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Can Putin Be Kept in Check?


Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming is a hard book to read.

It’s not that the book is difficult or dull. In fact, it’s lively and readable, especially considering that its subject — Russia’s return to authoritarianism — is so depressing. It’s a book full of ugly events and heartbreaking realities that are hard to accept, especially for those of us optimistic that Russia would become a functional modern country when it finally emerged from the wreckage of the mad Soviet experiment.

Kasparov is one of the greatest chess players in history, a talent that earned him fame and reward toward the end of the old Soviet system. He stood at the top of the chess world for 20 years until 2005, when he retired to devote himself to the cause of Russian democracy. Winter Is Coming is told as a kind of short history of post-Soviet Russia intertwined with Kasparov’s own story of reaching the pinnacle of his game but finding himself drawn to politics as his hopes for Russia’s democratic emergence dimmed.

Like many Russians (and many Westerners, including me) Kasparov gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt when he took over from the ailing Boris Yeltsin. It seems like eons ago that anyone worried about Communism, but for Russians such as Kasparov and others who’d lived in the Soviet empire, the fear of a Communist revival was hard to shake, and this bought Putin a lot of breathing room early on:

I was troubled by the little-known Putin’s KGB background and his sudden rise to power by overseeing the brutal 1999 war to pacify Chechnya. But along with my countrymen, at the start I was grudgingly willing to give Putin a chance. Yeltsin had badly tarnished his democratic credentials during his 1996 reelection by using the powers of the presidency to influence the outcome, and I confess that I was one of those who thought at the time that sacrificing some of the integrity of the democratic process was the lesser evil if it was required to keep the hated Communists from regaining power.

“I simply could not imagine,” Kasparov wrote of Putin’s early rule, “that the constitutional framework would be targeted so quickly and so brutally.”

Kasparov’s Anger

Kasparov admits his own mistake, but he is positively blistering about Western policymakers he thinks should have known better. He argues that the West, including Bill Clinton, invested so heavily in Yeltsin that it turned a blind eye, either out of cynicism or misplaced hope, to the corruption and fragility of Yeltsin’s regime. He is particularly angry about what he calls the West’s “record of immoral passivity” to Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya.

He is particularly angry about what he calls the West’s ‘record of immoral passivity.’

Kasparov’s anger is understandable, but some of it is unfair. He voted for Yeltsin, and while he had no choice, neither did the West. Americans were especially relieved that the Cold War was over and had little interest in micromanaging a new Russian government so long as it was not a Communist regime. (Americans are only human, too.)

Moreover, Kasparov admits that Yeltsin was facing the almost impossible task of constructing a Russian state out of Soviet debris. Kasparov’s observation about Chechnya is especially important here: Chechen independence was a threat to Russia not because of Islamic fundamentalism, but because in a country with unclear internal borders constructed over the centuries like a patchwork quilt, one secession could trigger more. Yeltsin had no interest in keeping Chechnya, but neither could he simply let it go.

Kasparov also lets Russian liberals off the hook too easily. He supported the “Yabloko” party and its presidential candidate, Grigorii Yavlinsky, and he laments how liberal groups were quickly “relegated to bystanders” in the electoral arena. But Yavlinsky and other Russian liberals were poor candidates, unable to connect to Russian voters. Russia expert and New Yorker editor David Remnick once dryly described one of these early liberals, Yegor Gaidar, as running for president as though he were campaigning to become head of the math department. And they were sometimes too preoccupied with their own bickering to mount an effective challenge either to Yeltsin or later, to Putin.

Kasparov notes that Russian liberals began to coalesce against Putin in 2006, but by then it was too late. Could Putin have been stopped? “To prevent Putin,” Kasparov writes, “or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.” Fair enough, but Russia’s fate was not the West’s to decide, and at least some of that responsibility rests with the mistakes of the Russian democratic movement a decade earlier.

When Putin emerged in 1999, even Kasparov wondered if “a faceless technocrat like Putin might just be what Russia needed at the time.” A lot of people outside Russia wondered the same thing. Putin was not tapped because he was famous or uniquely talented — quite the opposite. He was a minor figure who would likely accept a deal to protect Yeltsin and his coterie from prosecution or retribution once out of office.

Meet the New Soviet Man, Same as the Old Soviet Man

So what happened? How did a middling KGB officer become a rapacious dictator and perhaps the richest man in the world? Was there any chance Putin could have stayed on a reformist path, or was he merely a stealth dictator hiding among the would-be democrats?

Here I find myself, painfully, in agreement with Kasparov. Whatever Putin’s initial intentions, or however he may have felt when first working among democratic movements in the 1990s, he could not overcome his Soviet indoctrination. This is an important point, especially for Americans who do not understand how Russians can reject Communism and yet still pine for the old Soviet Union.

