putin / russian history / russian politics

Review: Winter is Coming

Surprisingly shallow and mind-numbingly dogmatic, Winter is Coming is proof that this chess player only views the world in black and white.

Why did I read this?

No, seriously, why did I do this to myself?

Winter is Coming is the latest book by former world chess champion and current self-styled “leader” of the liberal Russian opposition Garry Kasparov. Western readers who think that it would be better if their countries talked to Russia and tried to find common ground in order to solve mutual problems should beware. According to Kasparov, such communication is a sign of weakness and will invite greater aggression from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who seeks to expand his “dictatorship” and”invade” even more neighboring countries. Kasparov employs his name and moral authority behind a call for the Western world to find its courage and unite against the “evil” Putin government (as well as all “enemies of the free world”) before it is too late.

To achieve this objective, Kasparov embarks upon a potted history of Russian politics from the late Soviet period onward, interspersed with personal anecdotes. As one can guess from the title, Kasparov appears to have a very serious case of Putin Derangement Syndrome. Like Gessen’s Man Without a Face or Politkovskaya’s A Russian Diary, Winter is Coming is little more than a lengthy diatribe against the Russian president. Indeed, while Kasparov does acknowledge that Putin’s foreign policy has no ideological foundation, that Putin is best seen as a broker of personal economic interests, and that the erosion of democracy in Russia was well underway before Putin came to power in 1999, he goes to great lengths not only to convince us Putin is the greatest threat to international peace, but that he is tantamount to Hitler. As Paul Robinson astutely points out in his own review of Winter is Coming:

In fact, the word ‘Hitler’ appears 32 times in the book. Kasparov also regularly uses words such as ‘dictator’, ‘dictatorship’, ‘totalitarianism’, ‘autocrat’, and ‘despotism’, and pursuing another theme, likes to talk about ‘appeasement’, ‘appeasers’, and ‘Chamberlain’. Subtlety is not his forte.

Kasparov also tells us that:

  • Russia has returned to “the rule of an all-powerful single-party state” (p. 168) and “outright despotism” (p. 172)
  • “Putin respects only power” (p. 8) and his “only goal is to stay in power, … he needs conflict and hatred now” (p. 69)
  • Putin “wants only to keep us all in perpetual darkness”, and aims “for the totalitarianism of one person: himself” (p. 91)
  • The Russian state uses “blatantly fascist propaganda and tactics” (p. xi) and some Kremlin speeches “closely resemble those of Nazi leaders” (p. xxiii)
  • “Putin’s regime operated on an amoral scale” (p. 159)
  • Russia is “a modern one-man dictatorship spreading fascist propaganda” (p. 235)

Kasparov lumps Putin in with Al Qaeda and ISIS, claiming that all three of them are united in their “rejection of modernity” and need to be destroyed by the West before it is too late.

In short, Kasparov is making the case for a morality-based foreign policy that refuses to grant any kind of legitimacy – legal or otherwise – to nondemocratic regimes. While stopping short of calling for military force, Kasparov nevertheless believes that nothing less than a unified West applying unremitting economic and diplomatic pressure on Putin’s Russia with “the moral clarity and stubbornness of Ronald Reagan” (p. 33) can satisfy core Western values and the true interests of the Russian people. Engagement is the same as appeasement (p. 252), and we should instead stand on the principles of good and evil, right and wrong. “Dictators only stop when they are stopped, and appeasing Putin with Ukraine will only stoke his appetite for more conquests”, Kasparov writes on p. xxiv.

Kasparov’s universe is one of black and white, of good and evil, without any gray areas. Putin is Hitler. Putin’s Russia is evil. The West is good. The West must stop Putin before he stops the West. In his view, the West is always too soft on and naive about Russia, Putin’s or otherwise. EU and US economic sanctions against Russia after the destruction of the MH-17 airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 do not figure in Kasparov’s account, though he had plenty of time to add them in before publication. Nor does the refusal of the United States to incorporate Yeltsin’s Russia in a post-Cold War security framework in the 1990s: it is as if the expansion of NATO to include all ex-satellite allies of the USSR, as well as the Baltic states, by 2004 never happened; as if NATO did not use force against Russian allies in Bosnia, Serbia, and eventually Iraq, underscoring that the Americans saw Russia as outside the global security order. Heck, Kasparov even equates the detente policy of the 1970s with “appeasement”.

“The Cold War ended,” Kasparov claims, “not because Western leaders merely defended their values but because they projected them aggressively.” (p. 190) He believes that the collapse of the USSR put the West in an unparalleled position of hegemony, which it should have used to spread democracy and destroy dictatorships wherever they were found. Following this logic, preemptive strikes and deposing dictators may or may not have been a good plan, but at least it was a plan. If you attack Iraq, the potential to go after Iran and Syria must also be on the table, for inconsistency is a strategic deficiency that is nearly impossible to overcome (p. 192).

How many brain cells have I lost so far?

