Garry Kasparov has lived enough for two lifetimes. Regarded by many as the greatest chess player in history, Kasparov is also a leading human rights activist and political advocate for greater freedom in his native Russia and around the world. In the interview below, he explains why Vladimir Putin is not a chessmaster but a poker player, what the retrenchment of the U.S. means for the world, why Donald Trump is the worst outcome imaginable of the 2016 election, and why democracies will always enjoy a strategic advantage (if they can stay the course as democracies).
Octavian Report: Where do you see American politics headed in the near term?
Garry Kasparov: I have a strong feeling that after this election cycle, we may go through the process of renaming our political parties. I’m a strong believer that the two-party system is over. It’s time to look for new arrangements because it simply doesn’t fit the current political climate in America. Somehow, it’s similar to the 19th century, when the big parties collapsed. The mechanism is not working. I don’t think the GOP today is a party machine that can win general elections any more in its current form.
OR: You’ve spoken about the importance of strong foreign policy and of morality in foreign policy. Do you think there’s any chance that the voice you’re representing will find expression in the next administration?
Kasparov: Oh, no. Absolutely not. The voice of an administration is very much defined by the debate prior to the elections. Unfortunately, many people (including me) misheard Obama’s voice in 2007 and 2008. When I look at his record, he was fairly honest: we got what he promised. And there were other good things in Obama’s prospectus that we could buy, ignoring the fact that he was a strong proponent of America’s withdrawal.
Today, looking at Hillary and Trump, I think we should just acknowledge the fact that Hillary probably will be a little better than Obama: she has plenty of experience and she’ll try to, I’m sure, reconstitute herself as a strong leader.
I’m afraid that the many ties between the Clinton Foundation and her personally and foreign leaders will prevent her from being the leader America needs. But that will not be disastrous. With Trump, though I think there’s a very slim chance of him being elected, let me say that his administration would be a total disaster because it would be all about making deals. It would lead to the collapse of the world order.
I still think that with Hillary we should wait and see. I think there’s some chance that if things go wrong for her with the FBI, then we could be seeing a last-minute replacement.
OR: Such as Biden?
Kasparov: Yes. Which, by the way, could be much better for Democrats. There will be a progressive Vice President, a younger one. I think Hillary (or Biden) will be a one-term president. In 2020, the Democrats will run a young Bernie Sanders. That’s the way I see things happening.
The problem with that is that Trump is the best possible recruiter for the Democratic Party and for the socialist ideas of Bernie Sanders. They could gain some popularity on their own but for these ideas to win general elections, you need Donald Trump — Trump exists, it seems, just to prove true every negative thing Democrats say about Republicans.
I think for a lot of people there will be a strong rationale to actually move in this direction — to create a very progressive version of the Democratic Party, even a socialist version. I think this would be disastrous for the economy. This is a problem. America now is not looking for comprehensive long-term solutions but is simply trying to find a lesser evil.
I always tell people about the 1960 debates, Kennedy-Nixon. Quite polarized figures. They had a lot of differences but when you look at these debates it’s amazing to see two Americans disagreeing on many things but agreeing on the basic goals — staying focused on America’s future. There was a lot of mutual respect. You won’t hear today, “Oh, I agree with what Senator Kennedy said,” or “I agree with what Vice President Nixon said.” It was a very different culture.
Now, it’s all about blaming the opposition. There’s no positive agenda. It’s all about who’s worse. Obama won in 2012 by doing the same thing. His record was lousy — but the other options looked worse. I hope that there will be some kind of political movement in this country to actually bring back serious debate. That’s why I hope that Republicans now will come up with a new framework for 2020 — because this election is already over for them.
We need a serious debate about the future of this country. I don’t want to see socialism back in action. Some people say of Sanders, “No, no. This is not the Soviet Union. This is social democracy.” But at the end of the day, it’s socialism. It’s against individual freedom and individual initiative. That’s why I think it cannot guarantee the same prosperity as capitalism.
