Interview with Garry Kasparov: 'Putin Needs Wars To Legitimize His Position'
In an interview with SPIEGEL, former Russian opposition chief and chess world champion Garry Kasparov calls Vladimir Putin a dictator and accuses the West of capitulating in the face of the Kremlin's aggressive foreign policy.
Garry Kasparov, 52, is the son of an Armenian-Russian couple and grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Talent scouts had already recognized his chess genius at preschool age and, at 22, he became the youngest-ever world champion chess player. Kasparov retired from competitive chess in 2005, despite still being ranked as the best player in the world, and began a second career in politics.
Kasparov became chairman of the United Civil Front and then headed The Other Russia, a coalition opposing President Vladimir Putin. Despite being the group's presidential candidate, he felt compelled to resign in 2007. His campaign appearances were being disrupted, he was being attacked by paid thugs and was detained and put in jail for a short period of time after holding a protest that had not received official allowance.
In 2012, Kasparov succeeded former Czech President Václav Havel as chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Fearing he would be stripped of his Russian passport, he went into exile abroad. Today, he divides his time between the United States and Croatia with his wife and two children.
In March, Kasparov testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about Putin's policies. He warned the Americans against treating Putin like a normal political partner with whom one can negotiate. Kasparov is considered the sharpest critic of the Kremlin in the West. His new book, "Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped," has just been published in English and German.
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Kasparov discusses Putin's power politics and what he describes as the West's moral capitulation.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kasparov, you call Vladimir Putin the greatest threat to world peace. Don't we need the Russian president's help now more than ever to end wars and contain terrorism?
Kasparov: Russia is a mafia state today, and Putin is its top godfather. The regime is in trouble economically and can no longer offer anything to its citizens. That's why Putin has to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, so he can serve his people the fairy tale of Russian pride and regaining its strength as a major power. But he uses fascist propaganda to do so. From Ukraine to Syria, he is behaving like the world's new general and celebrating victories, while the American president sits on the sidelines and Europe sleeps. The West's behavior toward Putin is political and moral capitulation.
SPIEGEL: Now you're really exaggerating.
Kasparov: No, I'm not. People would have been shaking their heads in disbelief if someone had predicted, 15 months ago, that Putin would annex Crimea and grossly violate European postwar borders. Then came the expansion into eastern Ukraine, and now the direct military intervention in the Syrian war, on the side of mass murderer Bashar Assad. Putin needs wars to legitimize his position. It's the only move he has left. And his appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in late September is typical for action and counter reaction.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Kasparov: Putin spoke unabashedly about the importance of national sovereignty in Syria, a concept apparently near and dear to his heart, unless it comes to the sovereignty of Georgia, Ukraine or any other country in which he intervenes. Then he offered his cooperation, but without making any concrete concessions at all. And he didn't have to, either. He knows what he can rely on. He has assets that are more valuable than words: He has tanks in Ukraine, fighter jets in Syria -- and Barack Obama in the White House. His speech before the UN only an hour earlier was completely toothless. The West can't come up with anything to deal with Moscow, except appeasement.
SPIEGEL: A term that describes former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy, which emboldened the Nazis to invade Poland in 1938. You aren't seriously comparing Putin with Hitler and Obama with Chamberlain, are you?
Kasparov: I'm aware of how sensitive these appeasement comparisons are, especially in Germany. But I do think there are unmistakable parallels. Many politicians in the West cling to the notion of a partnership with Russia. They want to include Putin, make compromises and constantly negotiate new deals with him. But history has taught us that the longer we pursue appeasement and do nothing, the higher the price will be later on. Dictators don't ask "Why?" before they seize even more power. They ask: "Why not?"
SPIEGEL: But the West did react decisively and sharply to the annexation of Crimea. Some say too sharply. Russia was excluded from the G-8 group until further notice, and the European Union and United States were unusually united in imposing economic sanctions on Russia and travel restrictions on politicians and business owners with ties to the Kremlin.
Kasparov: I welcome that, in principle. But the sanctions and travel restrictions would have to be far more comprehensive to be truly painful for Putin and his inner circle. And the new middle class should also feel the effects of what he is doing. For instance, we should ask those who wish to enter the EU whether they have visited illegally occupied Crimea in the last few months and, if the answer is "yes," deny them a visa. We are living in a new ice age, and we need to apply the recipes of the Cold War to the Kremlin. That means isolation instead of offers of negotiation. And Ukraine should have been supplied with weapons long ago.
