Garry Kasparov on Chess, the Cold War, and the West's Shameful Appeasement of Putin


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"I think we've forgotten many important lessons of the Cold War," says human-rights activist and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. Especially when it comes to dealing with Russian leader Vladimir Putin: "You cannot project weakness….Putin's game is [not chess but] poker. And he knows how to bluff."

As the leader of United Civil Front and chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, Kasparov also worries that business and political leaders in what used to be called "the Free World" are no longer interested in backing large, transformative projects similar to landing a man on the Moon and the creation of the Internet. "It is very important that we have these projects to energize society," he says. "And also that we don't eliminate risk. Because it seems to me that now we teach kids from school that failure is nothing but failure. If you fail, you are a failure. No, no, I believe that failure is a logical move on the way to success."

After becoming the youngest World Chess Champion in 1985, Kasparov went on to a career that is among the greatest in the sport. Originally supportive of Gorbachev's reform, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Kasparov became increasingly outspoken against the failures of Russian leadership, especially under Putin.

Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed Kasparov in New York in November at a dinner co-hosted by the Atlas Network, a nonprofit that promotes free-market think tanks in the developing world.

About 30 minutes.

Camera by Meredith Bragg and Jim Epstein. Edited by Joshua Swain.

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Here is a rush transcript of the interview (check all quotes against video for accuracy):

Reason TV: This is not just the anniversary of the Berlin's Wall's Collapse, it is also the anniversary of your world championship.

Garry Kasparov: I celebrated this date four years before the collapse of Berlin Wall. November 9, 1985, I won my world championship title in Moscow.

Reason TV: We'd like to think that the two events are not unlinked. Talk a little bit about what the enduring lessons of the fight against communism, that we are in 25 years it seems a couple of worlds ago. What are the lessons that we're in the danger in losing from long after the twilight of the cold war.

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 80's as the newly born world champion, it was not as dangers. So 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 in the competition against the United States on the global scale 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, 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 TV: And of course Reykjavik…

Kasparov: A symbolic place. 1972, Bobby Fisher beat Boris Spassky. That was another episode of the big victory of the free world in the cold war.

Reason TV: And thereby condemning all of us in grammar school in the 70's to joining chess clubs. What was it like to grow up in the Soviet system? You were in the relatively privileged position.

Kasparov: I was relatively privileged, because of my chess.

Reason TV: What was it like and what was the psychological effect on yourself on people around you?

Kasparov: I think certain things are very hard to describe. Because to understand them, you have to live with them. I was always amazed to hear comparison in America or Western Europe about Soviet Union and certain wrong doings of the governments in the free world without recognizing that in the Soviet Union, just was a dictatorship.

I grew up in the later 60's, 70's, early 80's. Of course I haven't experienced horrors of Stalin's time. But it was still the country that was not free and thanks to my ability to place chess and the fact that I was a chess prodigy, I could travel abroad. SO my first trip to France was when I was 13. And it was a very shocking experience.

Reason TV: What was shocking about it?

Kasparov: I don't think that in my family and I'm not just talking about very few people, but extended family, cousins and among my friends, there was no single person that had visited a capitalist country. So at age 13, I carried a sacred knowledge of how people lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. So people knew that there was another world. They could of course read some literature that was officially banned but you could buy and listen to radio liberty or voice of America and BBC.

You could not find hard believers in a Communist regime, so it was all dying down. My grandfather, my mother's father was a diehard communist. He died in 1981. I was 18, and we were talking about Afghanistan. And he was shocked after spending 15 years in the Communist party, he had to line up to buy butter and bread. It was mind boggling. So something went wrong. So that's why the collapse of the Communist system was somehow imminent. I think's Gorbachev's plan was not to remove communism and replace it with something more plausible but without giving up the role of the communist party.

Reason TV: Do you think that in the end, that there's no way to do that. It's kind alike being a little but pregnant. If you give people a little bit of freedom, the whole thing's going to collapse. Don't follow that illusion all the way.

Kasparov: I don't think that you can divide people genetically by saying these nations are not ready to embrace democracy and 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. And again it's a democracy and market economy. And in China, you have China on the one side but you have Taiwan. It's a rocky island with the same people. And I'm not even mentioning two Germanies.