OR: Do you see a risk with Trump or with somebody on the left that the United States would roll back civil liberties?
Kasparov: I think it was inconceivable even 10 years ago that we would see the two major parties running primaries dominated by extremists. The Democratic primaries are dominated ideologically by Sanders. He cannot win because the party machine is against him and he’s too old. But even with all the superdelegates, even with all the machine behind Clinton, she’s just scratching along.
Now, on the other side, we could see Trump without a majority, actually a plurality only. But he dominated the primaries with an agenda equally destructive but from the opposite angle. Two major parties were dominated by agendas that threatened the American way of life economically or politically. Sanders attacked and keeps attacking the foundation of the free market. Donald Trump has unfortunately been successful by attacking the foundation of American liberties.
From these two very destructive ideological trends, we can try to make projections of the future. Again, I think that the Trump attacks are less intelligent. They’re very brutal. That’s why if people are forced to choose, we’ll go in the opposite direction and unfortunately we’ll learn that having this choice eventually brings a country disaster no matter which way it goes. It’s just a longer- or shorter-term disaster.
At the end of the day, as much as I disrespect him, I pick Sanders. At least he’s an honorable man. I disagree with everything he says, or almost everything — though his diagnosis is probably correct in many ways. But you can respect somebody who has been standing where he stands for his entire life.
Trump moves with the wind. You can see that he says one thing and then he says another thing. The problem of Trump now is that he’s not bringing with him a new political culture. He actually destroys existing institutions. He killed the GOP and it will never be revived. Some people believe that after Hillary’s Democratic landslide in the Senate and, God knows, maybe in the House, they’ll take the party back. I don’t see that. Trump has left an indelible mark. They won’t be able to wash it away.
OR: Pivoting to Putin —
Kasparov: From Trump to Putin is a very natural transition, yes?
OR: Intelligent people often describe him as a chess player. You’re a real chess player — do you view him as a grand strategist and tactician? What do you see as his next move?
Kasparov: In one sentence, actually, you said something quite contradictory: strategist and tactician. That makes for me as a professional player a whole lot of difference. Dictators who are in power for so long by definition, mind you, cannot be chess players. Chess is about transparency. It’s a 100 percent transparent game. I don’t know what you’re thinking but I know exactly what you have at your disposal to cause damage. Dictators hate transparency. Dictators play clandestine games. They need a lot of information to be hidden, especially Putin. He’s not a military dictator. He comes from the KGB. That’s the way he thinks.
That’s why using the chess analogy would be wrong: a dictator has to look for immediate solutions. At the end of the day, if you want to stay in power indefinitely, as Putin wants, he has no other choice. Life outside of the Kremlin is just taboo. The best environment where he can survive and thrive is uncertainty. It’s chaos, so it’s very tactical — he can make one move and then another move and nobody plays by the rules. The fewer rules you have, the better for you.
Democracies, on the contrary, are very strategic ideally. They can deploy long-term strategies because the current president or current prime minister can launch a strategy that will succeed only many years after he or she leaves office.
Lasting institutions are a big strategic advantage for democracies. Putin instinctively understands that creating chaos helps him to undermine this advantage. He doesn’t go to the Parliament. He does not require approvals. Anything that makes the decision-making process quick helps him: no democratic leader can go through the same process of responding without being caught by the opposition party, by the press.
With Putin, I always use the parallel of poker. That is more like a dictator’s game. It matters whether you have a weak or strong hand but it’s not a decisive factor, because whatever hand I have, you don’t know. It’s all about face reading. It’s about your nervous system. It’s about your ability or inability to bluff and about your deep pockets, whether you have enough money to bluff your opponent away from the table.
OR: Do you see him staying in power? If he leaves, do you think what comes after would be worse or better?
