“Who is Vladimir Putin in this book?” asked Garry Kasparov, a world chess champion turned political activist. “Tywin Lannister. Why? Because Tywin Lannister died unexpectedly. That’s what happens when you stay in power for so long that you think you are invincible.”
Kasparov was invited by the GU Lecture Fund to speak about his new book, Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.
“I knew there would be a crowd for his political views but invited him mainly based on my passion for chess,” explained Benjamin Forestier, a member of the Lecture Fund’s Associate Board. “However, because Mr. Kasparov knew Georgetown was the cradle for future American policy leaders I was able to leverage that in my negotiations with him.”
Kasparov certainly had a lot to say about current American leaders and the inefficacy of their foreign policy toward Russia. Criticizing the U.S. position on Putin for its lack of consistency, Kasparov lamented that although the Obama administration “has been gradually moving in the right direction,” they spend too much time compromising with the cunning Russian leader.
“I’ve read enough history books to tell you that appeasement killed more people than deterrence,” Kasparov declared.
The chess grandmaster has long since advocated for a more direct confrontation of Putin’s authoritarian regime. A strong believer in the moral authority of free world democracies, Kasparov wrote his book hoping to inspire policy makers to seek a new approach to the Putin problem.
“[The book] is an attempt to analyze what’s happening and what is to be done,” Kasparov told the crowd. “We’ve all seen the dangers of confronting Vladimir Putin or Iranian mullahs or the Islamic State, or whoever else is threatening world peace … The lesson of history is that weakness always provokes further aggression.”
Throughout the lecture, Kasparov repeatedly likened Putin’s regime to those of Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-Un, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Having fled Russia in 2013 for fear of imprisonment and after watching his close friend, Boris Nemtsov, get shot in front of the Kremlin this February, Kasparov takes Putin’s actions very personally. He repeatedly pointed out Russia’s recent crackdown on political opposition as reflective of the dictatorial nature of Putin’s government.
“For protesting Putin’s regime, you could spend five, ten days in jail [in 2009-2010],” he said. “Now, you can get five to ten years or worse.”
A 2014 Russian law criminalizing repeated protests does in fact prescribe “fines ranging from 600,000 to 1 million rubles ($17,124 to $28,540) or…up to five years of forced labor or prison.” The recent measure, which Putin endorsed, was a reaction to the tumultuous situation in Ukraine that resulted in the removal of former President Yanukovich from power.
Although Kasparov’s accusations of misgovernance and repression resonate with many opponents of Putin’s regime, his forceful suggestion of imposing tougher economic sanctions against Russia may ultimately do more damage by escalating tensions.
Kasparov may reminisce about the comprehensiveness of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, but it is hard to imagine any benefits in starting Cold War 2.0. The West has given Putin plenty of slaps on the wrist for his shenanigans in Ukraine. Economic sanctions may have crippled the Russian economy, but ultimately, they did little to Putin’s geopolitical ambitions in Syria or his approval ratings.
Kasparov enjoyed invoking the lessons of history as rationale for more aggressive policy. But we have to remember that although President Kennedy’s refusal to back down in 1962 may have contained Soviet ambition in the long run, it almost led to a nuclear war.