SPIEGEL: Achieve peace with even more weapons?
Kasparov: The country has to be able to defend itself. I'm only talking about defensive weapons.
SPIEGEL: But the most hopeful approach to peace in Ukraine is the Minsk Agreement, which includes Moscow. The nuclear deal with Iran would not have materialized without Putin's participation. And despite all the necessary criticism of his policies, Russia is an essential element, especially in bringing peace to Syria.
Kasparov: Yes, I know, the so-called realpolitik. But a values-oriented foreign policy of the free world would be much better, supported by the self-awareness of being on the right side of history. Putin has this animalistic instinct of all dictators: He smells weakness. To quote Winston Churchill's definition of appeasement: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."
SPIEGEL: Have you always been convinced that Putin would plunge your country into disaster?
Kasparov: When Putin, a former lieutenant-colonel in the KGB, became Russia's president on December 31, 1999 -- eight years after the failed coup attempt against (then Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev, and eight years after the people had torn down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the hated founder of the KGB, in Moscow -- it was admittedly a shock. Nevertheless, I decided to give Putin a chance. He seemed dynamic and capable of learning. But I had to bury my hopes after just a few months. He proved to be an autocrat -- and, because the West let him do as he pleased, he became a dictator.
SPIEGEL: Isn't that a bit too black and white? Didn't the West, with the eastern expansion of NATO, break an important promise to Moscow and humiliate Russia? Didn't the EU make mistakes when it came to Ukraine and unnecessarily challenged the Kremlin?
Kasparov: I don't see this as humiliation. The Eastern European countries joined the military alliance of their own free will. And Ukraine wanted and still wants to go its own way. Moscow is simply unwilling to recognize the right of self-determination of these nations.
SPIEGEL: You recently called for Putin to be tried before the International Criminal Court. But what about former US President George W. Bush, who is responsible for an invasion of Iraq that violated international law and was based on lies, and the thousands of thousands of deaths he caused?
Kasparov: I'm not saying that George W. Bush did everything right. But even if you take a skeptical view of his Iraq war, Obama made the more serious error of withdrawing his troops from Iraq early. That allowed the horrible terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) to gain ground.
SPIEGEL: If Putin is now saying that he wants to fight IS and bomb its positions, shouldn't you welcome his actions?
Kasparov: But he isn't doing that, or if he is, only marginally. He is mainly bombing the rebels who are fighting dictator Bashar Assad. Putin wants to keep Assad in power and expand his own military base in Syria, whatever the cost. I even believe he has an interest in more and more people fleeing the country. The flow of refugees improves his negotiating position toward the West, including the German chancellor. By the way, he has more respect for her than any other Western politician. He despises most of the others. He mainly has friends in Europe among the extreme right, such as Marine Le Pen's Front National in France.
SPIEGEL: Putin, together with his military, has jumped into the Middle Eastern powder keg. Does he have any idea how to get out again?
Kasparov: It could truly be the case that he has miscalculated in the long term with his adventure in Syria.
SPIEGEL: The IS terrorist militia is claiming it bombed a Russian holiday airline flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh over the Sinai peninsula on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board. If it does turn out to be a terrorist act, how do you think the Russian people will respond?
Kasparov: We know little so far. Putin has much to gain by blaming it on IS instead of Russia's crumbling infrastructure. Revenge for a terror attack is ideal for Putin's model. His propaganda machine will be filled with scenes of crash victims if Putin sees the need for a larger war to stoke his domestic support again as the Russian economy teeters.
SPIEGEL: But the Syria mission isn't hurting him yet. On the contrary, he is enjoying widespread approval. The new winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, has said that there is a little Putin in every Russian.
Kasparov: Wait a minute. I had the privilege of meeting Andrei Sakharov
SPIEGEL: the nuclear physicist and human rights activist, who was banished to a gulag from 1980 to 1986 for promoting human rights.
Kasparov: And one of my best friends was Boris Nemtsov
SPIEGEL: the opposition politician who was shot to death on February 27, 2015, within view of the Kremlin.
Kasparov: There was definitely no trace of a Mafioso or dictator in those two men, and no trace of a Putin. And the tens of thousands who took to the streets in recent years to protest government despotism in Russia were also not infected by the virus of tyranny. I was happy to see the prize go to this committed writer, who has given a voice to many of my fellow Russians in her books. But it isn't quite as simple as she puts it, even though I have an idea of what Alexievich is getting at.
