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Garry Kasparov: Winter Is Coming

We're starting a new type of post here at L7 - the Reading List. A frequent question I'm asked is where my information and ideas come from. This Reading List is the best way I can think of to describe how I come to have my worldview. If you see me quoting something heavily in a Volume, you can bet it will end up here eventually. If it is included here, you can consider it an endorsement; there is just too much crap in the world for me to pan books I didn't like. I'll of course mention disagreements I have with books that I am recommending. A bit of disclosure:

  • Just because I add something to the List doesn't mean I read it recently. But it probably means I've been thinking about it recently and find it relevant.

  • With the amount of subway and foot travel I do, I listen to as many audio books as I read. I may or may not note the format I used. I listened to Winter is Coming.


You have probably heard of Garry Kasparov as a chess champion - universally considered one of the greatest of all time. You may have heard him referred to as a "former Russian presidential candidate." He would aggressively dispute the latter description.

Kasparov lived in and saw first-hand all three eras of contemporary Russia: crumbling communism, fledgling democracy, and descent into authoritarianism. First as a famous athlete, and later as a human rights activist, he offers a fascinating, insider/outsider view of this evolution. He is not a casual observer of events, rather a central figure. Retiring from chess in 2005, he became a full-time political and human-rights activist. His goal is both to bring together all anti-Putin forces within Russia, as well as to change the behavior of Western governments.

I would divide the book into three sections: the difficult experience of 1990s Russia, and how this lead to Yeltsin designating Putin as his successor; how Putin used the position of President to consolidate all power; how he has used that power to oppose and destabilize Democracy outside of Russia's borders. Published at the end of 2015, recent events have clearly vindicated his descriptions. His de facto list of "Do's and Don'ts when dealing with Vladimir" offers a chilling backdrop to our current Administration's words and actions.

My first takeaway was from his story of the fall of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc. We think of the collapse of Communism as an economic story; a corrupt system eventually used up it's capital base, perhaps sped along by Ronald Reagan's arms race. But Kasparov emphasizes the importance of Western values in changing the minds of the Russian people. He defines "You-too-ism", the method by which Soviet Communist leaders excused all of their abuses by pointing to any fault at all in how Western democracies operated. Racial voting suppression in the U.S. South? That validates their one-party rule. British Empire ruling unrepresented persons of other races? That validates their subjugation of Eastern Europe. It is consistent with Kasparov's thesis to say that only as the West worked through its worst abuses did Soviet hegemony turn brittle. The West was able to demonstrate the benefits of its system without necessarily being perfect. This couldn't be shielded forever from the people living behind the Iron Curtain.

His view of Putin has little nuance. According to Kasparov, Putin is thoroughly clever, strategic, and strong; but thoroughly corrupt, without morals, and indifferent to human life and suffering. In detail, he lays out Putin's rise to power. Selected from relative obscurity by an ailing Yeltsin. Achieved heroic status through a brutal suppression of Chechnya. Appointed President, then elected to same in a dubious result. Looted the Russian state, handing great fortunes to those oligarchs showing complete loyalty while bankrupting those who opposed him. Takeover of the press, the judicial system and the electoral process. Russia's elections became theater, stage-managed to produce preordained results. A veneer of legitimacy kept for no purpose but to gain validation from the international community. Success, with Western leaders treating him as a legitimately elected leader, rather than a dictator. After reading Winter is Coming, it is clear that Russia today is an autocracy, the decisions made by one man, for one man.

Kasparov demonstrates in detail how Putin's rise was not inevitable, and how it was fostered by the West's tacit support . Sham elections were greeted by congratulatory statements and phone calls from Merkel, Chirac and Cameron - and Bush and Obama. Incursion into Western-aligned Georgia was answered with sternly-worded letters, and a message for "both sides to show restraint." The current incursion into Eastern Ukraine has finally drawn a response - but remember Crimea? This piece of sovereign Ukrainian territory has basically been written off. Putin has been repetitively taken advantage of a Western desire for "engagement," or to "improve relations." He consolidates current gains and prepares his next move.

