In the pages of Playboy magazine, Gary Kasparov muses about Vladimir Putin
When Russians go to the polls on 2 March, 2008, Other Russia party leader and former Chess World Champion Gary Kasparov won't be on the ballot.
Neither will current Russian president Vladimir Putin, although (depending upon whom you ask) he will have a proxy on the ballot.
Yet, in the course of his Playboy interview, Kasparov raises a number of serious concerns about Putin, and hints that US President George W Bush just might be ignoring the next major threat to global security, just as he initially ignored Al Qaida.
Among the failures of Bush's foreign policy toward Putin's Russia, in Kasparov's view, is the failure to support Russian democracy. Furthermore, Kasparov surmises that Bush's undermining of democracy in his own country has helped to further the undermining of democracy abroad, and advanced the spread of cynicism.
"[Bush's] arrogant actions in the past few years convinced [Putin] that... the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the Halliburton story, torture -- they prove all these [democratic] values are a cover-up," Kasparov says. "They prove to Putin and his people that the West doesn't really care about them, either. It's a big joke."
"Bush talks about promoting democracy in Iraq, but in Russia we see he doesn't really care about democracy," Kasparov declares. "He undermines it, betrays it. So it's easy for people in Russia to be cynical. 'Yes, we're as democratic as you are' -- Russians say it with a wink."
"I'm not a big fan of President Bush, as you can guess," Kasparov admits. "But it's not only him. Look at Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi -- unlike Bush and Tony Blair, they were Putin's business partners. They all supported him. But Bush and the others turn a blind eye, and meanwhile this strongman has thrived."
"[Bush] says nothing about most of the assaults on democracy in Russia. He says nothing to Putin and continues to do business with him," Kasparov adds. "Putin is allowed to come to the G8. It should be renamed the G7+1. Again and again no one says anything against Putin."
"Putin is immune unless he hears a firm reaction from the top man," Kasparov insists. "He doesn't care about clerks, even Condoleezza Rice. Only a message from the top counts. Everything else is a game. When Putin made some of the statements that implied he could stay in office for a third term, he didn't hear anything from Bush. President Bush, you stuck up for him; you looked into his eyes. Why are you silent now? Instead, what does Putin hear? Condoleezza Rice says, "we'd rather have him inside than outside the tent."
"This philosophy has never worked before," he continues. "Churchill said 'no matter how beautiful the strategy, occasionally you must check the results.' For seven years, with engagement by the West and with the influx of capitalism, Putin destroyed all democratic institutions in Russia. So we all remember that Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes. Putin looked into Bush's eyes as well. He saw he could push Bush's limits. Every time he pushes he tests the waters. He pushes and Bush does nothing."
"Putin is a psychologist," Kasparov -- a man himself familiar with psychology -- notes.
Of course, a foreign policy realist would note that the state of democratic health within Russia is actually of little consequence to American (or Canadian) foreign policy.
"[Putin] is on all sides," Kasparov says, "The West and Iran and Hezbollah."
Kasparov goes so far as to suggest that Putin is willfully sowing tension in the Middle East, and is doing so by supporting regimes and organizations that have declared themselves to be implacable enemies of the west.
"Putin needs high oil prices," Kasparov insists. "If oil goes down, his regime collapses. It's why he sells weapons to Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas."
"This past year Putin seemed to increase his ties to the US and the West," Kasparov notes, then continues with an unspoken "but", "He has bee supplying Hamas in Palestine and selling military equipment to Sudan, Myanmar and Venezuala, and missile technology to North Korea. Why?"
Kasparov answers his own question.
"It's two ways of making profit," he continues. "One is cash. These industries are all controlled by his guys, so there's lots of cash."
"But he also backs these regimes to create tension in oil-rich regions," Kasparov adds. "The more tension, the higher the oil prices. He needs tension because it muddies the waters, and he thrives in muddy waters."
"If you look at the places of instability around the world, you'll always find Putin's traces," Kasparov insists. "Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Hugo Chavez -- they keep the Middle East boiling. It's a very rational policy if you need high oil prices."
"Putin is a KGB guy," Kasparov says. "He looks at your eyes and smells whether he can move further or if he should go back. Now, he thinks, we have so much money, we can dictate our terms. For his attacks on the values of the West and democracy, he has been rewarded with polite commitments and now the Sochi Olympics. It's the triumph of Russian corruption over international institutions."
Kasparov notes that particularly problematic, in his view, is the difference between the two men. "See, Putin is a psychologist," Kasparov reiterates, "and much smarter than Bush. Putin realized all these big guys were not as strong, not as smart -- he could easily outplay them. Basically he does what he wants, manipulates them and does more of what he wants. He keeps oil prices high, keeps tension in the Middle East, becomes a necessary ally but on his own terms."
But, as Kasparov notes, Putin is particularly vulnerable to rebukes from world leaders.
"Putin's biggest disappointments were in October of last year, a day or two after [Anna] Politkovskaya was murdered. He was in Germany and offered a big deal to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Russia has gas, and Germany would be the distributor," Kasparov says. "Responding to the murder, Merkel said no. Putin was devastated. Next there was a meeting in Finland, and the European countries turned down a similar proposal. He was stunned because he believes that everything and everyone has a price. The EU's Organization for Security and Cooperation refused to come to Russia to monitor this past December's parliamentary elections because Putin was not cooperation with visas and they would have been restricted. This shocked Putin."
"These are very good signs," Putin declares. "Finally some of the Western leadership is showing they have reached their limits and won't play his game."
Putin's supply of weapons to some of the most turbulent regions in the world has clear implications for foreign policy -- even among those who consider themselves realists. And given that Putin is using the proceeds of these funds, both directly and indirectly, to fund his continuing stranglehold on Russian democracy, the state of Russian democracy is an issue that should be addressed in the foreign policy of all Western states.
Putin may well be pliable to the influence of world leaders. But the limits of this pliability have yet to be tested. If we in the West are truly interested in pacifying the Middle East, the Sudan, Myanmar and other global trouble spots, it's clearly time for western leaders to turn the tables on Vladimir Putin, and see how far he can be pushed until he mends his ways -- both domestically and internationally.