Kasparov: Look, it’s a popular argument for those who are trying to justify inaction by saying you’ll do worse. The answer is that I don’t know what will come after Putin. But it is impossible to think that it could get worse. It would be chaotic, but it’s better to have chaos with a good chance of getting things right than having a paranoid dictator. He has access to the nuclear button. You don’t want him getting as crazy as Hitler in 1945 because eventually, that’s what happens. Whether he’s ready to go that far today, God knows. Whatever he can do today, whatever he’s capable of doing today, will be much worse months from now or a year from now.
What comes after Putin? I think it’s likely Russia will not survive in its current geographical form. Russia has huge problems in its eastern territories with China. China has strategic interests and is getting more and more territories there. It would be quite difficult to hold together. The main threat, of course, comes from the south, from radical Islam. It’s quite ironic that the best hopes for bringing Russia back into the family of Western nations would be the union of the pro-western liberals in Russia (like myself) with Russian nationalists. This is something that the West always ignored, the fact that the nationalist movement in Russia was sharply divided between two visions. One is imperial nationalism. Putin is an imperial nationalist. There is another Russian nationalism which is an outright rejection of Putin’s colonial wars. This nationalism sees Russia as belonging to Europe. This is why this group’s leaders are in jail or in exile. Putin understands that the coalition of these liberals and pro-Western nationalists will actually change Russia. This is what the West, in my view, and the free world have to look for as the best outcome.
OR: In our March issue, Ambassador Jack Matlock said that he thinks that in the 1990’s the West missed an opportunity to reach out to Russia and that we should have brought Russia into NATO. Do you think we should have done that under Yeltsin?
Kasparov: I agree that the 1990’s were years of big missed opportunities. The reason these opportunities were missed is that nobody had a plan. Again, this country succeeded in winning the Cold War because there was a plan laid down by the Truman administration and carried out — with some deviations but all within range — by all presidents up to Ronald Reagan, both Democrats and Republicans.
There was a plan in the 1940’s to build an infrastructure system for strategy. Many things came from this vision. Winston Churchill helped design it, yes, but Harry Truman created the CIA, the National Security Council, and NATO. NATO helped Europe to be revived and saved millions of people from Communist invasion.
Now, 1990, 1991, and 1992 — those form the end of one chapter. Unfortunately, everybody thought the whole book was over. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History was a bestseller not for nothing. I have to confess that I also shared the same optimism. Liberal democracies have won, so why bother about their long-term future? That was a big mistake.
So ran the Clinton years, years of big opportunities missed because nobody worked out the plans and the vision. Of course, bringing Russia in should have been one of the main elements of a new strategic vision. Whether it was doable or not is another story — but nobody tried. We do know, though, that if America had come up with a vision for the future it most likely would have been adopted. And in 2000, when Clinton was about to leave office, al-Qaeda was ready to strike and Vladimir Putin was in the Kremlin.
I think that we now have to learn from these eight years, we have to try to avoid the same mistake because it’s not about now, now, now, now. You hear a lot, “Oh, what about now?” After ignoring rational advice over the years, after not dealing with things that were difficult until they became impossible, we have to start thinking long-term.
It’s much more difficult than 25 years ago because America’s no longer dominant. It still has a lot of power economically and militarily and it’s still the leading country in innovations — but it needs to build up a long-term vision. That’s why I’m so concerned about this political cycle: you don’t expect people like Hillary or Trump or Sanders to lay down a vision that could reinvent American leadership in this changing world.
This is the problem. This lack of vision is why America has been steadily losing its influence in the world. The shifts in its policy have been very confusing for America’s friends and long-term allies. If change in the White House means a 180-degree shift in American foreign policy, you have to look for different alliances.
OR: In the run-up to the 2012 election, Mitt Romney said Russia is our biggest geopolitical threat. What’s your take on that?
Kasparov: Romney was right. Romney said the right thing — but he said it without believing it. That’s why Obama trashed him by making some obnoxious comments. Romney didn’t know how to respond because it was like a sound bite, really. He didn’t believe in it the way John McCain believed in it or the way Ronald Reagan believed in it. This is a problem: very important foreign policy issues are turned into sound bites. You cannot have a serious debate about the Middle East because the moment you say, “Sunni, Shia, Alawite,” the public loses interest.
