A Game of Thrones

Written by Charles Arrowsmith

Posted on January 20, 2016

Filed Under: Blog | Book reviews

Garry Kasparov - Winter Is Coming - House of SpeakEasyWinter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped
Garry Kasparov
PublicAffairs, 2015; 320pp

Garry Kasparov, Russian human rights activist and former world chess champion” is how the author of this new and ferocious critique of the Putin regime would like to be introduced. Certainly not “Garry Kasparov, former Russian presidential candidate”, because, as he points out, cuttingly, a few pages later, “You can’t have real candidates without real democracy.” Since his retirement from chess in 2005, Kasparov has become one of the best-known critics of and protesters against the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia, in his view, “is clearly the biggest and most dangerous threat facing the world today”. In Winter Is Coming, with its seriocomic titular reference to Game of Thrones, Kasparov has produced both a devastating account of missed opportunities in the rise of a dictator and a rhetorically powerful case for how and why he must be stopped.

Winter Is Coming is an act of clear polemical thinking. Kasparov’s central thesis is that foreign-policy failures in the West — “appeasement by many other names” — have enabled the fall of nascent democracy and the ascent of new tyranny in Russia. He doesn’t mince his words. “Of course Putin is no Hitler… It is important, though, to remember that in 1936 — and even in 1937 and 1938 — Hitler was no Hitler either!” Time and again, he returns to the historical record, arguing that the West has failed to learn from it while Putin has treated it as a blueprint. The echoes are indeed striking: Russia’s expansionist recent foreign policy; the suppression under Putin of minority rights and press freedoms; the use of a controversial Olympic Games as an internal propaganda tool; the suspension of the basic rules of democracy. Whither Russia? It doesn’t look good.

But how did we get here? Kasparov begins with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR. During the 1990s, he argues, the West failed to press their advantage over Russia to ensure the establishment of strong democratic institutions. Not wishing to appear ungracious in victory, and preoccupied internally with economic challenges (and later with the sex life of its president), the attitude of the US in particular to Boris Yeltsin was very much “better the devil you know”. Democratic infringements were glossed over. The selling-off of industry and utilities to a growing oligarchy was quietly ignored. Even the bloody first Chechen War, a twenty-month guerrilla scrap that left a hundred thousand dead civilians in its wake, failed to occasion much in the way of international censure.

Not until Kosovo did the West end a run of limp international responses — Kasparov calls it a “record of immoral passivity” — that had included the early Yugoslav Wars and the genocide in Rwanda. Kosovo demonstrated the strength of the West’s hand: “An impressive air campaign and the efficient organization of refugee camps sent a clear signal to every quarter in the world that the West was capable of supporting its moral claims with advanced logistics that totalitarian regimes simply lack.” For Kasparov, this sort of response — swift, decisive, conclusive — should be the model. Leave a dictator in power — as with Saddam after the first Gulf War, or Slobodan Milošević in Serbia — and you will demonstrate to them only that they can push you further before any real punishment rains down. Kosovo, though, came too late to make much of an impression on Yeltsin’s successor.

Those who’ve seen the Orson Welles movie Mr. Arkadin or Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game will be familiar with the tale of the scorpion and the frog:

For Kasparov, Vladimir Putin is a classic scorpion. In the last sixteen years, very little news that’s escaped Russia concerning this former KGB lieutenant colonel, who ascended to the presidency on Yeltin’s resignation at the close of 1999, has contradicted the basic narrative of the rise of a dictator. His censorship of the media, the violent suppression of his critics, the wars waged on Georgia and Ukraine, his disregard for free and fair elections, the infringement and cancellation of minority rights: we know Putin’s character, argues Kasparov, and must expect him to behave in accordance with it. He tells us what he will do, and he does it.

Yet we do not act. Instead, we capitulate, digress, make excuses, euphemize. “This is a genetic strength and weakness of the free world,” Kasparov writes: “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. The Western press that never hesitated to refer to Pinochet as a dictator, and with good reason, somehow always finds more polite titles or euphemisms for Putin, the Castros, al-Assad, and even Kim Jong-un.” Western leaders, too, of course: Kasparov diagnoses a case of severe cognitive bias in four successive US administrations which, since the advent of Putin, has only become more damaging. Putin was the first head of state to get through to the White House on 9/11, and his full-throated words of support cast him in a role that Bush 43 failed to see through for many years. Memoirs of the Bush administration are filled with the regrets of US leaders who failed to take the measure of Vladimir Putin. And Obama has done no better; the chapter dealing with his orientation toward Russia is titled “The Audacity of False Hope”, which rather pithily encapsulates Kasparov’s views there. Meanwhile, critically, Putin’s standing on the world stage helped reinforce his position back home: “It was difficult enough to communicate the opposition message of democracy to the Russian people without their seeing Putin on every channel being embraced as an equal by the leaders of the free world”.

The nail in the coffin of Russian democracy was the “election” of Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, who replaced the term-limited Putin but promptly appointed his predecessor prime minister. Kasparov calls this “a graceful pas de deux on the grave of Russian democracy”. When, four years later, having changed the constitution to allow for it, Medvedev returned the presidency to Putin, it’s “like a dog bringing a stick back to its owner”. In light of this, and given the commitment to democracy of the industrialized nations of the G7, the fact that it took until the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 for Russia to be ejected from the group is, for Kasparov, absurd, a telling symptom of the West’s anxiety not to offend or anger Putin.

Slobodan Milošević once told German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, “I can stand death — lots of it — but you can’t.” This, Kasparov argues, is the basis of the “ruthless calculus” performed by dictators and terrorists, how they exploit the squeamishness of the West to attain their ends. For him, the Beslan school hostage crisis and the Nord-Ost siege, both of which saw heavy civilian casualties and alleged government cover-ups, are proof of Putin’s indifference to the spilling of his own people’s blood. Yet this isn’t all that’s been tolerated, outrageously, by the world outside. Kasparov draws clear lines between the lack of punitive measures taken over Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the war on Ukraine. The world’s “first recorded case of nuclear terrorism”, in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive isotope polonium-210, was brushed under the carpet because the Kremlin simply refused to hand over the main suspect; there were no consequences. Human-rights violations — even high-profile ones like the arrest and incarceration of Pussy Riot in 2012 — have enraged concerned citizens around the world but brought about little in the way of formal sanctions. Indeed: “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.”

Winter Is Coming is fuelled by righteous anger. It’s filled with bitter cracks (“being a dictator means never having to say you’re sorry”) and laments (“In Russia the opposition isn’t trying to win elections; we’re trying to have elections”), but also meticulously constructed and thoroughly argued. Whatever political island you inhabit, it’s a fantastically worthy read for the sheer force of Kasparov’s expression, which is packed with the sort of seismic rhetoric that might just change your mind. An essential read, especially during an election year.

Garry Kasparov will appear at the 2016 Seriously Entertaining Gala, I’ll Have Another, at City Winery NYC on February 1.

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