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Lock the Door—Putin’s Still at It

Garry Kasparov speaks with Larry Diamond and Jeffrey Gedmin on the end of Putin’s empire, democracy’s decay across the West, and how the United States must hit back.

Garry Kasparov, Larry Diamond, Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin: Looking at the United States and, really, across the West today, one sees disturbing trends: unappealing changes in political culture, the loosening of voter ties to mainstream parties, vacuums being filled by populists of various stripes. Could you speak with us about how you see the future of democracy in Europe and the United States?

Garry Kasparov: I believe that the future of democracy in Europe and in the United States depends on their mutual success or failure. I can hardly imagine Europe succeeding and the United States failing or the other way round. True, when we talk about the free world, we can see that there are free countries elsewhere in the world, too: Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Brazil, and others.

The space for freedom has been shrinking over the last decade, as we know from the Freedom House annual report [Freedom in the World] and other data collected by organizations that follow these global trends.

But I would prefer to concentrate on the United States, because I still see America as the global leader. And America’s success or failure, or America’s stumbling, always has a ripple effect on the rest of the world. I think what we experienced in America in the last few years was a symptom of problems that started earlier. At the end of the Cold War, there was victory, but we struggled to find a new concept. It was like the end of a chapter, or even the end of a book, but nobody was there with a new script. Not surprisingly, Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History, was a bestseller in 1992. I have to say I shared that vision and spirit of optimism.

Nobody wanted to think about new challenges after the end of the Cold War. We wanted to believe that the evil was now gone. But the sad truth is that evil doesn’t die. It might be buried for a while under the rubble of the Berlin Wall; but the moment we lose our vigilance, it sprouts and grows back. We lacked a game plan, a vision for the future.

It took too long for America and Europe to recognize that the new challenges would be different. We failed to see the roots of the problem we’re dealing with now. Donald Trump is an example. People in a number of countries started to feel that mainstream political parties were no longer able to address their concerns. Go back to the United States in 2016, to the showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The rise of Donald Trump coincided with the rise of Bernie Sanders, the other anti-establishment candidate. Look at Marine Le Pen in France, the Alternative for Germany in Germany.

There was a lack of a vision for the future, an unwillingness by the ruling bureaucracy and mainstream political parties to face these challenges. We should look at technology, too, as one of the big factors in this: bureaucracy was expanding and getting slower, instead of getting faster and more responsive to people’s needs. Meanwhile, people found themselves directly connected to one another, instantly, as never before, on social media. They were suddenly able to shout their opinions to the world, connecting with others who shared the same views.

Enter hostile actors spreading disinformation amidst the new digital Wild West.

I always said that the advantage of the free world was a strategic one, because we can rely on continuity of political programs, concepts, and strategies. But fast-moving, tactical environments always benefit dictators, because they’re not limited by a free press, by opposition parties, by debates in Congress or parliaments. The Cold War was won primarily because in the United States, immediately after the end of World War II, the U.S. administration led by Harry Truman came up with a plan. Obviously, it was inspired by Churchill’s speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri; but Truman could see the real dangers coming from Stalin and communism.

Larry Diamond: We want to discuss the world by region as well as thinking about global strategies. But you’ve raised the issue of the United States and its central importance, so let’s start there. We’d like you to reflect on these past four years in American politics. Help us understand whether you think Trump was a symptom or a cause of America’s democratic regression. What do you expect now, from the next two to four years in American politics and governance in terms of our capacity to repair our democracy?

GK: Trump was always a symptom; there was clearly an indication that something was wrong. But Trump is more than just a symptom.

One can compare Trump to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Marine Le Pen in France, or Matteo Salvini in Italy. But Donald Trump has had something more: his very special ties to Russia, Russian oligarchs, and to their boss, Vladimir Putin. He has done many things as President of the United States that have contributed to the further weakening of the United States’ standing in the world while helping a good number of dictators. If Trump were a Putin agent, what would he have done differently these last four years?

