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Talking Policy: Garry Kasparov on Putin's Russia

Putin’s rule has become increasingly brutal in recent years, characterized by political repression and aggressive foreign policy. World Policy Journal sat down with Garry Kasparov, political activist and author of the recently published book Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, to discuss recent developments in Putin’s reign.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In the book, you recall a question you asked a European Union official in 2005: "What would it take for Europe to stop treating Putin like a democrat? Maybe if all opposition parties are banned? Or what if they started shooting people in the street?" Seeing as opposition parties have indeed been banned in Russia, and with Boris Nemtsov's murder in February 2015, Europe and the U.S. have still not made any significant moves to stand up to Putin. We ask you: what would it take for Europe—and the U.S.—to stop treating Putin like a democrat?

GARRY KASPAROV: I don't think they are treating him as a democrat any longer. We definitely saw quite a significant change in the assessment of Putin, but not in the behavior. I think today, as opposed to 2005 and 2006, they know that Putin is a brutal dictator. Before, they believed that Russia could be a fragile democracy, and Putin was the best Russia could hope for. They now know that he's capable of murdering people and invading neighboring countries, but still see no way of confronting him openly because of the conclusion that upsetting the status quo could be more damaging than simply playing into Putin's hands. We saw it with the latest revelation of Litvinenko's murder and the reaction of the Dutch government to the MH17 tragedy. They know who Putin is, but there is no political will to confront him, as he deserves.

WPJ: What would it take at this point for the West to lead the charge against Putin’s actions? 

GK: I wish I knew. We all witnessed quite a long and painful list of "Putin will not do this" items. We saw that, one by one, he simply crossed all the borders, erased all the red lines. Considering the lack of political will and inherent weakness in political leadership in Europe and the U.S., I'm afraid that Putin's drastic actions may be unanswered until there is a change in the leadership of the U.S. or in the public mood in Europe, which again might happen because definitely Putin is testing the limits. But still, I don't know where the limits are.

WPJ: Now that oil prices are tanking, and the ruble is declining every single day, what does that mean for Putin and Russia in the future?

GK: Naturally, Putin will never experience the same comfort in spending money as he pleased. At the same time, I could see him looking for asymmetrical solutions because the Russian economy will never recover to the level where Putin could feel comfortable in regaining his popularity from 2005, when he could be seen as a leader who revived economic stability and brought a new prosperity to the Russian middle class. The only tools remaining in Putin's hands now are all connected to propaganda and foreign aggression. That's why my fear is that further decline of the Russian economy will inspire Putin to pursue more aggressive action abroad and more crackdowns at home.

WPJ: Do you think that low oil prices will affect Russian involvement in Syria? Can Putin afford his broad foreign policy ambitions at this point?

GK: When one faces the decline of income, we can see how truncated budgets reflect priorities. Putin's priorities are not connected to the Russian economy or the well-being of Russian citizens. We see that, even at the time of this financial hardship, he still spends money on the military, the security apparatus, and his propaganda machine. I think it's undoubtedly a war budget. I don't think that any crisis will force Putin to quit voluntarily his operation in Syria, or his military buildup in Ukraine.

WPJ: Now that he is playing a key and active role in the Syrian conflict, how do you think it will unfold? What should the Western coalition do? 

GK: Syria constitutes an important political victory for Putin. The Syrian crisis cannot be resolved with Putin's crony, Bashar al-Assad, in power, and Assad's murderous regime is a prime source for violence in the region. But Western powers played into Putin's hands, treating Putin as a part of the solution, not as the main problem. And while the West is talking about diplomatic solutions, Putin's planes have been bombing and destroying the opposition and not ISIS. He definitely succeeded in changing his role in global affairs. Now he is no longer a pariah, but a big player who cannot be ignored. A side effect of his aggressive actions in Syria is the refugee crisis. The more refugees head to Europe, the more that boosts the credentials of ultra-nationalist groups in Europe. All of them are big fans and supporters of Putin, and some of them are directly financed by Moscow. With more political power gained by forces like the National Front in France, the chances for lifting sanctions, which is absolutely vital for Putin's political survival in Russia, are improving every day. 

