Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped.Public Affairs, 2015, 291+xxviii pp., $26.99
Few are more qualified to testify to the sheer arbitrary power of Vladimir Putin’s political machine than Garry Kasparov. Long-time world chess champion, Kasparov was a huge celebrity in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union (he was born in Soviet Azerbaijan). His decision to publicly challenge the Putin machine after the Beslan school massacre of early September 2004 alarmed the Kremlin, which feared that Kasparov’s huge name recognition might translate into a plausible presidential campaign to succeed Putin in 2008. While even many of Kasparov’s friends doubted his suitability to mount such a challenge, a point admirably acknowledged by Kasparov himself, Putin’s administration was taking no chances.Wherever Kasparov went to speak out against Putin, his path was blocked, at times literally. For instance, when flying into the Caucasus, Kasparov often found the airport’s runway littered with boulders or cows. Once, in Stavropol, his hosts arrived at the airport too late: The traffic police had held them up until the crowd waiting for Kasparov at the venue went home. Auditoriums that had been booked for his speeches regularly experienced sudden power outages just before his arrival. In other cases, local authorities declared building-code violations that required the public to be evacuated. In one public library in Rostov-on-Don, a water pipe broke, resulting in the cancellation of Kasparov’s planned talk. Everywhere Kasparov went, Putin’s secret police followed, making no secret of their tail on him. He often found that all of the hotels in a city were booked, but only as far as Kasparov and his entourage were concerned. No one else seemed to have problems finding rooms.The state-controlled media either ignored Kasparov or presented truncated versions of his talks and interviews, so that it seemed he was only talking about chess. A tacit ban on live interviews with him was rigorously observed. The regime had successfully transmitted the message that Kasparov was persona non grata. One head waiter, alarmed that Kasparov had entered his restaurant for dinner, exclaimed, “In God’s name get out, or I’ll be in big trouble!”In the end, a frustrated and exhausted Kasparov—who had been arrested and briefly detained in the course of a political rally in Moscow in April 2007—abandoned his quest for the Russian presidency. Putin’s machine had checkmated the greatest chess master in the world. Gary Kasparov has a very personal interest in Vladimir Putin, understandably so.In Winter is Coming, Kasparov deploys his name and moral authority behind a cri de coeur to the Western world: Wake up and unite to combat the “evil” government of Vladimir Putin, as well as all “enemies of the free world,” including ISIS. Indeed, while Kasparov acknowledges that Putin’s foreign policy has no ideological foundations, that Putin is best seen as a capo-like broker of personal economic interests, that the erosion of democracy in Russia was well under way before Putin came to power in 1999, and that “[i]n the end Putin is a Russian problem,” he goes to some lengths to convince us that Putin poses a challenge to Western international order comparable to Hitler in 1937 or ISIS today.In short, Kasparov is making the case for a morality-based foreign policy, one that refuses to grant any kind of legitimacy—legal or otherwise—to non-democratic regimes, Putin’s and that of ISIS first of all. While stopping short of calling for military force, Kasparov nevertheless believes that nothing less than a unified West applying unremitting economic, diplomatic, and moral pressure against Putin’s Russia can satisfy core Western interests and values, as well as the true interests of the Russian people. “Listen to the dissidents,” Kasparov declares, so that the West may gird itself for the long winter twilight to come.In Kasparov’s view, the West is always too soft on and naive about Russia, Putin’s or otherwise. EU and U.S. economic sanctions against Russia after the destruction of the MH-17 airliner over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 do not figure in Kasparov’s account, though he had plenty of time to add them in before publication. Nor does the refusal of the United States to incorporate Yeltsin’s Russia in a post-Cold War security framework in the 1990s: It is as if the expansion of NATO to include all ex-satellite allies of the Soviet Union, as well as the Baltic states, by 2004 never happened; as if—whatever the merits of the specific cases—NATO did not use force against Russian clients in Bosnia (1995) and Serbia (1999), and eventually Iraq (2003), underscoring that the Americans saw Russia as outside the global security order and even the European one.In Kasparov’s account, it was insufficient NATO pressure on Russia that brought on the five-day Georgia-Russia war in August 2008. Had NATO approved a specific action plan to bring Georgia into NATO, Russia might have been deterred. Nowhere does Kasparov mention that NATO did formally declare at its April 2008 summit in Bucharest that both Ukraine and Georgia would one day join NATO (though without a calendar for admission). One senior Russian and two Georgian sources have confirmed to me that Putin twice proposed to withdraw Russian troops from the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in exchange for a written pledge by Georgia not to join NATO for forty years. In this light, the Georgia-Russia war cannot be dissociated from the expansion of NATO toward Russia’s most sensitive historical borderlands: The real story is thus one of interaction between Russia and the West, not simply Russian aggression and Western passivity, as Kasparov would have it.Kasparov justly notes that, historically, “great changes in the framework between nations have been necessary after a period of great conflict.” Yet throughout the post-Cold War period, as far as Europe is concerned, the United States has reinforced a Cold War institution—NATO—with Russia for all intents and purposes on the outside. In effect, no great change in the European security framework has taken place and a major power (Russia) with the capacity to disrupt it has unsurprisingly begun to do so. Keep in mind that the first major such disruption took place in June 1999, when Yeltsin was still President (and Putin was head of the Russian National Security Council): 200 Russian paratroopers, to be reinforced by 10,000 others, seized the Pristina airport in Kosovo in