Trump is an agent of chaos in any case. From the beginning he has attacked American institutions and norms, which is why Putin loves him. Putin didn’t expect Trump to win in 2016. But when Trump did win, it was ideal. And today he’s attacking the legitimacy of the elections, of American democratic institutions. Trump will be in office until January 20, 2021. I can imagine how much damage he can still do. We should also be concerned about Trump’s post-presidency. He will not fade away.

Imagine a former President insisting that the current President is illegitimate. It’s Putin’s wildest dream. Having America, the beacon of democracy, attacked from within, by a former President—it’s a huge gift to the forces of anti-liberalism around the world.

Imagine a former President—loyal not to Constitution and country but only to himself—with his knowledge of classified information. We already know how indiscreet and reckless Trump has been in office. And now, going forward? What happens when Trump meets Putin in Moscow or [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Ankara, pursuing his Trump hotel and golf course business deals? We know now he will be playing in the future the part of duly elected American President in exile—preparing for a heroic 2024 return. One can only imagine how Trump will boast and endeavor to impress. Have we ever had a case of a former American President apt to personally benefit from sharing state secrets with adversaries?

JG: To the first thing you’ve just said, we’re seeing a fairly perfectly aligned validation of Putin’s own propaganda, is that right?

GK: Absolutely. And now it’s not just Russian propaganda saying the elections were fake, it’s Trump, a former President. And if American elections can be stolen—and millions of Americans do now believe they were stolen—why are people talking about us stealing elections? That will be the Kremlin line.

The confluence of factors becomes grave. The truth is now besieged because there’s only one way to tell the truth and hundreds of ways to lie; social media offer ideal tools for the latter. Don’t forget, Putin wants to convince people that there is no right or wrong, no good or evil. Everything is just fifty shades of political gray.

JG: Let’s turn to Russia’s internal affairs. When does Putin exit? What are the scenarios? And when he goes, does Putinism stay with us?

GK: I don’t want to sound pessimistic, because I’m an optimist by nature. But there is no easy way out of the trap of Putin’s dictatorship. Russia has already passed several stations, the way you do on a history timeline, at which we could have had hopes for a relatively peaceful transition to a normal society and escaped from Putin’s KGB dictatorship. But this will not end nicely. You can look at Belarus. Lukashenko is absolutely desperate; it’s an agony. Even by the most optimistic estimation, his support in the society does not exceed 25 percent. The regime uses brute force. People are being beaten, arrested, locked up in prison. Some have been killed. People hate Lukashenko; they don’t want to live under his rule.

But he’s not giving up, even if he doesn’t have the same financial, political, or military resources as Vladimir Putin. To fight against Putin in Russia is even more difficult, and he will not give up. What brings down regimes like Putin’s is usually a geopolitical disaster or the regime’s losing its energy, when the big boss looks exhausted or feeble. I’m under the impression we are seeing this transition now. Putin no longer looks invincible. He could not control the spread of COVID-19 in Russia. The unrest in Belarus is also having a negative effect on him. The Russian economic situation is disastrous. Corruption is endemic. Even Kremlin-controlled organizations doing public opinion polling indicate that Putin’s approval rating is steadily falling.

I’m not here to give you the exact scenario; but there are indications that Putin is getting weaker, both politically and bodily. And when he falls, that will be the end of brutal dictators in Russia and will most likely lead to the collapse of the concept of Russian Empire.

No empire should survive in the 21st century. I would not be surprised, in the future, to see a free and democratic Russia that might have different geographic boundaries, which is not bad. It could be a natural process. I would also be happy to see new political configurations, as long as they’re based on popular consent and the rule of law.

LD: I would like to ask two questions. First, how do you think a new Biden Administration foreign policy might accelerate some of these contradictions and elements of decay in Russia? Is there a strategy that we could use to help bring about a freer Russia and a transition to a new era?

GK: That’s a very important question, and there’s no simple answer. I think strengthening American democracy would be an indirect help to those who are fighting against Putin’s dictatorship and trying to restore democracy in Europe and elsewhere—because an America that demonstrates that Trump’s rule was not a trend but an aberration, an America that is busy securing its political system from any future Trump by restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches, will give us hope.