Kasparov, a vocal supporter of McCain, offers harsh criticism of Clinton, Bush and Obama, each of whom he viewed as unprepared to face-off with a master manipulator like Putin. He states specifically that had McCain been elected in 2008, Putin would have faced a much greater challenge. He points to statements made by McCain and Obama during the campaign. Personally, you know my views, and I can name 1,000 positions of foreign and domestic policy on which I have confidence that Obama had the better ideas. But I need to be honest about the President's faults too. I think I agree with Kasparov - Obama showed naivete on Putin and Russia and was taken advantage of, at least for the first several years. We have no way of knowing, but there is good reason to believe that McCain may have better checked Putin's aggression.

I have one area of significant disagreement with his overall thesis. Kasparov repeatedly returns to how the leaders of the Democracies continually bow to popular opinion - they did what was politically expedient rather than make the tougher choice. There is some contradiction here. He extols the virtues of popular sovereignty, but doesn't accept that this means that elected leaders must sometimes bow to what is popular. It would be great if leaders did the right thing, even when unpopular - and sometimes they do. But a democratic leader who does nothing but the unpopular thing will soon be replaced by somebody more friendly to the electorate.

Kasparov's book is not pessimistic; in fact it describes a program by which Putin's ambitions can be checked. And it is something we can practically accomplish.

First, he states the unequivocal importance of maintaining the moral high ground. His view, expressed compellingly, is that rather than a trade off between morals and expediency, the moral action is almost always the least "expensive" in the long run. He uses the example of education; it is far cheaper to educate 100 children than to fight one adult later in life. Our leaders must be clear and confident in our values. When you hear Putin is a great leader, the people of Russia also hear it and believe it. When somebody says that "We have a lot of killers too," he is literally using the Kremlin's propaganda. Our system is better than their system; our people are better off in every way. Our leaders can still acknowledge our imperfections while always avoiding a false equivalence.

Second, Kasparov shows us Putin's true power base: a group of oligarchs, perhaps a few dozen. Putin has made them rich beyond compare by looting the state. Without this group, the emperor would indeed have no clothes. But this is a power base which the Western nations can easily destabilize. They want to keep their money outside of Russia (wouldn't you?) and to live the Good Life that can be found in Western capitals. Sanctions against these individuals, who are entirely complicit in Putin's illegitimate regime, hits them in the wallet and impacts their lifestyle. Sanctions against Russian individuals are often derided as being on the periphery, not directly affecting the regime. Kasparov's view is that this is false. These personal sanctions, enforced by the Western community, may themselves be enough to topple Putin. Of course, when you enable these oligarchs by laundering their money through Trump-branded real estate, this is counterproductive. When the President's top advisors give a wink and a nod that the sanctions will go away, this is crippling.

Kasparov believes that we are at war with Putin's Russia. Is doesn't look like wars of this past - it involves Twitter, email hacking, fake news and troll farming. But the Cold War of last century was just as large as departure from the past. This is just the next step in asymmetrical warfare between nuclear powers. Winning the minds, hearts and wallets continues to take precedence over the use of bullets and bombs.

I also recommend following @Kasparov63, where he provides his ongoing take on the strategic situation between us and Russia; it is an extension of his book to today. Needless to say, he is horrified. Russian-funded groups were very likely involved in funding the UK's Leave campaign; breaking the EU would end Putin's main deterrent to further European adventures. Our current President, at a minimum, encouraged Putin's groups to get involved in the US election. There is no doubt that said Russian involvement changed the result. With a so-called "deal maker" as President, what will Putin get in exchange for a vague promise of better relations? Russian influence is seen in elections across Western Europe, supporting right-wing candidates in France, Germany and elsewhere. Said candidates waste no time in backing Putin's program. Kasparov is not all seeing, but he has presented an achievable road map to combat Putin and win the war. Will we follow it?

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