I think people have the same aspirations. They want to be successful. They want their kids to have good education. 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 TV: You've been very forward and very courageous in speaking out against Putin and other forms of dictatorships, creepy fascism, and corporatism. 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 the 1989, 1990, 1991, it was a great moment in history. Everyone was…

Reason TV: A lot younger.

Kasparov: Don't mention that. We believe that it was all over. If in August 1991, anyone would say in Moscow or outside of Soviet Union, "in nine years, a KGB lieutenant would 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 best sellers 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 it 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. And the problem of the Soviet Union specifically, that unlike Germany, Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, there was no cleansing process. The society couldn't feel responsibility for the Communist crimes. For ordinary Russians, "okay, that's over." Same as in 1918, in Germany, we lost the war, but maybe somebody betrayed us. While we had some good moments under Yeltsin, you could feel in the 90's, trying to build a system similar to the free world with parliament, with presidential power, with checks and balances, with independent court system, they failed. Because Russian people believe that all we needed was to have the voting procedure and if we implemented, 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 TV: They feel loyalty to Putin rather than to democratic Institutions.

Kasparov: Absolutely.

Reason TV: How much of the problem of with Russia is specifically a problem with Putin? You've written that distinct from their Soviet Union, it is about him. He's building a cult of personality, where the state revolves around. You write about the Sochi Olympics. That's it was a glorification of him similar to the way the Berlin Olympics were (for Hitler). So if Putin is gone, does the trouble go away from within Russia or what needs to happen within the country?

Kasparov: If dictator goes away, it doesn't happen through the normal election process. So that's why you can expect turmoil. Most likely uprising in Moscow, 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. All these threats that Putin is the last line of defense, and if not 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. And it's not surprising that Kremlin propaganda has been repeating the classical "Hitler is Germany, Germany is Hitler" now "Putin is Russia, Russia is Putin." 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 more dangerous to threat to world peace because Russia today is not as old Soviet Union or modern China. It is not an ideological dictatorship with politburo central committee of the Communist Party. It's one0man dictatorship. It means that this man, if he believes he is the country, he can do whatever.

Reason TV: So how should the West, the free world, the OECD countries, NATO, the US, what should they be doing differently in dealing with Putin. Because you're not talking about military engagement but you have written a lot about economic engagement and other types of trade policy. What are good way to bring Putin to heel?

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 Assad and others in the world. Iranian Ayatollahs. The West is weak. The west is not willing to get engaged. So the west will give them anything they 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 consider seriously 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 they 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 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 TV: You've written about how starting under Clinton, as well as under George W. Bush, and under Barack Obama, you talked about Bush being reckless, Obama being aimless. Who are these Western leaders you think that are heads of states who 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 because again, the mood was "we won." Many talk about Clinton's presidency as a great success. I wouldn't doubt certain achievements in 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 Soviet Union, 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. Plans they learned from World War II and they knew that to oppose Stalin and to oppose Communism, they needed to come up with a grand strategy and also leadership.

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, as 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 Khrushchev recognized that he pushed JFK to the ropes. And Ronald Reagan. And don't tell me that the Soviet Union in 1981, 82, 83, was less powerful than Putin's Russia today.

Reason TV: You have written recently about how America is hugely important to the world and that America needs a strong economy and that economic force will help spread democracy and freedom, markets throughout the world. You've talked about how people in America don't seem to have the kind of bold sense of vision, of innovation, of change. Can you talk a little bit about that? What happened to that? The idea that we were going to reinvent the world.

Kasparov: I wish I knew. You can just look at the literature that says in the 1950's, 60, science fiction was the most popular genre. It has disappeared. Now, you either talk about elves, or magic, or it's dystopia. It's all you talk about is machines attacking us. There's no more positive vision, of machines cooperating.

Reason TV: Let me push back on that though, because you talk about 40 years ago…

Kasparov: 50 years ago.

Reason TV: 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. Does anybody here think that the world is 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 scientist from DARPA'"Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency'" 1962, and 1963. So 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. So what you are talking about today, www, the world-wide-web, is commercial application of technology that has been developed 20 years before.

Reason TV: Which also is the thing that makes it transformative, though.

Kasparov: Yes I know, but we are talking about break-through technology.

Reason TV: So do we need another Cold War? Is that what we need, a kind of regimented goal that society is moving towards?

