BOOK REVIEW: Kasparov's prescriptions to hold Russia to account are vague and idealistic

BOOK REVIEW: Kasparov's prescriptions to hold Russia to account are vague and idealistic
By Derek Brower in London January 25, 2016

Chess is a brutal sport, the ultimate zero-sum game. Weaknesses in an opponent are to be exploited. You never let up, because winning is about gaining a tactical advantage and demolishing the opponent.

Should that apply to global politics? Garry Kasparov, who knows a thing or two about winning chess games, thinks so. His new book, “Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped”, laments the West’s big geopolitical failure of the past 25 years: it had Russia in its grasp and promptly surrendered the initiative. The Kremlin was on its knees in the 1990s, but weak-willed leaders lacking strategic vision and moral clarity didn’t finish the job. They let the Chekists survive and then thrive. The outcome was Putinism: the devastation of Russian civil society, the plundering of its resource wealth, the foreign mischief-making and the assault on the near-abroad. “Ironically, the roots of Russia’s descent back into totalitarianism can be traced to the West doing too much to respect the legacy of the USSR as a great power, not too little.”

To his credit, Kasparov isn’t just writing all this from his pad in Manhattan, where a less-hazardous career as a promoter of online chess games and other causes might have been his. He’s been roughed up and plucked off the Russian streets by the OMON riot police and tossed in jail a few times for daring to join peaceful protests. He set up the United Civil Front, an opposition group and part of the anti-Putin movement The Other Russia. He’s chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. The Kremlin’s tight control of elections has hindered his political activities in Russia, to say the least. But Kasparov has admirably ploughed on, rallying pockets of support in a country whose citizens have been dulled after years of cynical political management and regime-friendly media.

This isn’t a book that will shock most Russia-watchers. The crimes of the Putin era get episodic treatment: Beslan, Nord-Ost, the Kursk sinking, the Chechen wars and the mysterious apartment bombs that triggered them, the murders of Boris Nemtsov, Aleksandr Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaia and death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, the Khodorkovsky and Yukos cases, the Georgian war of 2008, the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-backed separatist war in eastern Ukraine, Medvedev’s sham presidency, relentless financial corruption and the destruction of civil society. All of them are given their due.

But Russia-watchers aren’t the book’s audience. Kasparov wants to rally a certain kind of Western politician who shares his craving for black-and-white policy prescriptions. Putin must be stopped just as the Nazis were. “Adolf Hitler did not attack Poland in 1939 because the Allies stood up for Czechoslovakia; they didn’t. Hitler did not move into the Sudetenland because the world protested vigorously at his Austrian Anschluss, but because the response was so feeble.” The West has failed again the same way with Georgia and Crimea, argues Kasparov.

His reading of history doesn’t allow for much complexity. For Kasparov, the Wall came down and the Soviet Union died because Western leaders like Reagan and Thatcher willed it and dissidents demanded it. The 1980s oil-price collapse, crippling Russian export income, and deeper structural failures, aren’t part of the story. He’s surely right that Westerners have overestimated Gorbachev’s benevolence. But Kasparov’s relentlessly sceptical view of him lacks nuance.

Ditto for Reagan. For Kasparov, the Gipper was a truly heroic, especially his “moral foreign policy”. That’s a gift to the “whataboutists”, who might remember the Iran-Contra scandal, the “constructive engagement” of Reagan’s government with apartheid South Africa, his invasion of Grenada, the cosiness with Saddam in Iraq, and so on.

Kasparov liked some of George W Bush’s moral clarity too (except his misreading of Putin’s soul). But he wishes he’d pursued democracy in Russia as actively as he did in Iraq. That’s a startlingly naïve view of the Second Gulf War, not to mention Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the kidnapping and torture of detainees or other emblems from the War on Terror. Kasparov scarcely seems to understand why all this might have yielded Barack Obama’s subtler diplomacy, including the wishy-washy “reset” with Russia. Kasparov doesn’t think much of US policy on Iran either, despite the nuclear deal of 2015. For all its passion about human rights and democracy, the books prescriptive parts feel a bit like they could have been written in early 2003 not 2015.

Human rights push

In fact, Kasparov is a bit too keen to dredge up past columns from the Wall Street Journal in which he egged on the neo-cons of that era. A lot of these references help show the reader that our grandmaster saw many moves ahead. Maybe he did. But they don’t help his narrative, which becomes episodic; or his argument, which is sometimes confusing. He’s all for strong action against Russia – not the “joke” sanctions of recent years – for human rights to be the “backbone of policy, including foreign policy”. But standing up to Putin “does not preclude negotiation or trade within certain parameters”. So should we keep buying Russian and gas, or not?

You don’t have to be an RT stooge to find Kasparov’s comparison of Islamic State with Putin a bit of a stretch, either. A new Godwin’s Law for such nonsense is surely not far off. The thrust, of course, is that the West must find its mojo to fight these horrors, wherever they are. But then this crops up: “Symbols matter in this fight, symbols like Charlie Hebdo and the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaigns, and photographs of world leaders marching together for free speech.” Clicktivism. Really, Garry? The Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing.

Ultimately, Kasparov’s prescriptions are vague and idealistic: better education and a global magna carta on human rights, which would act as the basis for foreign policy. No one would disagree with this – probably not even Putin. But who would write this big charter and who would enforce it? Kasparov is a hero to many, including this reviewer, but this book is a disappointment. As admirably passionate in its defence of human rights as it is angry at Putin and the West’s failures, its conclusions are too banal and its speech-making tenor too simplistic.

Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped”, Garry Kasparov, published by Perseus Books Group (2015)