Skip to main content

Sanctions and isolation or engagement and co-operation: What should the west do about an increasingly active Russia? Mark MacKinnon poses question to chess great and pro-democracy advocate Garry Kasparov and journalist and author Vladimir Pozner

Be it resolved the West should engage, not isolate Russia

What should the West do about an increasingly active Russia? Mark MacKinnon poses question to chess great and pro-democracy advocate Garry Kasparov and journalist and author Vladimir Pozner

Watch the live debate April 10 starting at 7:00 p.m. ET

Garry Kasparov, who came to international fame as the youngest world chess champion in history in 1985 at the age of 22, is a vocal pro-democracy proponent. He founded the United Civil Front and organized the Marches of Dissent to protest the policies of Vladimir Putin.

Economic sanctions aren’t working. The Russian economy is already showing signs of recovery and the sanctions certainly haven’t forced the Kremlin to halt its actions in Ukraine. Why do you support a policy that is hurting ordinary Russians more than it’s affecting President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle?

It’s odd to say sanctions aren’t working when we don’t know what Mr. Putin would be doing had no sanctions been applied. He might be in Odessa or Kiev by now. Sanctions, even the current weak ones, also demonstrate political resolve and unity. But the current sanctions were piecemeal and late and are still very mild. And it’s only been a year. We need real action that targets Mr. Putin’s oligarchs and makes them choose between him and their ill-gotten fortunes. The free world’s leaders still want to believe they can have it both ways – that they can engage with Russia, take Mr. Putin’s money and gas, and still stand up to him in the global arena. This has proved completely false.

What is really harming ordinary Russians is Mr. Putin’s kleptocracy, not sanctions. If he grows bold enough to start a major war, average Russians will suffer even more.

You initially went into politics saying that you wanted to help put Russia on a more democratic course. How can you have an impact anymore when you’ve lived in exile for the past two years? When Vladimir Putin has more than 80 per cent support, what credibility can you or other political exiles possibly have with ordinary Russians?

It isn’t easy, but I can do more for the cause of ending Mr. Putin’s regime from exile than I could in jail or dead. His power depends largely on profiting from engagement with the free world and I do my best to draw attention to self-destructive Western hypocrisy. And it wasn’t easy when I was in Russia, either, where – like so many of my colleagues and compatriots – I was harassed and arrested for non-violent protest. Mr. Putin’s opponents also have a habit of meeting violent deaths. It was clear by 2011 that Mr. Putin intended to be in power for life and there was no longer any hope of a peaceful transition.

The approval numbers of a dictator are a joke. 80, 90 [per cent], who cares? It’s all propaganda and fear. Perhaps when Mr. Putin reaches the 99 per cent of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi /correct, the Western media will stop citing these numbers so credulously.

You frequently compare Mr. Putin to Adolph Hitler, and urge the West to confront him now over Ukraine while it’s still – as you put it – the 1930s, before it becomes the 1940s. Wouldn’t following your advice put the world on a course for a massive war, and perhaps a nuclear standoff, over parts of Ukraine that aren’t asking us to liberate them?

The goal is to avoid a larger war, and God forbid a nuclear confrontation. The only way is to deter Mr. Putin. The lesson of the 1930s is that engaging and appeasing aggressive dictators encourages them. World War II was a consequence of Allied weakness, not confrontation, and dictators are no different today. Mr. Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and was rewarded with an American “reset” and more engagement. Now he’s deep into Ukraine. Mr. Putin will not stop on his own and the price of stopping him will only keep going up.

The people of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are hostages under siege by Russian forces; they aren’t separatists or rebels. There has never been a significant independence or separatist movement in Ukraine, unlike Quebec, Scotland, or Catalonia. It is the creation of Mr. Putin’s war and propaganda machine, following the hybrid warfare model he has used before and will use again.

Vladimir Pozner is a veteran journalist and bestselling author. He is the host of the top-rated weekly current affairs program on Channel One – Russia’s largest television network. Mr. Pozner is a regular commentator on Russia, and the history of the Cold War in Western media.

