"Putin is a paranoid, aging dictator who believes he is Russia," says chess-champion-turned-human-rights-activist Garry Kasparov. "Russia today is not like the old Soviet Union or modern China. It is not an ideological dictatorship with the Politburo Central Committee of the Communist Party. It's a one-man dictatorship."
Kasparov had one of the most storied careers in chess history, becoming the youngest-ever world chess champion in 1985 at age 22, then holding the No. 1 ranking for almost all of the next two decades. He also developed an early interest in politics, initially supporting Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms of the late 1980s and eventually challenging the authority of longtime Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. Today, from his position of exile in New York, Kasparov is leader of the anti-Putin United Civil Front and also chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.
Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed Kasparov in November at a dinner co-hosted by the Atlas Network, a nonprofit that promotes free market think tanks in the developing world.
reason: Talk a little bit about the enduring lessons of the fight against communism.
Garry Kasparov: I think we've forgotten many important lessons of the Cold War. I have to say that when I entered this field in the mid-'80s as the newly born world champion, it was not as dangerous. Gorbachev badly needed to reconcile with the West. The Soviet economy was in terrible shape. Oil prices were sharply falling, thanks to the cooperation between Reagan's administration and the Saudis. And it was absolutely clear even for the Soviet Politburo that the arms race against the United States was no longer a plausible option.
So Gorbachev tried hard and he made several attempts to convince Ronald Reagan to accept some sort of peace accord. Thanks to Reagan's intuition, and despite the advice of all his advisors, his administration, the State Department, and the Pentagon, he said "no" in Reykjavik. And I think by saying "no" in Reykjavik, Reagan made perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union inevitable in such a short period of time.
reason: And of course Reykjavik.
Kasparov: …a symbolic place. [In] 1972, Bobby Fisher beat Boris Spassky. That was another episode of the big victory of the free world in the Cold War.
reason: Thereby condemning all of us in grammar school in the '70s to joining chess clubs.
What was it like to grow up in the Soviet system? You were in a relatively privileged position.
Kasparov: I was relatively privileged, because of my chess. I think certain things are very hard to describe. Because to understand them, you have to live with them. I grew up in the later '60s, '70s, early '80s. Of course I haven't experienced the horrors of Stalin's time. But it was still the country that was not free.
You couldn't find hard believers in the Communist regime. It was all dying down. My mother's father was a die-hard Communist. He died in 1981. I was 18, and we were talking about Afghanistan and other things. And he was shocked that after spending 50 years in the Communist Party, he had to line up to buy butter and bread. Something went wrong.
So that's why the collapse of the Communist system was somehow imminent. I think Gorbachev's plan was not to remove Communism but to create something more plausible without giving up the role of the Communist Party.
reason: Do you think, in the end, that there's no way to do that? If you give people a little bit of freedom, it's going to collapse?
Kasparov: I don't think that you can divide people genetically, saying these nations are not ready to embrace democracy. I hear this argument about Russia or China. You have two Koreas. If you look at the north, you can come up with the conclusion that Koreans are born to be slaves and they live in gulags. Unless you are aware that there is a South Korea, one of the most flourishing economies in Asia, a democracy and market economy. And in China, you have China on the one side but you also have Taiwan. It's a rocky island with the same people. And I'm not even mentioning two Germanys.
I think people have the same aspirations. They want to be successful. They want their kids to have good educations. They want to spend some money to have a vacation in a decent place. The moment they are given this opportunity, I don't think you can force them back to the Communist stable.
reason: You're very critical of the West's engagement with Putin, with China. You've written that we're willing to trade with them but we don't draw a line when they obviate civil liberties, when they continue to act repressively. How should we be engaging them, those of us in the free world?
Kasparov: We have to go back to 1989, 1990, 1991. It was a great moment in history. We believed that it was all over. If in August 1991 anyone said, "In nine years, a KGB lieutenant will be the president of Russia," people would be laughing. It was really impossible to believe that after all these changes, we can go back.
In 1992, one of the bestsellers was The End of History by Francis Fukuyama. The end of history, liberal democracy has won, that's it. I think this book ignored the fact that every generation has to fight its own Berlin Wall. As Ronald Reagan said, "Freedom is only one generation away from extinction."