SPIEGEL: She probably means the Russians' special yearning for a strongman and their susceptibility to authoritarian structures. Is she wrong?
Kasparov: I don't really like discussions about a supposed Russian national character.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, polls put mass murderer Stalin at the top of the list of the best politicians in Russian history. Putin's approval ratings are also around 80 percent at the moment.
Kasparov: I wouldn't place much stock in those numbers. I don't believe that they reflect Putin's true popularity. Just think about how the pollsters proceed. They call people and they ask them questions on the street. In today's Russia, it takes a lot of courage to tell a stranger something critical about the head of the Kremlin. And yet more than 20 percent do so nonetheless.
SPIEGEL: You have dedicated your new book to Boris Nemtsov, with whom you founded the extra-parliamentary opposition movement Solidarnost in December 2008. He stayed in Russia to keep fighting there. You chose to go into exile.
Kasparov: There were clear signs that they were going to confiscate my passport, and my mother was receiving unannounced visits. Boris and I began to argue after Putin's return to the presidency in 2012. In my opinion, there was no longer a realistic chance to achieve regime change through peaceful political means, or real elections. Boris, on the other hand, never lost this hope. He felt that my assessment was premature and said: "You have to live a long time to see changes in Russia." He was deprived of that opportunity.
SPIEGEL: The Kremlin claims it intends to use all means possible to clear up the murder, and it sent condolences to the family.
Kasparov: The height of cynicism. There is no doubt that Putin is responsible for this crime, whether or not he gave the order to commit the murder himself. Putin created the conditions and atmosphere that have made this kind of thing possible.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you worried about your own safety? This interview is taking place in London, where another Putin critic, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, was poisoned with polonium nine years ago. According to British investigations, the material definitely came from a Russian factory.
Kasparov: I'm not paranoid, but I am cautious. I don't drink tea with strangers, I don't fly Aeroflot and I avoid certain countries with close ties to Russia.
SPIEGEL: What would happen if you returned to Moscow tomorrow?
Kasparov: I now have Croatian citizenship, but I only accepted it because Croatia allowed me to keep my Russian passport. In other words, I could go back, theoretically. My mother lives in Moscow, and I would like to visit her. Now she always has to travel to Finland or a Baltic country to meet me. But I have to expect that my papers would be confiscated in Moscow immediately, and that they would harass my family. I can still have more impact in the West with my books and lectures.
SPIEGEL: What makes you so optimistic? Did you deliberately time your new book to coincide with the American presidential primaries?
Kasparov: Yes, I did have the election in mind when it came to publishing. I hope that the Russian policy will play a big role in the election. And I also hope that my arguments will be heard.
SPIEGEL: Republican Senator John McCain has just euphorically praised your book.
Kasparov: I don't make any secret of the fact that I'm closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats. But even under a President Hillary Clinton, US foreign policy toward Moscow would probably be more critical and confrontational. I hope it isn't too late for that. I would like to travel to my country again, to a country without a dictatorship, to a post-Putin Russia.
SPIEGEL: When will it come to that?
Kasparov: The bad news is: I don't know. The good news is: Putin doesn't know either. His aggression is like a drug. He has to keep upping the dose, which increases the risks for him. Dictatorships sometimes fall unexpectedly and quickly. And Putin knows that for him, the loss of power doesn't mean a comfortable retirement, but something completely different.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying he's afraid of criminal prosecution or worse?
Kasparov: Putin fears the kind of end (former Libyan leader Moammar) Gadhafi suffered in Libya.
SPIEGEL: Could you imagine playing a key role in a future Russia?
Kasparov: I don't think about possible positions. But I certainly want to be involved in politics and help shape the transition. I am in contact with regime critics who had to leave for the West. One of them is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former businessman, who had to endure 10 years in a prison camp.
SPIEGEL: One of your books is called "How Life Imitates Chess." Are there things chess can teach you about the big game of world politics?
Kasparov: Putin is more of a poker player. In poker, unlike chess, you can effectively compensate for a very weak hand by bluffing. There are fixed rules in chess, and no one knows how the game will end. Things are currently the other way around in Putin's realm. But it won't stay that way forever. I'm looking forward to the day when my country is saved -- and the current winner becomes a loser.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kasparov, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Erich Follath
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