How many powers did the U.S. have to deal with in the late 1940’s? Less than 10. Today, you’re dealing with many more players. Not only states but also other institutions — some of them are really bad guys, like ISIS, but still they are players. When you look at the number of players, it’s grown exponentially. Making decisions today requires a much broader political view. Again, you need to lay down your vision. You have to understand things and to measure your tactical moves by your long-term strategy.
OR: Obama’s remark — “I don’t need George Kennan right now”— seems to encapsulate the problem.
Kasparov: Obama kept his promises. He was hesitant at points because he knew that it would destroy the reputation of the White House. But again, he did what he believed was right for the United States. And he was elected by 70,000,000 Americans, don’t forget. Obama believes — and unfortunately this belief is shared by tens of millions of Americans now — that American influence in the world is negative. They believe that after the war in Korea, America didn’t fight any just wars. It’s a vision of history that has been created in the minds of people largely because of the total dominance of left-wing culture in American universities.
His remarks about the “red line” in Syria I find annoying and agitating. His failure to enforce it led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed in Syria. Inaction has a price. This is a problem that we’re facing today because appeasement is a very nice concept. It’s about embracing enemies, negotiating consensus. In a world dominated by social media, you can sell it.
The moment you start talking about deterrence, it gets harder. “Oh, it’s sacrifice, it’s conflict. Maybe civil war.” That’s why nobody looks at the price. Inaction kills many more people. It’s historically killed many more people. Inaction and appeasement are packaged together very nicely but they lead to major disasters and wars.
Deterrence, while hard to sell, saves lives. The Obama administration is responsible for the current disaster in the Middle East. I’m also annoyed to hear, “Oh, it was Bush’s invasion of Iraq.” Come on! You were in office for eight years. What happened in 2003 is another story.
OR: How do you push back against someone like Putin? Do you see him making a move in the Baltics? Do you think he would be willing to use nuclear weapons?
Kasparov: We should do absolutely everything to make sure he does not invade the Baltics. When that happens, it will be too late. If America doesn’t respond to aggression against Latvia or Estonia, that means the end of the world order as we know it. Putin doesn’t need territory. It’s all about destroying the international order and the pillars of global stability. One of them is NATO. Another one’s the European Union. That’s why he was so active in supporting all sorts of ultra-nationalist groups in Europe. He was definitely supporting the Dutch nationalists who were behind the recent referendum there. I’ve no doubt you can find a lot of Putin’s traces behind Brexit.
I’m not a big fan of Brussels bureaucracy. But a British exit would have lead to chaos and that’s what Putin needs — a divided Europe, a weakened Europe where he could have looked for new gains by further weakening the institutions that protect it and its peace and prosperity.
The way you prevent that from happening is acting strongly at a very early stage; at early stages, dictators don’t have the same support among their subordinates — especially in the army. Remember, in 1938, Churchill had been shouting like a voice in the desert: “The German generals may not follow Hitler in the war. The war today could be dangerous, but . . . .” He was right. America is yet to send a strong, unignorable message.
You’d better teach that lesson early. It doesn’t mean that you have to shoot down planes. Many moments were missed. For instance, at the time of annexation of Crimea, I said America had to send a big warship — not an aircraft carrier, but a big warship — to Odessa on a friendly visit. You’re not there to fight. You just show solidarity. You have to make sure the Russian generals and admirals can see in their binoculars an American flag. You have to establish a presence because it’s a poker game. It’s who blinks first.
OR: Do you have a view on the power struggles some allege are taking place within Putin’s government?
Kasparov: I think what’s been happening since the murder of Boris Nemtsov is a fight. I won’t say it’s the Minister of Defense. I think it’s more the security apparatus. Putin has elevated his former Kremlin security head, Viktor Zolotov, and also Ramzyan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, who is just totally all-powerful. Which means that he’s relying on the worst elements.
