world could be in “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped”. The timing of the book’s release was important to the former chess champion as he wanted to increase the discourse in the West of just how pervasive Putin’s pernicious reach had become in the run-up to the American election in November 2016. Sadly, many people (myself included) will read this reactively to try to understand the Russian dictator. As with so many other times during his life, Kasparov was a step ahead.
The book begins at the end of the cold war as Kasparov broke free from his Soviet straight jacket. He was not shy about articulating his antipathy towards the old regime, “communism goes against human nature and can only be sustained by totalitarian repression”. The comment was typical of the honesty, clarity and directness that he wrote with. Whenever he mentioned communism you can sense his distaste for it, “for all the Bolshevik talk about the obvious superiority of Marxism and Leninism, state terror and military force were the primary tools used in building the U.S.S.R.” Reading it in 2016 as some Western democracies veered sharply away from the centre in both directions, it is a warning about where similar excursions to the extremes have taken us in the past.
In print and in person, Kasparov tirelessly espouses the benefits of political liberty. In his role as Chairman of the Human Rights Watch, he has made it his life’s mission to increase personal freedoms across the globe and it is inspirational to listen to him analyse geopolitics from this mindset. Democracy goes hand in hand with this stance and the book chronicled Russia’s flirtation with liberal democracy in 1989 when Kasparov witnessed the state’s first free election. Detailing how he initially supported Yeltsin the reformer as he dismantled the old Soviet state and began building democratic institutions, Kasparov revealed his frustration at how these changes were eroded as he traded Russia’s future to hang onto his wealth after he retired.
The main focus of the book was Putin’s mysterious KGB past and the speed with which he turned Russia into an autocracy. He analysed all the main Russian political events through this prism, for example, Chechnya. I read it after watching the siege of Aleppo in Syria at the end of 2016 and the tactics employed were nearly identical, the indiscriminate targeting of a city and its civilians. Citing the UN report on Grozny in 2003 where they called it “the most bombed city on earth”, it is impossible to read without the mind wandering to current day events. The UN has not written the reports yet but the similarities are uncanny. Similar human rights abuses were seen in the response to the Dubrovka theatre siege where hostages and militants were targeted with a chemical weapon. The type of gas was never publicly released by the government. One criticism I would have is not Kasparov’s analysis of Russia, but of his new home in the United States. He, understandably, fawned over the personal liberty he received there yet they have also employed Aleppo style tactics themselves plenty of times in the past, an uncomfortable fact that he omits to mention in his analysis.
The tragic Kursk incident in 2000 was pinpointed as the moment when Putin decided to clamp down on the burgeoning free press that had been growing since the mid-nineteen-nineties in Russia. The press painted the picture of Putin enjoying a holiday whilst simultaneously refusing the help that was offered by the UK and Norway. One hundred and eighteen people were killed and with-it Russia’s free press. Putin could not stand the way he was portrayed and set about dismantling any dissenting views. The deaths of Magnitsky and Politkovskaya underscored the descent into the depths of repression that the current Russian media now reside in. The book also detailed the barbaric treatment of people like Navalny and Nemtsov.
As well as drawing attention to the growing menace of Putin, Kasparov warned us of the dangers of how the laconic attitude we in the West have had in appeasing Putin and how it made him grow ever stronger. He detailed Putin’s modern propaganda campaign aimed at Western democracies to create the feeling that “when everyone is guilty, no one is guilty”, his army of fake social media accounts posting about the flaws of the West at every opportunity. It made people in free societies think what is the real difference in political systems? Dictator or not, it is all corrupt, yes? A dangerous thought. He also established a crucial point on modern liberalism in that it can be inclusive to a fault. We negotiated with dictators and terrorists alike and gave everyone a fair voice. Should we have? Furthermore, if the global Western superpower committed to backing up countries like Ukraine, as per the 1994 Budapest agreement, then how good was its word when, after Putin annexed Crimea, the United States stood idly by and watched it happen?
Kasparov delved into the murky oligarchy that Putin curated and identified a potential solution. Stop his cronies from reaping the benefits in the West and they will stop bankrolling him. The plight of tycoons like Khodorkovsky, who tried to step outside of Putin’s sphere of influence, are exposed, to show the tight control Putin has over his kleptocracy.
Kasparov is a believer in the Democratic Peace Theory and diagnosed this as a solution to a lot of the tyranny in the world. Whilst it does not seem like a revolutionary idea, it is maybe one that we have lost sight of in the West. Have we misplaced the zeal to make sure every country has a chance to be as peaceful as we are? As he pointed out, “healthy democracies almost never make war with each other”. He rallied against lazy Western politicians that assumed “The end of history”, as predicted by Fukuyama, would happen without having to “fight” for it. This does raise the issue of how far Kasparov was prepared to go in this battle and he glibly glossed over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as it represented a chance to overthrow a dictator. The quest for democracy is noble but what if installing it leads to more chaos? I think the keyword in the Democratic Peace Theory is “peace”. The West should aim to bring about the peaceful introduction of democracy whilst being mindful that no country has the right to interfere in another countries affairs. All that being said, this does not apply in Russia where there is no reason for the current despotism to continue. While chronicling his own attempt to enter the political fray in his homeland, he succinctly summed up the Putin problem, “In Russia, we are not trying to win elections, we are trying to have elections”.