order to begin establishing an independent Russian peacekeeping zone. Only woeful local logistics (no food and water) and relentless U.S. pressure on Bulgaria and Romania to deny overflight rights to Russian aircraft compelled the Russians to cease and desist. But Russian-American relations were once again being transacted by Cold War methods; vectors of power rather than commonalities of values or interests were now shaping the relationship. If Russia was not going to be brought into the European security club, it had clubs of it own with which to get attention.The intricacies of post-Cold War geopolitics do not concern Kasparov, as he believes: “There are no complex national interests in [Putin’s] calculations. There are only personal interests, the interests of those close to him and who keep him in power, and how best to consolidate his power. . . . [T]he only way he can validate his power is with regular shows of force.”Without in any way wishing to discount the force of personal interest in Putin’s political machine, is there really no geopolitical context to the foreign policies of his government? For instance, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 clearly followed a carefully designed contingency plan, yet why then and not years earlier? Russian politicians had been calling for such action ever since 1992. Nowhere does Kasparov mention the triggering event: The immediate collapse of the agreement for a transitional Ukrainian government negotiated with the Ukrainian government and its official opposition, as well as French, German, Polish, and Russian officials on February 21, 2014. It suddenly seemed that Ukraine might spin altogether outside of Russia’s orbit of influence toward the EU and NATO. Putin and his government were far from the only ones in Russia with that concern. Perhaps a Western policy that years earlier had seen Ukraine as connected to both Russia and Europe, instead of having to choose between them, might have avoided the crisis of the past two years. Likewise with Georgia.For Kasparov, such concerns ring hollow. Putin’s government is just “evil” and not a fit partner in international undertakings with democracies. Only a policy of what amounts to aggressive neo-containment can work. But to what end, and at what price? Kasparov’s preferred policies would shatter Western unity rather than reinforce it. The latest proof is French President François Hollande’s effort to forge a Russian-French-U.S. alliance against ISIS. Least of all will the NATO democracies commit to a policy of confrontation where Kasparov wants it most: along Russia’s most sensitive historical borderlands.In the end, Winter is Coming joins a long list of efforts by aggrieved foreigners to obtain the support of U.S. power—seen as a deus ex machina—for their domestic objectives. These include Ho Chi Minh seeking an audience with Woodrow Wilson in 1919 for the independence for Indochina; the Polish government-in-exile pleading with Churchill and Roosevelt in 1943 to confront Stalin over the Katyn Forest massacre; Chiang Kai-shek and his U.S. allies keeping Communist China out of the United Nations until 1971 and freezing U.S. policy toward that country; Ahmed Chalabi’s lobbying to induce a U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; Georgian elites’ attempt to replace Moscow with Washington as its primary foreign policy link between 2004–8, and so on.Along these lines, Kasparov would have the United States and its (democratic) allies commit to regime change in Russia: “Putin is a lost cause and Russia will be a lost cause until he is gone.” He never considers the possibility that what comes after Putin might be even worse. And elsewhere Kasparov concedes that Putin is mainly a Russian problem with roots (which he does not adequately analyze) in the Russia of the 1990s. How far, then, can foreign influence—which failed when Russia had a sympathetic government in the early 1990s—succeed in leveraging what Russian society itself cannot?Moreover, Putin reflects a broad Russian consensus that the country should have a privileged position through the post-Soviet territories; on Crimea, the consensus that the peninsula is Russian and not Ukrainian appears to be unshakeable. Is it really within the capacity of Western governments to advance an anti-Putin policy that will win over the Russian people? One that would leave the country and its relationships with the outside world better off than before? Recent experience with so-called nation-building and regime change in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, not to mention Russia in the 1990s, suggests that the Western democracies have no idea of how to achieve such objectives.Finally, is it really true that Russia and the West have no substantial interests in common, in spite of major conflicts over core political values? As President Hollande admits, France, the United States, and Russia share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State. As a practical matter, Russia’s recent military intervention in support of the Assad dictatorship means that Syria (like eastern Ukraine) cannot be fully stabilized without Russia’s agreement. A maximally effective anti-ISIS strategy would require all parties concerned to subordinate their secondary interests, which are often in conflict with each other, to their seemingly primary interest in stopping ISIS. In effect, dictatorships, merely authoritarian regimes, and democracies would have to collaborate on grand strategy. Inevitably, success would reinforce Putin’s position at home, something anathema to Kasparov.There is precedent for such collective action, however. Immediately after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, President Roosevelt through executive action added Stalin’s Russia to the list of recipients of U.S. military supplies. By November 1941, a full month before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt prevailed on Congress to bring Moscow into the Lend-Lease program. For the subsequent three-and-a-half years, the Western democracies and Stalin’s terroristic dictatorship were strategic allies, not because Roosevelt was naive about Stalin’s domestic system but because he judged the threat from Nazi Germany to be qualitatively greater. By 1941, the accumulated mistakes of the past meant that Germany could not be defeated without a global coalition including the Soviet Union. Another way of putting it is that the Cold War was the price of winning World War II. But that was the choice at the time: Who regrets it now?