This is a process with dictators when they get more powerful and crazier — they lose confidence in guys that were there from the very beginning. They’ll look for the worst as the best protection for them because it’s all about survival. Putin’s game is surviving today. Doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. He thinks about today — maybe tomorrow morning. He looks for guys like Zolotov and Kadyrov. That’s why he created in April this super-powerful Praetorian Guard. Ironically, they first called it the National Guard. They later came to think this was too American and they renamed it the National Guard of Russia.
As a matter of fact, it’s the first instance since Adolf Hitler of a leader in Europe, a strong leader in Europe, creating his own personal army. It’s for his own protection. This is a Praetorian Guard. Even in the Soviet Union these didn’t exist. The Politburo, the KGB: all were bad but there were some checks and balances. When you have 10 mafia families negotiating, all of them are horrible but they try to find a consensus. They will not act crazy. Full-blown, one-man dictatorship: it’s a recipe for disaster.
OR: Do you have a take on the Iran deal?
Kasparov: The New York Times tells us that the whole deal was based on false information provided to the public. But understand that no matter who wins in November, the deal will stand. I can hardly imagine Hillary Clinton just revising the deal. I think they are scared to think long-term. They don’t understand that the deal basically gave the entire Middle East to Iran, made Iran the dominant power. The whole story about Iran’s moderates is just nonsense. Hardliners in Iran will rule the country for a long time.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that we missed an opportunity when we failed to support the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was against the people who hated America. Supporting them would have been the right thing to do. But we let events run their course. For about a month, the Iranian government was not sure what our response would be. American troops were just across the border. When the Iranians realized we would do nothing, they crushed the Revolution. Sending the right signal is always important because it could have in this case energized some moderate or even liberal forces in Iran and maybe history could have been different. People say, “Oh, it’s history. It’s all predetermined.” But imagine if FDR had died six months earlier than he did. Henry Wallace would have become President of the United States. I think the history of the world would be very different.
I think the Iranians also were not sure if Obama’s speeches about American retreat were real or just sound bites for the American public. It took time for the Iranians, for Putin, for everybody to actually read Obama and to understand yes, that’s exactly what he meant — let’s take him at his word.
OR: Are you worried about the state of Israel?
Kasparov: Of course I am. Look, America can walk away from the region. Israel cannot. Again, I think Israel can defend itself but there is growing uncertainty about that. Israel is a democracy and it’s more vulnerable by definition. It cannot wipe out its opponents. Israel has nukes. It cannot use them except in self-defense.
The other guys have nukes and they can use them. When you have the nuclear option in the region — which unfortunately is inevitable now because Iran will be nuclear, the Saudis will buy nukes, the Turks will get nukes — the whole idea of nuclear deterrence will not work there because the way people think in the region is: “I should use it first.” That’s why Israel is in the middle not just of the Middle East but of the greatest potential explosion. It’s very hard for Israel to find the right strategy now, because relying on the United States proved to be futile.
OR: How would you deal with ISIS?
Kasparov: ISIS is needed by Assad — and by Putin as his patron — to show that Assad is the best alternative. That’s why, as long as you have Assads in the region, they will need an ISIS to look good by comparison — whatever the group’s actual name is. ISIS prevails as long as 20 million Sunnis in Iraq and in Syria feel threatened by the dominance of Shiites. This problem is a bit older than the partition of the Middle East. It’s a long schism, the religious one. You cannot resolve it instantly. The world needs to find a way to create states in the region with populations that will not be killing each other. It’s wishful thinking that we can rebuild Syria. It is impossible.
ISIS today controls territory populated exclusively by Sunnis from both sides of the border. It’s a Sunni state. All they need is to replace the government there. Eventually America will have to work with the Turkish government and get them to recognize that there must be a Kurdish state. Not in Turkey, necessarily — it could be in Iraq. Of course, you have to remove Assad and you have to kick out Putin from the region. You have to make sure that Iran does not interfere.