WPJ: Do you think Putin has any plan for how Russia will eventually get out of the Middle East quagmire?

GK: I don't think Putin is in the position to make any long-term plans because he thinks about survival today. Exit strategy is the privilege and the necessity of democracies. Any government should be responsible for the soldiers that are sent into war overseas, and leaders have to report to their parliaments, press, and public. Putin doesn't report to anybody. He will stay there as long as he stays in the Kremlin because dictators cannot afford any sign of weakness. Retreat is not an option for Putin. The moment he retreats internationally, he might face challenges from his own rank-and-file in Russia. Dictators should always look at what's happening behind them, because the moment they turn their backs to their own cronies, they are too vulnerable. 

WPJ: To refer to the book's title, when winter actually comes to Europe and Ukraine, would Russia cut off gas to them? 

GK: Even at the time the book was written, European dependence on Russian gas was much less vital than Russian dependence on the European market. Two years ago, European customers received about one-third of their gas and oil products from Russia, while Russia sold 80 percent of its gas and oil exports to Europe. Naturally, Russia had much more to lose. Europe has been talking for a long time about reducing dependence. We now see some action, but we recently saw Germany making a separate deal with Russia on the second pipeline in the Nord Stream. I think the issue is that of a political and business status quo in which it is in the interest of European politicians and captains of European business to build very strong personal ties and relations with the Kremlin.

WPJ: Let's say Europe wants to weaken Russia. What can it do to further itself from Russian gas?

GK: There are opportunities to work on the project of bringing the gas from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via Turkey. One of the best options would be to build a pipeline for gas from Qatar. But then you have to resolve the Syrian problem, and that's probably one of the reasons why Putin is so adamant to make sure it will never happen. I still believe that Norway could increase its production, and that there's gas from North Africa. It’s about political will and a comprehensive, long-term policy that will guarantee that Europe will never be blackmailed politically by any of the suppliers. 

WPJ: The U.S. elections are coming up this year. You mentioned Obama's failure to send a strong message to Putin in his first years. Where did Obama go wrong? What should the next U.S. President do to send a message to Putin telling him to “back up”?

GK: I think the problem is not only Russia. The next president would have to work really hard to rebuild confidence in America's foreign policy, because Obama's foreign policy created a very dangerous vacuum worldwide. America’s friends lost confidence in the U.S., while the enemies of the free world were emboldened by the lack of action and will to participate actively in global affairs. Regarding Putin, America still has several very powerful, non-military tools to curb Putin's aggressive actions. Russia depends on foreign financial markets, and sanctions that are in place today, though mild, are very painful; that's why Putin is trying to demonstrate his ability to get rid of those sanctions. So it's very important that the sanctions stay as long as Russia keeps occupying Ukrainian territory. I think U.S. foreign policy needs a long-term vision. It's time to talk about the future of the world, how we can build new institutions to make sure that international treaties will not be violated as blatantly as Putin did in Crimea. The U.S. needs to build coalitions in Europe and elsewhere, regain confidence of its allies, and make sure that the enemies of the free world will realize that America is no longer passively watching their rise.

WPJ: You consistently mention throughout the book that confrontation with Putin is inevitable. Why do you say that?

GK: It is inevitable because confrontation with Putin is the only way for him to stay in power. Every dictator needs a myth to tell why, after so many years, he still stays in power while the economy is in such a poor state. I see him creating more conflict zones to justify his power. Whether it's Putin or other thugs and terrorists and dictators, they have to continue their policy of confrontations with the free world. The moment they stop, they will be questioned by their own people, since these regimes are not capable of producing high living standards or competing with the free world. 

WPJ: You've just said that Putin might attempt to create new conflict zones. Do you have any predictions as to where? 

GK: Right now, I think he will be concentrating on his Syrian agenda. He doesn't currently see any benefits to resuming the war in Ukraine, since he has problems with Crimea and with supply, and since lifting sanctions is of top priority. For the next few months, he might be playing a quiet game because he could see that some of his goals can be reached through diplomacy. As long as Obama, Merkel, and Cameron are willing to play his game, he might refrain from drastic actions before sanctions are lifted. Having said that, I would not exclude the possibility that with further deterioration of the situation in Russia, we can expect Putin to shift attention by creating another conflict zone sooner or later. Any expectations that Putin will go back to cooperating simply ignore historical experience. Dictators, after the first phase of their rule when they need friends to solidify their power, reach a point where they need enemies. Putin needs enemies to justify his indefinite rule in Russia. Since he has run out of enemies inside Russia, he is very good at inventing them. 

