“How would you assess Putin?” I ask.
“Evil,” Kasparov replies. “Pure evil.”
“Evil from the beginning?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s just the...” he pauses, trying to find a way to describe it, “evil from the very beginning, but eventually he was brought into power and eventually he discovered himself....”Again he pauses and then comes out with it. “He discovered himself in the center of this universe with unlimited powers with enormous luck!”
There’s something Faustian to this characterization, this vision of Grandmaster Putin suddenly finding himself like Milton’s Satan, realizing it’s better to “reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” He’s found himself in a universe he can reign over with godlike abandon. No one in the world, not any of the leaders of the other countries, has powers so unlimited. Few in history have had it—and fewer still have been able to keep it.
But Kasparov will not grant Putin grandmaster strategist status.
“He got lucky from other factors: high price of oil, 9/11 attack, general weakness of the West, complacency, muddy waters in the global politics, apathy of Russian people—the combination [of all that].” And Kasparov also feels there are limits to the effects of Putin’s evil. “It’s unimaginable to think he could cause as much damage as Hitler. It’s [different], 21st century from the 20th century. I always say that Hitler used tanks, Putin’s using banks. But the damage Putin has caused to the integrity of Western financial, political system has yet to be measured.”
Returning to Ukraine and Putin’s Gambit, “This is an amazing moment in history, wouldn’t you say?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he replies, “I think this [is] an amazing time. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the big change. But it was a mistake to think the end of the cold war was the end of history.”
Kasparov’s reference is to the title of a once-fashionable geopolitical book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, and to its thesis that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was on an uninterruptable path to global liberal democracy.
“Could things have gone that way?” I ask.
“The failure of Russia, I think, was a reflection of the failure of the U.S. administration and the Western Europeans to recognize the new trends. It was all dictated by Fukuyama’s ‘wisdom,’” he says sarcastically. “It’s the end of history, now let’s just enjoy. Let’s get rich, let’s make friends. Ignoring that there are new dangers. In 1992 America was in a position to implement dramatic changes. A lot of positive things could’ve happened. Clinton could have offered a plan for Russia, Eastern Europe, similar to the Marshall Plan. Any plan. We say in chess, a bad plan is better than no plan. And there was no plan. And at the end of the Clinton’s rule we had Al Qaeda on the rise and just, you know, a few months left before 9/11. The global map changed dramatically.”
“What about George Bush Sr.? Didn’t he have the opportunity?”
“I was harshly critical of his actions, his desperate attempts to cling to the old order because he couldn’t believe that the world could change so dramatically. But by 1992 America’s power was unchecked. Now you have to [evaluate] what was [accomplished] with this unchecked power and ideas,” he says.
“So what should we have done?”
“First of all, you don’t say ‘That’s the end of the game.’ Because the game is endless. It’s the human race. Nobody had a plan that could go for four years, six years, ten years. That was an opportunity to make plans like the Truman administration did in late-1940s.”
“And now?” I ask.
“Everybody’s complaining that today things are so difficult, the Obama administration is facing [so many] enemies, it’s difficult to confront China and radical Islam and Putin is...someone told me that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than Joseph Stalin in 1948. Are you serious? That insults my sense of history. It’s just politicians trying to cover up a lack of ideas, inability to strategize, and unwillingness to break a status quo, desperate attempts to cling to the power by [emphasizing] the magnitude of the global challenges.”
It sounds like Kasparov is in despair, but to my surprise, he finds good reasons for long-term optimism.