To do this, you need leadership. People say, “Oh, America cannot be a global policeman,” but this isn’t about policing the world. It’s about leadership. Unless you have leadership, you have a vacuum. And the vacuum doesn’t stay empty because it’s immediately filled by the bad guys. You may not like policemen on the beat. But if there’s no policemen on the beat, you have a bunch of criminals taking over the street. That’s what’s happening in the Middle East and it’s what happening all over the place. We see Europe now is in total disarray because there’s no leadership. Unless America provides leadership, there’s no one else. Putin cannot lead the world. China will not lead.
The pieces of territories, the regions where they can assume control, and their strategic interests underlie an ongoing confrontation with the West because confrontation helps Iranian rulers, it helps ISIS, al-Qaeda, Assad — and of course Putin. That is the biggest lesson of Obama’s presidency. You can try to extend the olive branch to them. They say, “Thank you very much,” and they will move on. For them, confrontation is the only way to survive.
OR: Do you think we need a new multilateral institution other than the U.N.?
Kasparov: The United Nations today is a place where people pay lip service to humanitarian ideas. The problem for the United States is that it still tries to play by the rules of the old game. Having Saudi Arabia as the chair of the United Nations civil rights panel undermines America’s influence. I do understand importance of our alliance but it’s very important that certain rules be established. America is still in a position to push American allies. Again, it’s not as easy as it was in 1990, 1991, or 1992, but this is the only way to move forward. Recovering moral leadership is very important. It’s as important as innovations in the military and in the economy. People follow you if they believe in what you say.
OR: Are you concerned about the Chinese aligning themselves so closely with the Russians?
Kasparov: No. China could be a major strategic problem for the free world — but later. That’s why you want Russia to join the family of civilized nations, to be an ally in this battle. China uses Russia as a prey. China views the Russian far east and east Siberia (if not west Siberia) as part of the future Chinese empire. Again, China has a strategic plan. This plan is not friendly to Russia or to the free world but China is more predictable because it has a Politburo. You don’t expect China to attack Taiwan tomorrow, even with all the military buildup. It’s showing its muscles because America is weak. But I would be very surprised if China does something so very dramatic there. It’s the next problem.
OR: Given that we don’t have the kind of leadership you’re talking about, where do you see crises as most likely to erupt?
Kasparov: The Middle East and Europe. Remember, Putin’s goal is to destroy the European Union. That’s why, as long as Putin is there, he will continue to boost all these terrorist dictators in the Middle East. Because he has also found a way to weaponize the refugees. Refugees are playing a very important role in destroying European institutions because they’re boosting the political ratings of the ultra-nationalist groups in Europe. Putin will continue his fight. If you look at the next two- to five-year period, for the next term of his presidency that’ll be the most pivotal area.
He will not stop. He will continue his provocations, maybe even crossing the border. The problem is, with every month and every year he stays in power, he could grow more desperate and more arrogant.
What people have to understand that they will pay the price. So far, they don’t see who can stop them because Putin pushed his Russian army all the way down south to Syria. There was one deadly accident in Turkey. They keep killing innocent civilians in refugee camps. There’s no retribution.
Putin is a KGB guy. He’s not a military dictator. When you look at his record, yes, he will use force if necessary. He will cross borders but he prefers to use other means because it’s just more natural for him. He does what works. Military confrontation’s tough — so he stops short. Many people believed that in Ukraine, he would go all the way to Kiev. He did not. Dictators stay in power for so long not without a reason. How many Russian troops were killed (I’m talking about people in the military in the open stage of the war)? We don’t know, probably 300 to 400. They expended massive efforts to cover it up, doing horrible things like forcing wives to accept men pretending they were their husbands.
Now, marching to Kiev would be different. We’re talking about thousands of body bags. No, he has a good sense what he can do. He hasn’t stopped. He still believes that destroying Ukrainian statehood is very important but now he seems to be aiming to do it more through corruption, buying influence, and undermining Ukrainian support abroad. Like that referendum in Holland. Why on Earth? A fringe group in Holland decided to collect signatures against this association agreement that had no influence. It was not about refugees, not about the opening of borders.