You say the expansion of NATO provoked the return of anti-Western sentiment in Russia and helped lead to the current crisis over Ukraine. Would today’s conflict really be any less dangerous if the Baltic States and Poland were outside the Western military alliance? Why does Russia – or any country – deserve a say in the affairs of its neighbours?

Russia does not deserve a say and neither does any other country. Russia feels threatened by NATO. Correctly or incorrectly, is another question. But that is a fact – it sees NATO as a threat, not as a positive thing. Now, there is no more Soviet Union. And NATO was formed as a military alliance to protect the West against possible Soviet aggression. But there is no more Soviet Union and neither is there a Warsaw Pact, which was the SU’s NATO. So what the Russians are asking is why is there a NATO to begin with? Why not change it, why not bring us into it? If NATO is still here, who is it protecting the West from? It doesn’t say Russia, it says something about North Korea and Iran, but that’s really not serious, is it. Russia sees NATO coming closer and closer to its borders: in Estonia, in Latvia, and now in Ukraine. The really important matter is, why is NATO there at all, and why has it moved closer and closer to Russia, and finally established itself on Russia’ frontier. That would be the Russian question.

In the Russian narrative, the new government in Ukraine is run by dangerous ultranationalists. Doesn’t the murder of Boris Nemtsov demonstrate that it’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia that has the far bigger problem with extreme nationalism?

I would say this, yes there is a lot of chauvinism in Ukraine, there’s no doubt about that. And there is a lot of chauvinism in Russia. The fact that Boris Nemtsov was murdered, terrible crime, does not say anything about chauvinism. Sadly, we don’t know here in Russia who came up with the idea of murdering Boris Nemtsov, and who’s to blame for it and what are the reasons for it… that’s still not clear. And I’m hoping that some day we will know the answer. But no matter what the answer is, is doesn’t mean that there are no chauvinists in Ukraine. There are, and there are some very very, I would call them somewhat fascistic, in the sense that they are fascist in their views and extremely anti-Russian. That’s as much of a fact that there are also ultranationalists in Russia. The one does not negate the other.

You’ve said that Crimea belongs to Russia and that last year’s annexation of the peninsula was a matter of “historical justice,” of returning Russian land to Russia. Following such logic, shouldn’t parts of the Russian Far East be returned to China? And Chechnya to the Chechens? Why are Crimeans allowed to hold a referendum on joining Russia, when the Kremlin would never allow Chechnya or Tatarstan to hold a similar vote on leaving?

It’s a complicated question. One might begin with the fact that why was Kosovo, which had always been a part of Serbia, allowed to get out of Serbia after NATO bombed Serbia and forced this to happen. Why would Kosovo be allowed to do what they did? Well this is a tough one to answer, but it was a kind of, if you will, an opening of Pandora’s box – if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. If NATO can do it, and NATO is obviously led by the United States, then any other country can do it, provided of course that it has the strength to do it. Sadly enough, in today’s world might means right. You want to call it an annexation, that’s okay with me. You can call it a reunification, that’s what some people call it, but for the present Russian government the idea, again, of Ukraine becoming part of a Western alliance, with Sevastopol no longer being the base of the Russian fleet but becoming the base of some American 6th fleet or something like that was simply not acceptable. Now, what concerns what might be the demands of China or any other country – China has made no such demands on Russia’s Far East. So that’s a moot question. There’s been a fight on the part of Chechnya for its independence, a war, which is lost…. And I go back to what I had been saying – this is an issue of who is stronger, who can make things happen. Russia’s interests are what they are, and Mr. Putin insists that they be taken into consideration. Russia will not accept being pushed into a corner as though it’s a secondary country, as it was for nearly 20 years after it changed its own system.

There is no thornier relationship on the global stage than the one between Russia and the West – and at the moment it is at its lowest point.

The conflict in Ukraine, ensuing sanctions against Russia and the escalating military exercises have spurred talk of another Cold War. Can relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin – who could be president until 2024 if he runs again in 2018 – be reset? Conflict may seem like the unifying thread between Russia and the West.