WPJ: In retrospect, invading Ukraine was simple for Putin. Do you think he will have the willpower to potentially attack Estonia and Latvia? 

GK: It depends on the degree of desperation. Right now, I think it's highly unlikely because diplomacy is working on lifting sanctions, which will demonstrate to the Russian ruling elite that Putin is still very much in charge. Lifting sanctions will be a major political victory for him. That's why if he is satisfied with this result, he can have a break. It may not be a long one since the Russian economy probably will not recover, and he will not have the same freedom of spending as before. But under no circumstances would I exclude potential attacks on Latvia and Estonia if he is still desperate.

WPJ: What should the U.S. and NATO do? Don't they need Russia's cooperation to fight the Islamic State or to tackle other global challenges?

GK: No, it's very clear that Russia is not fighting ISIS. Putin is in Syria to work on his own agenda. Russia, Assad, and Iran are not part of the solution, but are part of the main problem in the region. It's not even a secret that Putin's planes are not attacking ISIS, and Putin's interest in Syria is opposite to those of Western powers and the Syrian people. The sooner the free world stops playing these games, the better for everybody. I think the only solution for the Syrian refugee crisis is to destroy ISIS there, to liberate Syria, and to bring the refugees back. In order to achieve it, the West should recognize that as long as Putin's troops remain in Syria, there will be no solution for the Syrian crisis.

WPJ: Following Bolotnaya Square, the Putin-Medvedev-Putin shift, Nemtsov's murder, Pussy Riot, and the multitude of examples of repression, is there any hope for a domestic change? A Euromaidan on the Red Square? Is the Russian population that blinded by Russian media that it's easier for them to slip into fear or apathy?

GK: I don't think Russia can move forward without transiting through a period of massive violence. Putin's dictatorship cannot be compared to the authoritarian tendencies shown by Yanukovych, and will not disappear as a result of elections. I think it could go down only as a result of the massive uprising of a desperate population, and a split in the elite. I'm not happy to tell you that. I don't want to see any more violence in Russia, but it has reached the point where the violent position is inevitable. Now, as to what will happen as a result of the violent position, I don't know. What I know from books of history I've read is that regimes like Putin's—the longer they stay in power, the worse the outcome. For those who are afraid that Putin's demise today could lead to a negative outcome or to massive violence, tomorrow, it would be even worse, and the day after tomorrow, it could be a global disaster. It's in everyone's interests to make sure Putin's full-blown one-man dictatorship will not last long enough to spread problems that are tormenting Russia and Russia's neighboring countries to the rest of the world. 

WPJ: In the conclusion of Winter is Coming, you say that the most important thing is to fund and promote the extensive education of children. What is the education system like in Russia, and is there any way for the next generation to realize the true nature of Putin’s Russia? 

GK: From what I understand, the overall crisis in Russia hurts Russian education as well. I see no way of any significant improvement for Russian education, as long as we have a government that thinks that military and security apparatus—and of course, propaganda—are priorities. Poisonous propaganda of Putin's regime is also having very negative effects on the minds of youngsters.

WPJ: The title of your book is a reference to Game of Thrones. In A Clash of Kings, the second novel in the series, the eunuch spymaster Varys poses a riddle: "A priest, a king, and a rich man stand together and each one orders the same swordsman to slay the other two. Who will the swordsman obey?" Varys's simple answer is: "Power resides where men believe it resides." In Russia, why do people believe power resides with Putin? 

GK: I tried to explain in the book the mistakes that were made, and why Putin could become the Putin we know today. I leave the answer to this question to historians because I'm more concerned about what happens after Putin. And I think for Russia to survive, it will have to dramatically change its narrative. I feel that there's still potential for Russia to look for its own identity—not an imperial identity, but a state that will become part of Europe’s culture and civilization, and will eventually play a positive role in global affairs.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy Journal interviews.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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