You can see he is all over the place: in Greece, Cyprus, Austria. Austria’s just — Anschluss is the Austrian word for it. He will try to do the same things here because in his mind it is far more effective. He still has plenty of cash available. He doesn’t have the same powerful military as Stalin or the gerontocratic Politburo but he actually saw that this, the corruption framework, worked. He bought Schroeder, he bought Berlusconi, he bought Lipponen in Finland — and so on down the list.
OR: Are you optimistic at all about the state of the world?
Kasparov: I’m always optimistic. Don’t forget, my views and character have been formed from my chess career. In my first match with Karpov, I was down five to zero. Karpov needed one game to win. I survived. When you survive after being down five to zero, nothing afterwards looks as bad as that.
I believe that the human race is yet to see its best days but we have to start somewhere. I think is starting here is important because it’s a fight for the future of this country, for the future of the free world, and eventually for the future of human race.
OR: You have a less positive view of Mikhail Gorbachev than some observers. Can you explain why?
Kasparov: Gorbachev was a party apparatchik with very strong ties to the KGB. That’s why he was Andropov’s favorite. When you look at his biography, Andropov wanted to make him his deputy in 1969. A party official doesn’t become a KGB deputy chairman at 38 unless there’s strong ties. You know the guy was dedicated to the organization. This move was opposed by Mikhail Suslov, the all-powerful chief of Soviet ideology at that time.
Gorbachev’s goal in 1985 was to preserve socialism, to preserve the Soviet Union at a time when it was dramatically weakened. It sounds ridiculous, but Ronald Reagan’s fantasy about Star Wars had a profound effect on the minds of Soviet leaders. They ironically had more trust in what the U.S. president said publicly than in the analysis provided by the leading Soviet scientists who said immediately it was too expensive and impossible for modern technology to achieve.
Gorbachev had to negotiate the end of the Star Wars program. That’s why he was willing to make far-reaching concessions. He also knew that the Soviet economy was not in good shape. That’s why he wanted to rebuild it. He started not with perestroika and glasnost. In 1985, Gorbachev came up with acceleration, uskoreniye. It was all about rebuilding heavy industry, trying to actually come up with our own computers. It was all about helping the military-industrial complex to be more competitive.
This all changed after Reykjavik. That’s when Gorbachev calls Sakharov. That was the beginning of perestroika, when Reagan said “No.” Again, it was the instinctive decision of a great leader who did it against the wishes of the Pentagon, against the wishes of the State Department, against his own national security advisor.
By the way, Gorbachev offered him a great deal. Reagan sensed that it was not offered in goodwill but as a sign of weakness. Now, if Reagan had said yes to it, the Soviet Union would have lasted longer. But Reagan’s refusal led to many events where Gorbachev lost control. He didn’t want to destroy the Soviet Union, but he had no choice.
OR: You don’t think he could have become more authoritarian to save the USSR?
Kasparov: Then he would have ended up like Ceaușescu. Again, he’s still here. I think instinctively he made the right choice. He understood, “Yes. I could start using force.” But he was surrounded by problems in Eastern Europe, in Kemerovo, in Ukraine, in the Baltics. There was almost an open conflict with Armenia and Azerbaijan. When your house is in flames, you can’t send your only fireman team just to help your neighbors.
He tried. People say, “Oh, yeah. He didn’t send tanks.” He did. From Riga to Tallinn to Baku. And don’t forget the massacre in Tblisi. He did all this. But these places didn’t have the same coverage as Tiananmen Square. And his intervention was limited. He didn’t want to go too far because at the end of the day, Gorbachev was there to protect his own power.
