The Chess Master vs. Putin | Wall Street Journal

When Garry Kasparov, in 2005, suddenly announced his retirement from competition after two decades dominating the chess world, there was widespread puzzlement. He explains in “Winter Is Coming” that he left the pawns and pieces behind to join Russia’s pro-democracy movement. Having “achieved everything I could want to achieve at the chessboard,” he writes, he believed it was time for a different kind of accomplishment. “I wanted my children to be able to grow up in a free Russia. . . . I hoped to use my energy and my fame to push back against the rising tide of repression coming from the Kremlin.”

Now Mr. Kasparov reprises his participation in Russia’s fight for democracy. It is a compelling story of courage and civic-mindedness. With his wealth and status, he could easily have opted to live out life like a Russian oligarch, buying baubles and yachting from port to port. Instead, he plunged into politics, organizing coalitions to challenge the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin, taking a leading role in public demonstrations and marches, and in 2007 running for president himself. The result was, among other things, beatings at the hands of secret-police thugs, confinement (briefly) in a Moscow prison cell and, finally, self-imposed exile in the West.

But Mr. Kasparov’s book is far more than an account of personal sacrifice—which he would be the first to acknowledge was trifling compared with what many of his compatriots continue to endure. “Winter Is Coming” presents a picture of the internal forces propelling Russia’s descent into aggressive authoritarianism. And it offers a scathing analysis of the contribution of the West to that outcome.

Perhaps the fundamental mistake of post-Communist Russia, according to Mr. Kasparov, was not having any trials or truth commissions. “After decades of genocides, mass relocation and imprisonment, and totalitarian repression, it was decided to let bygones be bygones and move into the bright new future without recrimination.” This decision allowed for a superficial social comity, but it also “left the roots of the powerful Russian security apparatus intact.” Mr. Putin was a creature of that apparatus—he served in the KGB from 1975 right up to communism’s collapse. Having arrived at the Kremlin in 1999, he has ruled with the methods he knows best: subterfuge, propaganda and violence.

Russia’s internal wars with the breakaway region of Chechnya comprise a significant portion of the story Mr. Kasparov tells. Mr. Putin ruthlessly exploited a genuine danger to national security to shutter democratic institutions and consolidate his power. In Mr. Putin’s first weeks as prime minister, powerful bombs destroyed apartment buildings in a number of Russian cities, killing 293 people and maiming many more. Were the blasts the work of Chechen terrorists, as was initially believed, or were they a “false flag” operation carried out by the Russian secret police to ignite outrage against Chechnya? Mr. Kasparov finds the latter possibility “too horrible to contemplate” and judges Chechen terrorists as fully capable of committing such crimes. Yet, after reviewing the wealth of evidence implicating Mr. Putin’s agents, he concludes that government forces were probably behind one or more of the bombings.

Along with brutal warfare in Chechnya, Mr. Putin’s rule has featured the plundering of the economy by well-connected sycophants and the suppression of both an independent press and the political opposition. Some of Russia’s most intrepid journalists have been beaten and a number killed. Opposition leaders have encountered a similar fate. Earlier this year, Boris Nemtsov, a friend of Mr. Kasparov and one of Russia’s most eloquent proponents of democracy, was murdered within steps of the Kremlin. Given who controls the police, these crimes are never followed up with more than kangaroo investigations.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Kasparov documents, Western leaders have acted toward Mr. Putin’s criminal regime with either cupidity (the Europeans) or incomprehension (the Americans). George W. Bush explained that he looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul,” finding the Russian dictator to be “straightforward and trustworthy.”

Team Obama has been even worse. Mr. Kasparov recounts a meeting he had with Vice President Joe Biden, who had traveled to Moscow for talks in 2011. Fresh from the splendors of the Kremlin, a breathless Mr. Biden related how he had just met Mr. Putin and pressed him not to run for the presidency yet again, telling him “it would look terrible and hurt Russia’s constitutional integrity.” The naiveté of such a comment, Mr. Kasparov writes, was “terribly disappointing” and a reflection of the Obama administration’s “deluded hopes” regarding Russia.

Those hopes proved unshakable. Two successive American secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, treated Mr. Putin “as if he would reform his wicked ways if only they treated him kindly enough and offered enough concessions.” Mr. Kasparov calls such feeble conduct “convenient cowardice.” Even after Russia swallowed Crimea and ignited a war in Ukraine, he laments, the West has not ceased feeding the crocodile.

The leaders of the free world, Mr. Kasparov suggests, need to recover their nerve, form a united front against Mr. Putin’s adventurism, and defend the principles of liberty and self-government—with words always and with force where prudent and necessary. The appeasement of Russia, Mr. Kasparov cautions, will only court aggression, a prediction already borne out by Russia’s armed incursion in Syria. With world events crashing around us, the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency promises to be among the most dangerous in our history. A long dark winter will indeed be upon us unless our nation changes course.

Mr. Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute specializing in intelligence and national security.

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