AFFAN CHOWDHRY takes a look at the last decade and discovers a tense relationship punctuated by periods of co-operation.

JUNE 2006

Iranian students hold pictures of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami as they attend a gathering for the city council election in Tehran December 4, 2006. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN)

Russia joins a group of mainly western powers to start negotiating with Iran to curb its uranium enrichment program and ability to create a nuclear weapon. The P5+1 includes the U.S., UK, France, China and Russia – all holding vetoes on the United Nations Security Council – plus Germany.


A Georgian man cries near the body of his relative after a bombardment in Gori, 80 km (50 miles) from Tbilisi, August 9, 2008. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

As Georgia launches a military operation to regain control of its South Ossetia region, Russia intervenes. Russian troops and tanks roll in to Georgia to the aid of separatists. U.S. President George W. Bush accuses Russia of a “dangerous escalation.” Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin blames President Bush for not reining in Georgia After a five-day war, France brokers a peace deal.

MARCH 2009

The U.S. and its NATO allies begin using a vast network of roads and railroads to ship food, water and building supplies along the Northern Distribution Network – which connects Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan. Most of the main routes went through Russia, which receives an estimated $1 billion annually for allowing shipments to pass. The network becomes the main U.S. and NATO supply route by 2012 – and in 2013, the U.S. commemorates the 100,000th container to pass through the Baltic ports en route to Afghanistan

APRIL 2010

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) and U.S. President Barack Obama walk from the counter after ordering burgers for lunch at Ray's Hell Burger restaurant in Arlington, Virginia June 24, 2010. (REUTERS)

U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – who held the post for four years before Vladimir Putin ran for president in 2012 – sign a far-reaching treaty to limit overall nuclear warheads. It is not the first time the two countries have cooperated on their nuclear arsenal. But the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, commits both sides to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. Inspections of weapons sites continue even as tensions between the U.S. and Russia grow in other areas.

MARCH 2011

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shouts and gestures as he preaches during Friday prayers in N'adjamena May 1. (Reuters)

Under the leadership of President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia withholds using its UN Security Council veto and instead abstains on a vote authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, arms embargo and the protection of civilians.

Libya is caught up in the wave of Arab Spring revolts and protesters have come under heavy attack from forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. The NATO-led Operation Unified Protector – which includes Canadian jets – begins sorties and strikes in Libya. Russia criticizes the use of military force and calls on a political dialogue of Libyan groups. But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin goes further. He describes the UN resolution as a “medieval call for a crusade” and an attempt at regime change.

JUNE 2013

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, listens from behind bars at a district court in Zubova Polyana, Friday, April 26, 2013. (AP Photo)

The Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, passes a law that prohibits giving information on homosexuality to under-18s. The aim of the law is to protect children from gay “propaganda.” But LGBT activists see it as part of a broader anti-gay sentiment that is being fuelled by the country’s leadership and state television that portrays the LGBT community as part of an immoral western culture. The new law leads to clashes on Moscow streets between anti-gay protesters and Russia’s gay and lesbian community. It also comes under heavy criticism from Western countries.


In this frame grab from video taken Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, and provided by"CBS This Morning," Syrian President Bashar Assad responds to a question from journalist Charlie Rose during an interview in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo)

Russia and the U.S. agree on a plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control and ultimately destroyed. Week earlier, reports emerged that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on opponents and killed more than 1,400. Russia is a key facilitator in the chemical weapons deal, which comes together quickly after the U.S. threatens airstrikes. Russia has a naval facility in Syria, sells military equipment to the Syrian regime and is one of Assad’s biggest backers after Iran. The deal does not change the overall balance of power: Russia uses its veto at the UN to block any coordinated effort to limit Assad while the Syrian regime holds on to power.

