In conversation with Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, expatriate political dissident and chess icon Garry Kasparov discusses Russia's President. And how does he feel about the man? The title of his new book leaves little doubt – Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.
What is Putin's Syria strategy?
I don't think we can talk about Putin having a "strategy" for Syria. He is a technician. As a dictator, he can't afford the luxury of thinking long term, because he has to survive. He has been in power already for 15-plus years. He's planning to stay forever, whatever it takes. He failed to take over the entire Ukraine, so he needs another conflict to demonstrate to the Russian people his status as an indispensable, invincible leader. It is very important for Putin to preserve his image as a strong man, someone who is equal to the U.S. president and can defy international law.
What do you think of Western countries reaching out to him to resolve that crisis?
Currently, the leaders of the so-called "free world" are fighting a virtual war in Syria. We all know bombing [Islamic State] is not going to solve any problem on the ground. It seems to me that, even though Western leaders realize that bombing is not a strategy, they prefer sound bites to a sound strategy. [French President François] Hollande's recent visit to Moscow was a total disaster because it happened just a couple of days after a Russian plane was shot down by the Turkish military – after many months of provocations by Russian planes and ships violating airspace and territorial waters of NATO countries. We also now have proof from the U.S. Treasury Department that Russian banks have been facilitating the oil trade between [Syria] and IS. Putin's bombs are overwhelmingly being dropped on U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebels, not on IS. In sum, his goal is to demonstrate that, while [U.S. President Barack] Obama wanted him out, Putin can keep [President Bashar] al-Assad in power.
You think the West must return to a 'moral' foreign policy?
It is very important to recognize the moment we are in: the enemies of modernity are at war with the civilized world. For Putin, Iran's rulers, North Korea, al-Assad's murderous regime, terrorists of all kinds, fighting the civilized world, fighting democracy, fighting liberal values, it's an absolute must because they can't survive in this interdependent world where information travels the globe in a split-second. That's why creating conflicts and pushing people from the countries and territories they control into the open conflict with the free world, and keeping this tension at the highest level possible, is the only possible strategy for Putin and his kind to survive. Given this existential challenge, it is natural that we should be articulating, defending and advancing the liberal democratic values that are now under withering attack from our enemies. As Europeans discovered lately by being flooded with waves and waves of refugees, we have to come up with a plan that will help us to stabilize our world and to guarantee that these conflicts will not threaten the very foundation of global peace and order.
Respond to the argument that taking a hard line on Putin plays into his goal of portraying Russia as a victim of the West.
By 2013 there wasn't a single American tank in Europe and it didn't preclude Putin's propaganda machine from blaming America for anything negative that happened in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. We can also look at the latest developments in Syria and start wondering: What could have been the outcome if, two years ago, instead of trying to find the "peaceful solution" in Syria after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, America and the West had used their air power, alongside supporting moderate rebels and giving encouragement to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to be more proactive? That could have been enough to remove Assad from power, and today we would not be facing millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of dead. If we accept Putin's right to control any territory we believe he has a strategic interest in, such as Syria, then we will be simply wetting his appetite for conquest. A dictator never stops until he's stopped. And Putin proved by his latest actions that the only language that he will understand is the language of strength.
Given all the chaos in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, are more people coming around to Putin's contention that overthrowing dictators causes more problems than it solves?
It doesn't resonate with me because I was raised in a communist country. Dictators who stay in power for a generation destroy the political environment. They create a kind of political desert and, the longer a dictator stays in power, the drier the desert is. And what kind of creatures can survive in a very dry desert? Wretched creatures, like snakes, scorpions, rats. Expecting that the end of dictatorship will create democracy the next day is very naïve. But I should add that removing a dictator offers a chance. Sometimes the chance can be capitalized on, sometimes it could be blown away, but it offers people who have been living in a dictatorship hope that the horror they face can end. This is not a debate between political pundits somewhere in [Washington] D.C. or in Toronto. For people in Iraq or in Libya, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein were not historical figures from some college textbooks. They were real murderers and butchers, who terrorized their own people and killed them in huge numbers.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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