Kasparov ends the book with a call for regime change in Russia. “Declare in the strongest terms that Russia will be treated like the criminal rogue regime that it is for as long as Putin is in power. Call off the sham negotiations. Sell weapons to Ukraine that will put an unbearable political price on Putin’s aggression. Tell every Russian oligarch that there is no place their money will be safe in the West as long as they serve Putin” (p. 259). He then declares that the UN is obsolete, suggesting instead an organization of “united democratic nations”, which can use military intervention to protect human lives and the “greater good” [whatever the dubious connotations of that word. – J.T.].

All that being read, the only thing I can think is…how? How does one become this unhinged in one’s views of international politics, let alone the politics of one’s own country?

Kasparov denies that the Russian leader or his policies have any popular support, or that Putin is as much a product of his country’s system as much as he is the creator of it. True, the Russian political system is a far cry from Western liberal democracy, but 1) is liberal democracy really Russia’s best option? and 2) the contemporary system is hardly “totalitarianism of one person”, “a full-blown dictatorship”, or “outright despotism”. State-controlled media may dominate, but alternative sources such as DO///D’, Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy exist as well. Political competition may be limited, but it is present. And even though Putin’s power is substantial, it is not unrestricted. (Indeed, few seem to appreciate Putin’s relative administrative weakness and inability to follow up on all of his promises.) Simply put, Russia is not just a “modern one-man dictatorship spreading fascist propaganda”.

Ergo for Kasparov’s view of world politics. While indeed some governments are more oppressive than others, the world can’t simply be divided into democracies and dictatorships; between black and white there are many shades of gray. Kasparov’s “good guys vs. bad guys” doctrine doesn’t seem to acknowledge that although the West has legitimate grounds for complaint against Russia, Russia also has grounds for complaint against the West. Nor does it seem ready to admit that the West’s power is limited, as failed nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown. “Moral clarity” or will isn’t likely to change that. What will allow us to live in peace and make the world a better place is engagement. Communication.

And no, Kasparov, making compromises with Russia isn’t a sign of “weakness”. It won’t encourage further aggression from Putin. It’s a sign of strength and maturity that is all too often missing from the reactions of both sides of the current conflict. The world is not the black-and-white chessboard you’re making it out to be.

In all my years of reviewing, in all the hundreds of books I have read, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a book that could be considered “dangerous”. But there’s a first time for everything. Were Western leaders to follow Winter is Coming‘s advice, it would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences: a worsening of U.S.-Russian ties; an open, unnecessary and prolonged rivalry; possibly even hot war or a nuclear confrontation. I just hope saner councils prevail, and that this book will enjoy only limited circulation.


I read it so that you don’t have to.


24945308

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “Review: Winter is Coming

  1. It is scary to think that this guy and Anne Applebaum actually swayed the audience more toward their Neocon view in the Munk Debates of 2015 against Stephen Cohen and Vladimir Posner, who argued for more engagement and a more nuanced understanding of Russia.

    Liked by 2 people

      • You can also watch the debate online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX_HuMiP8v8 (I’d add a proper hyperlink, but the HTML in my other comment didn’t work, so I’m not sure what the right syntax is). I thought Applebaum made some decent arguments, but Kasparov seemed a bit unhinged and couldn’t stay on topic. I was also surprised that the audience was swayed more toward the “con” position, because I found Cohen and Pozner’s arguments much better despite being predisposed to agree with Kasparov’s views of Putin.

        Like

  2. “the moral clarity and stubbornness of Ronald Reagan”

    My brain:

    Thank you for reviewig this piece of… something, J.T.! Your sacrifice is both great an noble.

    As for Kasparov and other non-systemic oppos (orimarily the emigrant types) – I think they are saying out loud what their handlers think themselves, but are too professional not to say out loud.

    Like

    • As Natylie pointed out, Kasparov is a Neocon, and this book suggests he is a diehard one. And I think I know who his handler might be:
      “Can anyone…not believe that the world would be a safer, more democratic place today had John McCain been elected? In the universe where McCain is president, Putin does not invade Ukraine” (p. 197)
      In the end, Winter is Coming is just another effort by an aggrieved foreigner to obtain the support of US power – seen as a deus ex machina – for his own domestic objectives. Somewhat like Ho Chi Minh seeking an audience with Woodrow Wilson in 1919 for the independence of Indochina; the Polish gov’t-in-exile pleading with Churchill/Roosevelt in 1943 to confront Stalin over the Katyn Forest massacre; and Ahmed Chalabi’s lobbying to induce a US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m almost finished with Kasparov’s book, and I have to say that it has only left me more confused. This comment may seem argumentative, but that is not my intention, so let me preface this by saying that I am not “anti-Russia.” I have Russian friends and co-workers, and I believe Russians are no better or worse than the people of any other country. I’m even studying the Russian language myself, although I am finding it very difficult. 🙂 I also grant that many of the criticisms typically made by Western media and politicians about Russia are also true of the US to some extent.