I say that today what Russia needs is a geopolitical defeat. Geopolitical defeat doesn’t mean you bring troops to Berlin or Tokyo. It’s a different world. There were no foreign troops in Moscow. Geopolitical defeat was the decision of the Politburo to retreat from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union hadn’t lost the war there. They even kept a legitimate government there for three years, I think. It was an orderly retreat. But it was a signal for Eastern Europe and for many in the Soviet Union that the empire was weak.
OR: You have written that the August Coup might have been staged. Can you outline your thinking there?
Kasparov: I think one day we’ll find truth. I don’t have all the documents in front of me. God knows if I’ll ever see them. I think Gorbachev definitely was in on it. It’s not accidental that after the collapse of the coup, there was a rush to Gorbachev, asking him to intervene. Gorbachev wanted to bring down Yeltsin. Yeltsin was elected with 58 percent of the vote, the first president of Russia chosen in free and fair elections. I think the idea was to bring down Yeltsin to create a sense of urgency that the bad days are coming back — and then Gorbachev could step in.
OR: You’ve also said that you felt there should have been a truth and reconciliation committee or trials after the collapse. Can you expand on that?
Kasparov: Absolutely. We don’t have too many people to try because the Soviet Union is dead. But refusing to have a hard look into our past in 1991 led to what we have today. I say that if the jubilant crowd in August 1991 had not stopped after removing Dzerzhinsky’s statue and had moved further and burned down the Lubyanka, we would not have Putin.
Russia’s a country of symbols. We stopped short of removing the symbols of the past (like Lenin) from Lenin’s Tomb. The Tomb in my view should become the museum of the horrors of Bolshevism, of the Revolution or so-called Revolution, of the Red Terror.
We have to go through this process. For Russia to recover, if we ever recover, we’ll have to do it again, just to make sure we know that the KGB is a criminal organization. We gave the KGB a chance, so to speak, and look what they did with our country. I know a lot of people say, “Let’s bury the past.” No. You cannot bury the past. It’s like vampires. You have to kill them properly. Unless we do it, we’ll never recover. I believe we have to open the books. We have to open the list of secret agents. It’s like dealing with land mines. They all explode eventually and we can see them exploding now.
OR: Switching to a less grim topic, what do you think about Magnus Carlsen?
Kasparov: Look, there have been 60 world champions in chess history. That’s why winning the title and keeping the title are signS of outstanding achievement. I worked with him for one year, from 2009 to 2010. He’s an amazing talent, a world-class talent. His dominance is not surprising to me. He’s probably stronger than anybody of his generation.
OR: Does he remind you of Karpov?
Kasparov: In style, he’s closer to Karpov, but it’s more synthetic. I think he brings together a combination of Karpov and Fischer. Karpov never had the same consistency in pushing. He was more relaxed. He was deadly but not as deadly as Fischer — but Fischer was not as clean as Karpov. Magnus has a combination of Karpov’s ability to maximize results from minimal resources and Fischer’s craziness in pursuing opponents. So it’s impossible for this generation to survive.
OR: You currently work with the Oslo Freedom Forum and the Human Rights Foundation, correct?
Kasparov: I joined the Oslo Freedom Forum seven years ago, just as a participant. Then, when Václav Havel — who had been serving as the chair of the International Council of the Human Rights Foundation, which operates OFF — passed away, they suggested that I should take the seat. I was really honored. I’ve since been working very closely with Thor Halvorssen, the group’s founder.
I think we are probably the only human-rights organization that is not infected by left-wing bias. We go after anyone. We have plenty of cases that we pursuing in the Arab world, with Saudi Arabia, for instance, or in Bahrain. Again, we go after American allies but we are not concentrating on just Israel — as is the practice of many of our peers. We are, I believe, by far the largest dissident gathering in the world and we cover all areas of human right violations from North Korean defectors to gay activists from Uganda.
I was recently interviewed by Ha’aretz. They asked me, “So, how can you combine your position as chairman of a human rights foundation with your support for the aggressive policies of the Israeli government?”
You can imagine my response.
Garry Kasparov is a former world champion chess player and the chairman of the International Council of the Human Rights Foundation.