Atlantic Books, 2015, 322 pages
The ascension of Vladimir Putin - a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB - to the presidency of Russia in 1999 should have been a signal that the country was headed away from democracy. Yet in the intervening years - as America and the world's other leading powers have continued to appease him - Putin has grown into not only a dictator but a global threat. With his vast resources and nuclear weapons, Putin is at the center of a worldwide assault on political liberty.
For Garry Kasparov, none of this is news. He has been a vocal critic of Putin for over a decade, even leading the pro-democracy opposition to him in the farcical 2008 presidential election. Yet years of seeing his Cassandra-like prophecies about Putin's intentions fulfilled have left Kasparov with the realization of a darker truth: Putin's Russia, like ISIS or al-Qaeda, defines itself in opposition to the free countries of the world. He is still fighting the Cold War, even as Americans have first moved beyond it and, over time, forgotten its lessons.
Lest we be drawn into another prolonged conflict, Kasparov now urges a forceful stand - diplomatic and economic - against him. For as long as the world's powerful democracies continue to recognize and negotiate with Putin, he can maintain credibility in his home country. He faces few strong enemies within his country, so meaningful opposition must come from abroad. Argued with the force of Kasparov's world-class intelligence, conviction, and hopes for his home country, Winter Is Coming is an unmistakable call to action against a threat we've ignored for too long.
Garry Kasparov is known to most Americans as a former world chess champion, one of the best of a long line of Russian chess grandmasters. However, even while he was still playing for the Soviet Union, he was often skating on thin ice, granting interviews to decadent American publications like Playboy in which he criticized the Soviet regime in ways that would have been unthinkable decades earlier.
After retiring as a professional chess player, he became a human rights activist, campaigning for freedom and democracy in his home country of Russia. In Winter is Coming, he argues that Russian freedom and democracy has essentially been killed by Vladimir Putin, and that the world must stand up to Putin now before it's too late.
Published last year (in 2015), this book will quickly become a piece of history in which we'll be able to judge how prescient or accurate Kasparov was, but right now, it's quite timely, referencing ISIS, the Obama administration, Pussy Riot, and Edward Snowden in its final chapters.
Kasparov does not pretend to be objective, and he is neither a journalist nor a historian. This book will educate Westerners who are only vaguely familiar with post-Soviet Russian politics and how Putin became effectively dictator-for-life of Russia, but don't mistake Winter is Coming as a comprehensive and balanced examination of the subject — Kasparov despises Vladimir Putin and wants the United States and the West to do everything short of going to war to remove him from power. And really, the only reason he admits that a war would be a bad idea is because Russia has nukes. So this book is mostly a long polemic — a compelling, often convincing polemic, but it's a call to arms against a man he compares to Stalin and Hitler. (He acknowledges that Putin is not Stalin or Hitler, but repeatedly adds the caveat "...yet.")
Most Americans are probably unfamiliar with the dirty details of Putin's government. Kasparov's argument is essentially that in the heady days following the collapse of the USSR, Russia had an opportunity to become a truly free and open society, but that was gradually lost thanks to the machinations of Putin and his lapdog, Dmitry Medvedev. He presents the situation as it is today in Russia 2015, pointing out that while Europe and the US pretend that Russia is nominally a democracy, it in fact has less freedom than it did in the late 90s/early 00s, and that Putin and his oligarchy are more akin to a Mafia family than a constitutional government.
Kasparov also places a great deal of blame on the West, and specifically all the American presidents since Bush Sr., for not using America's power to reign Putin in. But his strongest criticism is for Obama.
While I found Kasparov's views interesting and informative, I wish I knew enough to judge how accurate his accusations are. This is a very one-sided book and I think one needs a more balanced account to come to a more informed judgment. I don't mean by that that Kasparov is being unfair to Putin, or that his claims are wrong — I suspect most if not all of what he says is quite true. But this is still an unabashedly political book and I know there are a lot of complexities in the events he describes that makes what he considers to have been the "obvious" response less so.
For example, he says when Russia threatened to shut off its oil and natural gas pipelines to Europe, Europe should have called their bluff, and transitioned to depending less on Russia for its resources, because Russia needs Europe economically far more than Europe needs Russia. Now, this is undoubtedly true, but that's still a hard case to make, especially in the very Western democracies that Kasparov wants Russia to emulate, where voters are going to react strongly to suddenly having no heat in the winter. So in demanding that Western governments take unilateral action against Putin for the greater good, Kasparov seems to think Western governments can act by fiat the way Putin does. It's not unlike the case that has been made in the US for years — we know that being dependent on oil from the Middle East has forced us to put up with some very unsavory business partners, and that we'd be better off weaning ourselves off of it. But that's something the American people have to decide they want to do, it's not something the President can just declare. And repeatedly, Kasparov blames American Presidents, but especially Obama, for being weak and enabling Putin's rise to power, instead of threatening him with economic and even military retaliation.
Is Putin a very nasty character, who has imposed Soviet-style suppression of the press and imprisonment, exile, or execution of his enemies? Absolutely. But Kasparov repeatedly enters the realm of speculation and conspiracy theory, in areas I am not qualified to judge. He talks a lot about the Chechen wars, for example, and the Beslan school siege, and the Moscow theater hostage crisis, about which there are evidently cottage industries of conspiracy theories in Russia, suggesting they were "false flags" by Russian Special Forces, or that the government lied about important details. Probably the government did lie about important details, and Kasparov doesn't claim to know any of the conspiracy theories are true, but clearly he's willing to give them credibility, and ultimately blame everything on Putin.
Kasparov also wants the West to defend Ukraine against Russia — literally, with tanks and planes and soldiers. He's certain Putin would back down if it meant actually going to war with NATO. While his historical parallels — to Chamberlain, particularly — are biting, there's also good reason for us to be very wary before stepping into another quagmire, opposing a dictator who is not directly threatening us, in the name of freedom and democracy. The recent history of such ventures has not been encouraging, and those dictators didn't have nuclear weapons.
I don't blame Kasparov for feeling as he does. He's effectively a political exile who saw his country go from communist dictatorship to (briefly) a rising democracy, only to be crushed again beneath the iron heel of totalitarianism, except this time it's a totalitarianism that is better at pretending not to be one — after all, Russians today have McDonalds and the Internet. His political opinions are very strong. He thought Clinton's election was a disaster, and Obama's even worse, and clearly he thinks Republicans would deal with Putin better than Democrats. One wonders what he thinks of Trump, but he certainly has nothing good to say about Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. His views on Russia should not be dismissed whether or not you agree with him about US politicians. Nonetheless, as brilliant as Kasparov may be, I don't think I'd necessarily want him guiding our foreign policy.
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