But of course, direct help is also important. The Biden administration is widely expected to rebuild American alliances. This is a key to the success of any such strategy. America won the Cold War because it led the coalition of the free world. It was the leader that rallied support from other free countries. And by doing so, it won the admiration of people who were on the other side of the Iron Curtain, like myself.

We knew America was there. In 1951, it was Harry Truman who said we cannot lead the forces of freedom from behind. So, that’s not just a shot at the Obama Administration; it’s a reminder that you have to take the lead. I think Biden knows this. He knows that evil exists and what the Soviet Union was—not from books, but from personal experience.

Judging from his first appointments, I think Biden’s foreign policy will be much tougher than some people expect.

We all understand that, strategically, China is much more powerful than Russia, even though Russia is still the superior nuclear power. But right now, Putin represents an immediate threat to American interests, to the interests of the free world, because his direct interference in the political life of Europe and the United States is much more harmful than China’s.

Change may occur if there is political will in America to make Russians confront the consequences of Putin’s dictatorships by imposing real sanctions that bite, including targeted ones that will make people around Putin concerned about the future of their billions. There are many hundreds of billions of dollars that have been stolen from Russia. If these steps are taken, I think it may cause more friction within Putin’s circle. It’s not an administration; I would call it Putin’s gang. It’s a mafia structure, and at this moment the boss may be losing his influence; he’s no longer able to offer the same protection to every loyal member of the gang.

This is why I think a more dynamic, even aggressive foreign policy should aim at Russia right now. In contemplating their own moves, dictators never ask, “Why?” They always ask, “Why not?” I think decisive moves by Biden toward Putin could have a positive effect.

Biden and his foreign policy team must commit to restoring confidence in NATO, which Trump criticized even more than Putin. They should also stop treating Putin’s Russia like a normal diplomatic partner, or antagonist. Putin doesn’t care about Russia’s national interests at all, only his own and his cronies.’ You have to be asymmetrical, like he is. You want to deter Russia, target the oligarchs’ money, not Russian diplomats or spies. It’s about banks, not tanks. Putin is more afraid of the FBI and the Treasury Department than NATO, because they can go after what really matters to him, money. Alliances with Europe are critical here too, so there is no safe haven for this money in the free world, or for them or their families, who much prefer to live in London or Miami. Credibly threaten that, and you won’t see election interference!

Next, stand up to Russian infiltration of international organizations, which is used to project Putin’s interests. From the European Parliament to sports organizations, they are political and cultural laundering shops for Putin and other dictators. Recall that a Russian was almost put in charge of Interpol recently. Imagine!

LD: Garry, you talked about authoritarian leaders being tactical. [Senator Henry] Scoop Jackson compared Putin to a thief, an opportunist going down the hallway in a hotel looking for open doors. A lot of people think China is not being merely tactical; it has a global strategy and a global ambition. And in the long run, it’s a much greater threat to freedom in the world than Russia. You are the grand master, and not only on the chessboard. Can you help us think this through? How do you perceive China’s global strategy? How do you think the West should respond?

GK: No doubt, it’s worth talking about the long-term strategic threat. China has resources; it has a large population, it has its economy, it has science, it has all the components of a superpower. But China still depends on the free world for its economic growth. The Chinese economic miracle depends very much on the buying power of American and European customers, and Western businesses and economies have become intertwined with the Chinese economy. So that’s one reason why the Chinese challenge is complicated. China seems to be making progress in science; but in real innovation, in the breakthroughs that require freedom of thought and capital, the advantage still lies with the West and the free world.

With this picture in mind, the Chinese are trying to fill vacuums left by our retrenchment and retreat. And I think of this as a head-to-head competition in the same way America competed with the Soviet Union. Today with China, the United States and the free world still have the upper hand.