So there's no physical Berlin Wall, but there are walls. The problem of the Soviet Union specifically is that unlike Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, there was no cleansing process. While we had some good moments under [Boris] Yeltsin-trying to build a system similar to the free world with a parliament, with presidential power, with checks and balances, with an independent court system-they failed. Because Russian people believed that all we needed was to have the voting procedure. If we implemented it, it would immediately lead to the dramatic improvement in living standards.
The irony is that nobody could see an improvement in the '90s; the majority couldn't see it. When Putin took over, thanks to the high oil prices, suddenly life improved. It's a very odd connection. But in the minds of many ordinary people, "Wow! That's a democracy."
reason: They feel loyalty to Putin rather than to democratic institutions.
reason: How much of the problem with Russia is specifically a problem with Putin? He's building a cult of personality, where the state revolves around him. So if Putin is gone, does the trouble go away?
Kasparov: If a dictator goes away, it doesn't happen through the normal election process. So that's why you can expect turmoil. Most likely an uprising in the capital. It won't end up with a very peaceful resolution. Because political opposition has been destroyed, and I don't think you can have anything worse than Putin.
Putin is the main problem. Putin is a paranoid, aging dictator who believes he is Russia. The same way Hitler believed he was Germany. It is extremely dangerous because for him, his own collapse means the collapse of his country. And unlike Hitler, he has his finger on the nuclear button.
He is by far the more dangerous threat to world peace, because Russia today is not like the old Soviet Union or modern China. It is not an ideological dictatorship with the Politburo Central Committee of the Communist Party. It's a one-man dictatorship. This man, if he believes he is the country, he can do whatever.
reason: So what should the West be doing differently in dealing with Putin?
Kasparov: We have been facing this problem for quite a while. And so many mistakes have been made. These mistakes created an impression for Putin and his cronies, and also his clients, like [Syrian President Bashar] Assad: The West is weak. The West is not willing to get engaged. So the West will give us anything we want.
Before we talk about the right strategy, what the leaders of the free world must do, let's talk about what they must not do. You cannot project weakness. Yes, I know that America will never seriously consider boots on the ground in Ukraine. Why are you talking about it? Why do you say publicly that you will not do that?
I could give you many examples where [U.S. officials] violate the simplest rules of negotiation. The secret letter from Obama to the Ayatollahs, without mentioning the fact that it's an insult for Sunni allies. It's the first time that the United States and the free world had a great chance of creating a Sunni coalition to stop Sunni terror. Then stabbing them in the back by writing a letter to the Ayatollahs. By the way, they never responded.
And now, at the time when the nuclear deal is about to be reached or not, he's asking them to help with ISIS. ISIS will probably be destroyed. You need more planes, maybe some soldiers, material resources. ISIS is not a global threat. It's very local. For the sake of Iranian cooperation, this is a relatively small issue to put at stake the global cooperation of Sunnis and also the non-proliferation policies. That's exactly what you're not supposed to do.
reason: You've written about [George W.] Bush being reckless, Obama being aimless. What Western heads of states do you think have actually articulated a post-Cold War framework for spreading democracy and market liberalism?
Kasparov: I don't think that any Western leader even thought about doing that. The mood was, "We won." Many talk about [Bill] Clinton's presidency as a great success. I wouldn't doubt certain achievements in the economy. But geopolitically, it was the greatest disaster among all, because it's not about the final position. The game is still on. In 1992, America was all-powerful. It could design the world map the way it wanted. In 2000, Al Qaeda was ready to strike. So what happened in these eight years?
Eight years of complacency, of doing nothing. Nobody formulated policies for Russia, for Islamic terrorism. It requires a global vision. The same way as Winston Churchill, Harry Truman had these policies designed in 1946, in 1947. The Marshall Plan. There were plans. They learned from World War II. They knew that to oppose Stalin and to oppose Communism, they needed to come up with a grand strategy.
When I hear about potential dangers of confronting Putin today, my first question is, "Is he more dangerous than Joseph Stalin in 1948?" For 11 months, American and British planes had been supplying West Berlin besieged by Stalin's troops. And Joseph Stalin didn't shoot a single American plane. Why? Because Harry Truman already used nuclear weapons. And Stalin, like every good dictator, had an animal instinct. He knew where he could be repulsed. So he knew that Harry Truman could not play a game.
It happened in 1962, when [Nikita] Khrushchev recognized that he pushed JFK to the ropes. And Ronald Reagan. Don't tell me that the Soviet Union in 1981, '82, '83 was less powerful than Putin's Russia today.
reason: Do you believe that Putin would be expansionary beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union?