Kasparov: It's 2012, 50 years after the JFK speech in the Rice University, about the Moon project. America had no more rockets, no more means to send it's astronauts into space, they had to use Russian ones, which were also built in the 60s and 70s. So 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. As we had GPS, we had Internet, and many other things that 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 while today'"people here, I am sure, know much better than I do'"what are the chances of introducing a new drug? If you have one out of 1000, the rate of failure, out of production? Now, if you produce new drugs or new food, for the expedition, with 50-50 chance of return, then one out of three is already good. So it is very important that we have these projects to energise society, and also not to eliminate risk. Because it seems to me that risk, now'"we teach kids from school that failure is nothing but failure. If you fail, you are a failure. No no, I believe that failure is a logical move on the way to success.

Reason TV: Well as somebody who fails more often than I succeed, I feel much better, in this conversation.

We were talking earlier in the evening, and you said there is a huge amount of complacency, in what used to be called "The Free World". Is this kind of a Marxist analysis of capitalism, that we get fat and lazy because things comes easily after a certain point, and we fall into an inability to actually take the kinds of risks or create the kind of innovations that will actually push us forward?

Kasparov: Again, the Free World needs challenges. Definitely wars, and the Cold War, were challenges. We don't want to see these challenges again, but it is natural, and we have to recognize that the real innovation is not the IPhone 6, it's Apollo 6. There is a fundamental difference. And it seems to me that we have multinational corporations that are now sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars of cash, without investing them in new ideas. I understand that paying shareholders in important, but creating new value is probably more important.

Reason TV: Alright. And at that point we are going to turn it over to some questions. And also, by the way, if any of you are sitting on billions of dollars of cash, I do want to point out that both Atlas and Reason 501(c3)s.

So let's go to questions, please.

Questioner: I asked you earlier, privately, Sir, why you played the Sicilian Defence to win your first World Chess Championship, and you declined to answer. So I just want to ask that question publically, and then I want to ask you how you would apply that to the global scene today.

Reason TV: And for those of us who only play checkers, what is the Sicilian Defense?

Kasparov: It doesn't matter. It was a game that I was leading, 12 to 11. Karpov had to win the game'"he played with white, so he started the game'"to retain the title. So I could be happy with a draw. Now the question is why I played a very sharp opening, instead of trying to play very defensive. Now, the answer is very simple: when you reach the climax of any battle, you better be in the situation that feeds your nature. So I was much more comfortable in a sharp position. It doesn't matter, we play a game'"I could win, I could lose, it could be a draw'"but I am comfortable. And my calculation was right, because at the crucial moment of the game Karpov had to push, had to make a sacrifice, but it was against his nature. He tried to improve his position, he wasted time, and eventually I could make a powerful counter attack. It is the same in politics; you have to play the game that feeds your strengths. So again, there are so many arguments, there are so many trump cards in the hands of the Free World, and you have to start using them.

From the crowd: So what game do you play?

Kasparov: I play the game of Chess.

Unfortunately the parallels between the game of Chess and modern geopolitics is very questionable, because Putin's game is more of a Poker, and he knows how to bluff. Normally he has a very weak hand, I would say a pair of nines, but he bluffs, and he knows that his opposition always tries to fold out the cards. So once I said that Putin has this pair of whatever'"eight, nine, or ten'"and he acts as if he has a Royal Flush; and Obama has a Full House, and he flushed it down the toilet.

Reason TV: Do you believe that Putin would be expansionary beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union? And then what is the challenge that is posed by a country like China, is it similar in kind to the Russian challenge, or is it something very different?

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 economy doesn't offer any more excuses, to the contrary, it all goes down. So 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". Again, for him, the main audience for him 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". Twenty-four-seven, 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. It's almost quote-unquote, when 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'"that is literally quote-unquote. Now, combine it with his clear statement that all the borders of the former Soviet Union are in question'"that is why he believes that Russia was in it's rights to challenge Ukrainian borders, and others as well. Now the question is whether he could attack Estonia and Latvia, they are members of NATO'"with article five. 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, dragged him into Russia, and he is now in a Russian jail awaiting trial for espionage. The next day! Why? Just to show that there was no protection. So it is all about undermining western institutions, and NATO, and demonstrating that the United States is a paper tiger, is an empty shell.