The United States has been retreating, such as with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the World Health Organization, basically picking up its toys and going home. The result has been Chinese expansion, of course, showing that America First was always America Alone. Economic engagement doesn’t liberalize dictatorships, that was a fallacy I warned against for years. It spreads corruption into the free world instead. But containment doesn’t mean abandoning the field to authoritarians. You can stand up for democracy and human rights using your economic leverage. As I’ve long said, echoing Sharansky and Sakharov, the best foreign policy is the most moral one, because it’s consistent.

We know the Soviet Union had some success in this innovation competition—with the first man in space, for example. But it was a tactical victory only, and an American astronaut was there a month later. And when you look at the overall outcome of the space race, the Americans won, hands down, because America’s efforts were solid and sustainable and produced innovations that helped create an economic boom, while the USSR bankrupted itself. We still need the big picture, and we need to think of our actions strategically.

Freedom was and remains a very important component of advanced science—because even if there’s no direct pressure from the authorities in closed societies, there’s always the psychological climate, the knowledge that making a mistake is something punishable. The free world is different. That’s our advantage and their liability in a number of these areas.

JG: Garry—Belarus, Ukraine. Advice to the new American President? And what do you expect from the Kremlin in testing our resolve?

GK: It’s an ongoing fight against Lukashenko, and I think his days are numbered. He is surviving because he still has this lifeline from the Kremlin. But what if Putin can’t afford to prop up Lukashenko? That brings us back to the geopolitical picture and strategy. If the price of propping up other dictators goes too high, Putin won’t risk his own survival in Moscow. It’s a balancing act and a strong U.S. policy of containment can help tip that balance. Force Putin to decide how to allocate his resources. Raise the price of his interventions until it’s too high for him to meet safely.

We all remember the end of the Afghan war. And while the Soviet Union left Afghanistan officially on February 15th, 1989—not triumphantly, but it was nothing like the stampede out of Saigon—the troops retreated. I remember General [Boris] Gromov standing on sthe bridge at the Soviet-Afghan border, receiving the troops. The Soviet Union succeeded in keeping [Mohammad] Najibullah’s pro-Soviet regime there for three years. But the message that was sent to Eastern Europeans was clear. The empire was in retreat, and empires cannot afford to be in retreat because the whole idea of empire is to be expanding, or at least preserving itself.

The moment an empire shows weakness, the display is treated as a defeat. By the end of 1989, the Soviet empire collapsed in Eastern Europe; and in less than three years, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist.

I think Putin’s weakness was shown in the South Caucasus, where he failed to preserve Russian control of the region. In Ukraine, Putin never succeeded in destroying the country. Biden will need to be clear and strong early—on Ukraine, and on Moldova, too. And let’s add Georgia. Supporting Putin’s targets is an important element of containment, and it’s also the right thing to do if America is to be the leader of the free world once again.

The stronger the American hand, the shakier the ground on which Putin stands and the greater the frustration of Russian elites with Putin. They’ll think: Putin is no longer the man they can rely on for protecting and advancing their interests, Russia’s interests.

JG: I’m switching gears now. Today is Friday, December 11, the birthday of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1918. Solzhenitsyn still gets attention here and there, now and then, as a fierce opponent of Soviet communism, but also as energetic critic of the West, which he thought embodied vulgar materialism and spiritual weakness. Could you tell us your own view of Solzhenitsyn, his meaning in history, and his relevance today?

GK: I’m not sure what relevance he has today, but I can say something about his meaning in history. There were many books he wrote while in the Soviet Union, in which he talked about the gulag and Soviet terror. The Gulag Archipelagowas like an encyclopedia of crimes of the communist regime. But his views on the free world and the West are outdated. Solzhenitsyn lived in the West and had some very old-fashioned ideas about it; it’s not surprising that he would want to go back to Russia. He was never able to see Putin’s true KGB colors.

LD: Garry, you’re not only a very important voice for human rights and a strategic thinker on these issues, but also an activist. You’ve been involved globally with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and the amazing annual gathering that is the Oslo Freedom Forum. And now you have this new, trailblazing Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI). Can you tell us a little about these initiatives?