NOVEMBER 21, 2013

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (L) gives a wink to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony after a meeting of the Russian-Ukrainian Interstate Commission at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 17, 2013. (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych suspends talks on a European Union trade pact. Hopes of closer ties with Europe and economic growth vanish, and small protests culminate in a 100,000-person rally in Kiev by month’s end. Protests continue to build. Kiev’s city hall and Independence Square are occupied by protesters.

DECEMBER 17, 2013

Ukrainian and European Union flags fly over the newly-erected barricades at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Dec. 12, 2013. (New York Times)

Ukraine is in financial crisis and faces a harsh winter and gas price hikes. President Yanukovych makes a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia buys $15-billion in Ukrainian securities and agrees to sell Russian gas at about 30 per cent discount. For many Ukrainians it is further proof that their country is inching in to a customs union with Russia and its allies.

FEBRUARY 27 2014

After weeks of bloody street protests and days after the disappearance of President Yanukovych from public view, pro-Russian gunmen take over key buildings in the capital of the Russian-majority Crimea region, which is officially part of Ukraine. A widely condemned referendum sees 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Two days later, President Vladimir Putin signs a bill making Crimea part of Russia. Relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War.

MAY 25, 2014

Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko speaks during his news conference in Kiev, May 26, 2014. (REUTERS)

Ukrainians elect a new president. Petro Poroshenko, a successful businessman who made his fortune in chocolate, faces his biggest challenge: how to quell an uprising in the east that is widely seen by the West as being backed and carried out by Russia. Months of intense fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian rebels takes place. Both sides blame each other for the downing of Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that kills 298.

JULY 29 2014

A pro-Russian activist aims a pistol at supporters of the Kiev government during clashes in the streets of Odessa May 2, 2014. (REUTERS)

The European Union and the U.S. slap further sanctions on Russia over events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The sanctions target Russia’s banking, arms and energy industries. Key to Russia’s past growth is its combined oil and gas reserves – the largest in the world."Russia's actions in Ukraine and the sanctions that we've already imposed have made a weak Russian economy even weaker," said President Barack Obama. President Putin is defiant and sees sanctions as an attempt at regime change. The sanctions come almost a month the European Union signs a landmark partnership agreement with Ukraine – tying the country closer to Europe politically and economically.


The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program was a U.S. military funded program – and the brainchild of two former U.S. senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar – that helped dismantle doomsday nuclear warheads, transport nuclear material, and install security systems at nuclear storage sites across the former Soviet Union, including Russia.

It is widely hailed as a high point in cooperation between the U.S. and Russia and addressed a key worry: the theft of nuclear materials that could be sold on the black market. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan are nuclear weapons free, while Russia’s nuclear sites are considered more secure than when the program started in 1991.

As diplomatic tensions between the two countries grew over Ukraine, Russia said that it would no longer need U.S. assistance to help secure its nuclear stockpiles starting in 2015.

MARCH 2015

People waves at Pro Russian fighters in Uglegorsk 6 kilometers south west from Debaltseve on Febuary 9, 2015.  (AFP)

Russia begins a nation-wide military exercise and show of force involving more than 45,000 troops, 40 warships, 15 submarines and 200 aircraft. Meanwhile, over eastern Europe, NATO continues air patrols over the Baltic region bordering Russia started in early 2014 in a direct response to the security challenge posed by Russia. Also, the U.S. is ramping up military exercises on land, sea and in the air throughout the region. There is growing concern that the saber rattling could lead to a mishap and escalation. Russian military planes have been in near-misses with passenger planes taking off from Denmark, and Russian jets have carried out aggressive flybys of U.S. and Canadian warships.

APRIL 2015

Yannis Varoufakis, an outspoken 53-year-old political economist who holds dual Greek and Australian nationality, is seen as the favorite to take the Economy ministry. (AFP)

Greece’s new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, meets with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. European Union sanctions against Russia require the support of all 28 EU members. Mr. Tsipras opposes the idea of sanctions on Russia. His government, in difficult negotiations with the EU and IMF, is looking for new sources of financial help. There is talk that Mr. Putin could try to unravel EU sanctions on Russia by picking Greece off.