While Americans and Russia’s democrats were alert to any threat from resurgent Communists, they paid no heed to the New Soviet Man (now an Old Soviet Man) who slipped by their collective anti-communist vigilance. Kasparov puts it perfectly: “Putin was no Communist, but he was a Soviet revanchist through and through.” This is not Communism but a Soviet imperialism dedicated to war with all things Western and especially the U.S., the embodiment of the wounded ego of state that no longer exists.

Putin has fully given in to the KGB stooge belching inside him.

Kasparov writes off the earlier Putin, the one who made the first phone call to George Bush on 9/11, as an opportunist. I’m not so sure. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once wrote in his memoirs about why he denied a visa to a Soviet scientist being honored abroad. He said he couldn’t help it: He’d been a cog in the Stalinist system, and he could still feel Stalin “belching inside him.”

Putin could be a similar case. He may have begun his political career thinking he could manage post-Soviet reforms. Indeed, some of the things he did — such as shoring up Moscow’s power at the center of the fragile Federation — were necessary. For Kasparov and the rest of us, it’s irrelevant at this point because Putin has fully given in to the KGB stooge belching inside him. He will leave, as Kasparov says, “feet first in a box” or “dragged out by a mob,” and he’s determined to make sure the latter scenario never happens.

None of this, Kasparov argues, excuses the West for shying away from confronting Putin, and he’s right. He blasts Americans who hoped that former President Dmitry Medvedev was more than a seat-warmer. The man to whom Barack Obama promised more flexibility after his re-election was, Kasparov reminds us, a puppet who likely “still needed Putin’s permission to use the Kremlin lavatory” and whose swearing in as Russia’s third president was a “coronation as the king of nothing.”

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Putin intended Medvedev to replicate Putin’s earlier deal with Yeltsin. If so, he lost his nerve and claimed his seat back after Medvedev served the one term required to observe Russian constitutional niceties. After 2008, Kasparov says, the West should have been able to discard any absurd hopes about Putin. Instead, he says of Obama: “the candidate of change sounded a lot like he would perpetuate the destructive double standards of a Bush 43 administration.”

The West Is Sleeping

In the end, Kasparov is pessimistic, as well he should be. He thought that the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 would finally serve as a wake-up call but found only that he’d “managed to underestimate the cowardice of the Western world once again.” Likewise, he is frustrated by Westerners wasting time looking for a “deep strategy” in Putin’s actions. “There are no complex national interests in his calculations,” he writes, only Putin’s own interests and his instinct for self-preservation.

It’s easy to share that frustration. Putin apologists like Stephen Cohen and academics like John Mearsheimer resort to elegant explanations of Russian history and great power politics to explain what Kasparov clearly sees as the actions of a moderately bright but highly cunning Soviet spook. He rejects the false binary choice that such people use to avert any further confrontation with Putin: “The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded.”

‘The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded.’

Throughout Winter Is Coming, Kasparov keeps the narration brisk and generously includes flashes of humor. A well-known presence on Twitter, Kasparov gives a shout-out to “Russia’s cadres of trained internet trolls.” When he was arrested and roughed up by the Russian cops, he was accused of biting a patrolman’s finger. “Were I to acquire a taste for human flesh,” he snarks, “I would never bite anyone under the rank of general.” He rejects the hysteria of moral equivalence and the idiotic references to the East German security Stasi in the wake of the Edward Snowden fiasco. “The NSA is to the Stasi what a bad hotel is to a maximum security prison,” he writes.

Winter Is Coming has its flaws. Kasparov sometimes edges too close to a self-congratulatory tone — a prophet who saw what others, especially in the West, missed. He clearly chafes at that call from Putin to Bush on 9/11 because he brings it up at different points in the book. He quotes from a study that he admits he hasn’t read closely. And the call for a global Magna Carta that brackets the beginning and end of the book feels disposable, like it was tacked on to the narrative.

But these are a scholar’s nitpicks. It is important to read Winter Is Coming because there is no denying the moral force of Kasparov’s argument that the West is sleeping while Putin engages in mayhem at will. “Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, of right and wrong, and on the universal values of human rights and human life, we have engagement, resets, and moral equivalence,” Kasparov writes. “That is, appeasement by many other names.” (And this was before Putin extended his reach, practically by American invitation, into the Middle East.)

If you know nothing about post-Soviet Russia, this is a good place to start. And if you’re a longtime Russia watcher like me, you should read this book and steel yourself for the inevitable sadness and sense of loss as Kasparov details how quickly Russia’s chance for democracy after the Cold War ended was snuffed out. Kasparov is a witty and engaging companion throughout the book. But make no mistake — he is walking with you through a cold, fading dusk that, in the end, promises only a long night of a Russian winter.