GK: Thank you, Larry. I’ve been working with the Human Rights Foundation since the second Oslo Freedom Forum in 2010. Then, when my hero Václav Havel passed away, I replaced him as the chairman of HRF. The Oslo Freedom Forum is our signature event. HRF has built a great community, human rights activists to dissidents to freedom fighters around the world, stretching from North Korea to Cuba, from Belarus to Zimbabwe. This unity of community is still the main principle of the conferences; it’s behind each presentation. One of our greatest accomplishments is that this community now understands that it represents millions of people who are suffering under different forms of dictatorship. It’s tremendous solidarity. It’s about overcoming a feeling of isolation, a feeling that one’s view is a minority view, that you are alone in your fight.

Our events help these great activists, give them hope from wherever we convene: in New York, in Mexico City, in Taipei, in South Africa, in Malta. We’ve been working with new technologies, using cryptocurrencies and tech like blockchain and Bitcoin to help activists.

I founded the Renew Democracy Initiative in February 2017, not a coincidental date, of course. It wasn’t hard to find like-minded people who thought Trump represented a failure of civics and a threat to democratic norms. It started with anti-Trump conservatives, but we realized we needed to expand to be effective and to learn.

I always wanted to keep the balance within the organization. You look at the board and see that we’ve had people from both sides of the aisle. We have two former Democratic senators, Bob Kerry from Nebraska and Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota. We have former head of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele and we have Mickey Edwards, a former Republican Congressman and one of the founding members of the Heritage Foundation.

Our latest board acquisition was former NSC staffer Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman. We announced it recently, and there was a big response on social media. He’s the real deal, someone who took a huge risk to do what is right. What RDI is trying to accomplish by organizing events online and doing a mini video series is to inform people about the challenges and help build the gravitas of the center, because, going back to the original question in our conversation, democracy cannot survive without having a strong presence in the center. As for the political fringes, they’re hyperactive these days.

We will not cease our activities in educating people. We’re trying to have something similar to the Prager University video series, though we don’t have the same resources as PragerU, which is far right. And now we have the kind of analog on the left, the Gravel Institute. We try to be the voice of the center. At one recent event we had a conversation between Heidi Heitkamp and Cindy McCain, moderated by Anne Applebaum.

JG: My last question is this. It’s about chess, of course. Chess never seems to lose its popularity in movies and television. Do you have a favorite chess movie?

GK: Look, you almost made my day by having seventy-five minutes of conversation without asking me about “The Queen’s Gambit!”

It’s like a buzzword. In every interview I do these days, every business presentation, every speech, no matter the place or subject or whether I’m receiving an award. It can be a presentation for a group of executives in Singapore. It always ends up with a question about “The Queen’s Gambit.”

I was very proud to have been a part of this great series. I didn’t expect this show to become number one for Netflix worldwide. And I think that the authenticity of the movie—where I played a role by guaranteeing that it had to be real chess, a real Soviet atmosphere, a real tournament—all this helped.

There are some good chess movies, but all of them suffered in some way from certain chess … inconsistencies (let’s be diplomatic). What I wanted—and it’s what Scott Frank, the creator of “The Queen’s Gambit” and the director, wanted—was to make sure that it was real chess, not a chess board shown from afar where you don’t really know what’s happening and when you actually get to see the board, you see that the whole thing is just a mess.

This time they played real games that I collected. Sometimes I invented new variations for the games to fit the story, but it’s very hard to hire professional chess players, so the actors memorized the moves. It was amazing and convincing.

I am expecting a massive increase in people following chess now. We already see indications. In the current economic situation, with the COVID-19 lockdown, there have already been signs that more chess sets are being bought, more people are joining online chess clubs. I think this show will have a major impact on chess’s following, including a boom in young people encouraged by their parents.

LD and JG: Thanks very much for this conversation, Garry.

GK: Thank you very much.

Garry Kasparov, a pro-democracy activist and former world chess champion, is chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation. He is author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (PublicAffairs, 2015).

Larry Diamond, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He coordinates the democracy program of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Jeffrey Gedmin is CEO and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

This is a lightly edited transcript of the original conversation.

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