    However, I am fairly convinced by the typical Western depiction of Putin as a corrupt strongman who seems likely to be manipulating elections if not outright dismantling democracy; who is possibly stoking geopolitical instability because doing so benefits to him and some ambiguously-sized subset of Russian people; and who has a human rights record that is questionable at best.

    I assume you are a Putin-defender if not a Putin-supporter. If not I apologize for the mistake. But if so, let me explain why I believe what I do about Putin.

    First, there seem to be a wide variety of sources making these claims, not only within the west, but also among a minority of Russians, such as Kasparov. Second, while I actually agree with all of your criticisms of Kasparov’s book, and many of the criticisms I hear from Putin’s defenders in general, I find them to not be sufficient to disavow me of my beliefs about Putin. I agree that Kasparov is a neo-con with a very black-and-white view of politics, and that he is guilty of hyperbole, and that he has an overly optimistic picture of what the results of a more adversarial foreign policy towards Russia would be, and so on and so forth. But missing from the picture are credible debunkings of the allegedly factual claims Kasparov makes in the book, rather than those of opinion. And those alleged facts seem pretty damning.

    Third, when I see questions like “True, the Russian political system is a far cry from Western liberal democracy, but 1) is liberal democracy really Russia’s best option?”, I am not clear on what you mean by that, and not sure if this lack of clarity is because we have different political biases, in which case it may be hard to find common ground on this issue.

    If you disagree with this assessment, I would be happy to hear why, because my confidence in my assessment is only moderate. Please take this comment in the spirit it is intended, of desiring to know the truth, even if I am wrong. Спасибо.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Pseudonymous Platypus,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my review. It was very interesting to hear why you believe what you do about Putin, and I definitely respect it. I’m neither a Putin supporter nor frequent defender – in fact, I’ve mainly been disappointed with him since his decision to return to the presidency in 2012. I mostly try to keep my mouth shut on the issue. However, I’ve occasionally defended Putin’s Russia because I believe that many Western assessments of it are skewed at best and incredibly one-sided at worst. Kasparov’s book is one of such assessments. Our disagreement here may be largely because of differences in political bias, and like you pointed out, working through that may be difficult. However, if there’s a particular point made in Kasparov’s argument you’d like me to address, please write it in a comment here and I’ll try to debunk it.
      Also, thank you for pointing out that I didn’t disprove many of Kasparov’s allegedly factual statements. I need to keep that in mind for later reviews. My argument would’ve been stronger if I had. The best explanation for why I didn’t address them that I can offer you is that I was trying to write a sweeping overview of the book, and it was Kasparov’s over-the-top distortions and strange ideas about global politics – not his “factual” claims about Russia, which I’d already heard coming out of the mouths of many pundits before – that were most resonant with me.

      So again, thanks for your feedback, and good luck with your Russian! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • J.T., thanks for your prompt and thoughtful response! Since you are not a Putin supporter, there may not actually be much disagreement between us. But here are a few examples of the kind of claims I find troubling:

        “With an outlandish 99.5 percent voter turnout, 99 percent of Chechen votes went to United Russia. Do not forget that this is a party led by Putin, the author of the second Chechen war that razed the Chechen capital Grozny to the ground.” (Page 167.)
        Kasparov alleges he was “arrested and beaten by the police while protesting the sentencing of Pussy Riot,” and that the police never told him what he was being charged with (page 133). Russian friends have told me that the Pussy Riot situation is not as clear-cut as western media made it out to be, but even so, the right to assembly is important in any free society. (Granted, the US has its own problems in that respect, but these issues seem to exist to a much greater extent in Russia.)
        Kasparov describes a number of ways in which the democratic process appears to be repressed in Putin’s Russia, including the requirement that an independent candidate must collect a minimum of 2 million signatures, but submit no more than 2.2 million, meaning if 10% were disqualified, the candidate could not be registered. Additionally, no more than 40,000 signatures could come from a single region, meaning a candidate would have to get 40,000 signatures in each of 50 different regions in order to qualify. (Page 177.) This seems blatantly undemocratic, and even if one makes the argument that democracy is not the best option for Russia, that begs the question of why Putin is pretending to engage in democracy.

        These are actually probably among the least egregious claims Kasparov makes in the book, but I chose them because it seems like they must be straightforwardly true or false, as opposed to others that seem to rely more on circumstantial evidence (such as the alleged involvement of Putin’s government in the murders of Litvinenko, Nemtsov, and Politkovskaya).

        I appreciate your engagement on this topic. It is very hard for me to ascertain the truth about these situations, because I agree with you and my Russian friends that the Western media is biased in its reporting of Russian affairs. In my experience this usually takes the form of omission of potentially exculpatory details. I’ve also read some of Putin’s writings and seen some of his speeches, and I actually found them to be quite sensible… but actions speak louder than words, and many of Putin’s alleged actions are highly objectionable to me.

        Like

Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s