Former world chess champion and current Russian opposition politician Garry Kasparov has a new book out, entitled Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped. Russians aren’t its target audience. Rather, it is aimed at readers in the Western world who might be thinking that it would be better if their countries talked to Russia and tried to find common ground in order to solve mutual problems. Forget it, says Kasparov. Don’t be deluded. Talking is a sign of weakness, and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will exploit any weakness to expand his ‘dictatorship’ and ‘invade’ even more neighbouring countries. The West, Kasparov argues, has to abandon its ‘cowardice’ and unite firmly against Russia and Putin before it is too late and ‘winter’ arrives.
Kasparov advances this thesis by means of a rapid history of Russian politics from the late Soviet era onwards, interspersed with personal anecdotes. But although the book is notionally about Russia, it is really about Putin, with whom Kasparov appears to be obsessed. In fact, Winter is Coming is little more than a prolonged expression of hatred against the Russian president. The title of this blog post tells you all you really need to know about it. Kasparov thinks that Putin is Hitler; he is a dictator; and he is evil. In fact, the word ‘Hitler’ appears 32 times in the book. Kasparov also regularly uses words such as ‘dictator’, ‘dictatorship’, ‘totalitarianism’, ‘autocrat’, and ‘despotism’, and pursuing another theme, likes to talk about ‘appeasement’, ‘appeasers’, and ‘Chamberlain’. Subtlety is not his forte.
Thus we learn from Kasparov that:
- The ‘mafia state with Putin as capo di tutti capi’ uses ‘blatantly fascist propaganda and tactics’ (p. xi) and the Kremlin uses ‘overtly fascist rhetoric. … Some of these speeches … closely resemble those of Nazi leaders’ (p. xxiii).
- ‘Putin respects only power’ (p. 8), and his ‘only goal is to stay in power. … He needs conflict and hatred now’ (p. 69).
- Putin ‘wants only to keep us all in perpetual darkness’, and aims ‘for the totalitarianism of one person: himself’ (p. 91).
- ‘Putin’s regime operated on an amoral scale’, and Putin has established ‘full-blown dictatorship’ (p. 159).
- Russia has returned to ‘the rule of an all-powerful single-party state’ (p. 168).
- Russia has returned ‘to outright despotism’ (p. 172).
- ‘Putin had become a dictator, full stop’ (p. 178).
- Russia is ‘a modern one-man dictatorship spreading fascist propaganda’ (p. 235).
- ‘I find it impossible to believe that a man like Putin … is not the richest of them all. … Putin is likely the richest man in the world’ (p. 185).
Putin, claims Kasparov, is little different from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). All of them, he says, are united in ‘their rejection of modernity. … This is the common thread connecting Putin’s attack on Ukraine and the murderous Islam-derived ideology that drives Al-Qaeda and ISIS.’ (p. 254-5). Putin, therefore, poses a serious danger to the West, which needs to stand up to him while it still can.
Unfortunately, Kasparov says, the West has failed to show the required resolve. ‘Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, of right and wrong … we have engagement, resets, and moral equivalence.’ (p. xii) Engagement is the same as appeasement (p. 252). ‘Dictators only stop when they are stopped, and appeasing Putin with Ukraine will only stoke his appetite for more conquests,’ Kasparov writes. (p. xxiv) Complaining about the ‘vocabulary of cowardice’ (p. 244), he comments that Putin ‘and his repressive regime are supported directly and indirectly by the free world due to this one-way engagement policy’ (p. 248). This weakness, he says, has to end.
In its place, Kasparov calls for ‘the moral clarity and stubbornness of Ronald Reagan’ (p. 33) (a call which ignores the fact that Reagan engaged regularly in negotiations with the Soviets). Kasparov’s universe is one of black and white, of good and evil, without any nuance. ‘We cannot compromise’, he writes (p. 256). Any compromise is a sign of ‘cowardice’ which ‘dictators’ will use against us. This leads to strange readings of history. Most people, for instance, probably regard President J.F. Kennedy’s support for the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 as a huge mistake. Not so Kasparov, who thinks that Kennedy’s error was to not press on further. ‘In 1961, JFK recalled US airplanes from supporting anti-Castro forces, leaving them to be massacred by the Soviet-led Cuban army’ (p. 109), he complains. ‘Détente … [was] a euphemism for appeasement’, he writes later (p. 116), and ‘Russia’s invasion of Georgia was the direct result of nearly of decade of this combination of helplessness and self-delusion in the West. Being left unpunished over Georgia invited Putin into Ukraine six years later’ (p. 174).
