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.