Kasparov: I think that the nature of Putin's challenge today is very much domestic. He has a fundamental problem of finding the rationale for staying in power. He has been in power for 15 years. And every dictator who is not relying on democratic institutions must come up with a story, a myth, an idea about why the hell they are there.
For many young Russians, this is a question. The Russian middle class that used to see gradual improvements in their living standards—in money, in perks, in their ability to travel around, in their communications. Suddenly they just recognized that it all could disappear. So now Putin's only rationale is to present himself as a big hero: "Vladimir the Great," "the collector of Russian lands," "Putin, the man who is restoring the Russian empire." The main audience is inside the country.
The propaganda—and I can still hear it by just listening to Russian television, or just reading the press—it's worse than Dr. Goebbels. It's Orwell. It's "war is peace, slavery is freedom"—24/7, it's anti-American. And they keep talking about horrible things, including even using nuclear weapons
Even Putin himself, in his latest speech, praised Nikita Khrushchev for making these threats. He said that Khrushchev acted like a crazy man, banging with his shoe at the United Nations, but everybody respected him because they knew he was crazy and they were afraid that he would throw nuclear missiles at them. Combine that with [Putin's] clear statement that all the borders of the former Soviet Union are in question—that is why he believes that Russia was in its rights to challenge Ukrainian borders, and others as well.
Now the question is whether he could attack Estonia and Latvia, which are members of NATO. My answer is: He might do that, because he doesn't have to start a whole invasion. He could provoke violence in the Russian enclaves, in Estonia or in Latvia, and then you could see some volunteers crossing the border. At the end of the day it is not about "invading" Latvia or Estonia. It's all about undermining NATO.
Obama had a big speech in Tallinn, claiming that the United States was behind Estonia—nice! The next day, Russian intelligence kidnapped an Estonian officer from Estonian territory and dragged him into Russia. He is now in a Russian jail awaiting trial for espionage. The next day! Why? Just to show that there was no protection. It is all about undermining western institutions, and NATO, and demonstrating that the United States is a paper tiger, an empty shell.
reason: You have written recently that people in America don't seem to have a kind of bold sense of vision, of innovation, of change. Can you talk a little bit about that? What happened to that idea that we were going to reinvent the world?
Kasparov: I wish I knew. In the 1950s and '60s, science fiction was the most popular genre. It has disappeared. Now you talk about elves, or magic, or it's dystopia. It's all you talk about, machines attacking us. There's no more positive vision of machines cooperating.
reason: But since then we've had things like the Internet. We've had things like fracking, which has totally undermined Russia's ability to dictate oil prices. [Is] the world less good than it was 50 years ago?
Kasparov: Let's be very specific. You mentioned the Internet. It is a result of the space race. The foundation for the Internet was created, designed, and eventually developed by the scientists from DARPA—Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—in 1962 and 1963. From packet switching to the full description of every element, including Skype. And in 1969, the first signal came via ARPANET from UCLA to Stanford. What you are talking about today, the World Wide Web, is commercial application of technology that has been developed 20 years before.
reason: Which also is the thing that makes it transformative, though.
Kasparov: Yes, I know, but we are talking about breakthrough technology.
reason: So do we need another Cold War—a kind of regimented goal that society is moving toward?
Kasparov: It's 2012, 50 years after the JFK speech at Rice University about the Moon project. America had no more rockets, no more means to send its astronauts into space—they had to use Russian ones, which were also built in the '60s and '70s. I think it constitutes a disaster, a scientific disaster, because space projects are important, not just for the sake of landing on the Moon or on Mars, but because of the side effects. GPS, the Internet, and many other things have been developed alongside the space project.
For instance, the expedition to Mars, which has probably a 50/50 chance of safely returning the crew, will force us to do more work on diet and on medicine. And what are the chances of introducing a new drug? If you have one out of 1,000, the rate of failure, out of production? Now, if you produce new drugs or new food for the expedition, with a 50/50 chance of return, then one out of three is already good. So it is very important that we have these projects to energize society—and also not to eliminate risk. We teach kids in school that failure is nothing but failure. No. I believe that failure is a logical move on the way to success.
The Free World needs challenges. Wars, and the Cold War, were definitely challenges. We don't want to see those challenges again, but we have to recognize that the real innovation is not the iPhone 6; it's Apollo 6. There is a fundamental difference.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Checking Putin".