‘The Cold War ended,’ Kasparov claims, ‘not because Western leaders merely defended their values but because they projected them aggressively.’ (p. 190) He believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union put the West in an unparalleled position of hegemony, which it should have exploited to destroy dictatorships wherever they were found. With the end of the Cold War, ‘UN-crafted compromises were no longer necessary, and often dangerous,’ he writes, ‘Democracy was ascendant, and it was time to formally recognize this and to press the advantage.’ (p. 66) ‘The free world had overwhelming momentum after the fall of the USSR’, he says elsewhere (p. 193). Unfortunately, although US President George W. Bush showed his willingness to use US power to spread democracy, his successor, Barack Obama, ‘stopped pressing the advantage’ (p. xxi) According to Kasparov, after invading Iraq, the United States should have kept on going. He writes:
Preemptive strikes and deposing dictators may or may not have been a good plan, but at least it was a plan. If you attack Iraq, the potential to go after Iran and Syria must also be on the table. Inconsistency is a strategic deficiency that is nearly impossible to overcome (p. 192).
Kasparov ends his book by recommending that the West should ‘stand up to the Kremlin and promote regime change’ (p. 207), and ‘declare in the strongest terms that Russia will be treated like the criminal rogue regime that it is for as long as Putin is in power. Call off the sham negotiations. Sell weapons to Ukraine 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’ (p. 259). The United Nations is obsolete, he claims. In its place he calls for ‘the creation of a united Democratic nations’, which can use ‘military intervention to protect human lives and the greater good’ (p. 260). ‘The free world possesses wealth and power beyond imagining and it must be used,’ he concludes. (p. 261).
Kasparov’s book has one great value – it shows how unhinged his view of international politics truly is. He is, without doubt, an out-and-out true believing neoconservative, who sees the world in simple terms of good and evil, and who believes that the West has such overwhelming power that if it just had the will to use this power, it could bend the world to fit its desires. Indeed, Kasparov admits his neoconservative leanings, by showering praise on one of the idols of the neocon movement – the late Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson – as well as on Senator John McCain, the uber-hawk of contemporary America, whom Kasparov lauds for his ‘moral clarity’ (p. 196). ‘Can anyone … not believe that the world would be a safer, more democratic place today had John McCain been elected? ‘ writes Kasparov, adding that, ‘In the universe where McCain is president, Putin does not invade Ukraine’ (p. 197).
Kasparov’s view of Russia is extremely simplistic. It is all ‘Putin, Putin, Putin’. He denies that the Russian leader or his policies have any popular support, and ignores entirely the possibility that Putin is a product of his country’s system as much as he is the creator of it. It is certainly the case that Russian politics and government leave a lot to be desired, but they are hardly ‘totalitarianism of one person’, ‘a full-blown dictatorship’, ‘an all-powerful single-party state,’ or ‘outright despotism’. Political competition is limited, but it exists; state media channels dominate, but there are alternatives; the president’s power is substantial, but it is not unrestricted. Russia is just not ‘a modern one-man dictatorship spreading fascist propaganda’.
Equally simplistic is Kasparov’s view of the wider world. Some governments are indeed more oppressive than others, but it isn’t a sharp contrast; between black and white there are many shades of grey. World politics aren’t simply a matter of democracy versus dictatorship. The West may have some legitimate grounds for complaint against Russia. But Russia also has some grounds for complaint against the West. If we are to live in peace together, we need to take each other’s perspectives into consideration. As its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the West doesn’t have the unfettered power that Kasparov seems to think that it has. There are limits to its powers which no amount of will or ‘moral clarity’ can overcome. Consequently, we have no choice. We have to engage. We have to compromise. And it is simply not true that any compromise is a signal of weakness, which will encourage aggression. Deals can be struck. Engagement can make the world a better place.
Winter is Coming is a dangerous book. Were Western leaders to follow its advice, the result would be unnecessary, prolonged, and costly conflict between Russia and the West. We must hope that saner counsels prevail.