Jacob Weisberg talks to Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion and Russian, pro-democracy leader, about Vladamir Putin’s meddling in our election and America’s response.
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Jacob Weisberg: I was doing a little research and I came upon this headline from CNN, Oct. 21, “Kasparov: Russia Absolutely Trying to Elect Trump.” And there are more like this. I mean, you were saying this all fall. And now you’re hearing people saying, Why wasn’t this a big deal? Why didn’t we hear more about Putin intervening on Trump’s side with these hacks on the DNC? You must feel a little frustrated.
Garry Kasparov: Oh, I hate saying, I told you so. I remember when I submitted my book to the publisher—they liked the title, they liked the book, but they were not sure about the subtitle: “Why Vladimir Putin and Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.” They thought it would be too provocative and probably not substantiated.
Me and many of my colleagues, like the late Boris Nemtsov, have been telling people around the world that Vladimir Putin was our problem but, eventually, will be everybody’s problem because, as with every dictator, he will look for a global stage to boost his grip on power domestically. It was very natural for him to look at the United States as the ultimate prize for his dictator’s pride, to demonstrate that he’s so powerful, so invincible that he would defy the most powerful nation in the world.
Isn’t this just risky behavior, though? As you have said, nothing happens in Russia that’s important without Putin’s permission. I mean, to have his intelligence agencies not only hacking the Democratic National Committee and more generally speaking the democratic process for intelligence purposes, but to be actually intervening in the election—that surprises me as someone who wouldn’t expect better behavior of him. It just seems dangerous.
I think being a dictator for life is a risky business. You’re absolutely right: If you try to judge Putin and Putin’s actions from our perspective—we live in a free country now and we’re always looking forward, we’re trying to make strategic calculations—we’ll be judging him wrong because a dictator doesn’t care about strategy. At a certain point, it’s all about survival, it’s all about achieving my goals today. While he can make mistakes—because he doesn’t care about free press in his own country, there’s no parliament that could examine his actions—he knows there’s one deadly mistake that every dictator must avoid: He cannot afford to look weak.
Of course it’s risky to hack American institutions like leading parties, and even just to interfere with American elections—but it was inevitable because Putin made anti-Americanism and the challenge of America’s influence in the world a core of his domestic propaganda. He saw a big opportunity, because after so many years of weakness shown by Obama’s administration, Putin felt emboldened. That’s why I was sure he would do it, because I’ve read enough history books to learn that dictators—if they don’t stop at an early stage, they eventually go off-limits. Putin saw a big opportunity with Donald Trump and he grabbed this opportunity, and we know that this administration—Obama and the White House, the State Department, CIA—they received these reports and they tried to avoid an open conflict with Russia because, obviously, there are many arguments why you should avoid this conflict. That was Putin’s precise calculation.
Let’s just talk a little more, first, about what Putin was doing. If you read this long New York Times piece about the details of what happened, they reported that two Russian intelligence agencies—first the FSB, which is Putin’s organization, the successor to the KGB, and then separately Russian military intelligence—both hacked into the DNC. And if the story is to be believed, one hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing. It sounded, at some level, like a coordinated plot, and then at another level, like a certain amount of chaos.
Yes, but this is typical for dictatorships. That, by the way, proves that Putin was very much in the center. Because a dictator doesn’t want one security structure to become too powerful. Of course, he wanted to have both or probably even more to complete the same task, because it could offer him a unique position of using this information at his disposal. Again, it’s another demonstration of the differences between democracies and dictatorships.
That also sounded to me like a chess player’s analysis. You’re the greatest chess player ever. Is Putin playing chess, or is he playing a different game?
No, I always wanted to defend the integrity of my game—when people said, Oh, Putin played chess, Obama played checkers. Putin, as with every dictator, hates chess because chess is a strategic game which is 100 percent transparent. I know what are available resources for me and what kind of resources could be mobilized by my opponent. Of course, I don’t know what my opponent thinks about strategy and tactics, but at least I know what kind of resources available to you cause damage to me.
Dictators hate transparency and Putin feels much more comfortable playing a game that I would rather call geopolitical poker. In poker, you know, you can win having a very weak hand, provided you have enough cash to raise the stakes—and also, if you have a strong nerve, to bluff. Putin kept bluffing. He could see his geopolitical opponents—the leaders of the free world—folding cards, one after another. For me, the crucial moment where Putin decided that he could do whatever was Obama’s decision not to enforce the infamous red line in Syria.
There should have been a red line about interfering in an American election. Why has that not been a red line for the Obama administration? Why do you think they didn’t react to be more public about it before the election, when they were hearing what everybody’s hearing now, and why do you think they haven’t retaliated—seemingly—in any way?
I think, again, we should give Putin credit for evaluating the psychology of his opponent. It was a brilliant game he played against the Obama administration—as successful as the game he played against the Bush administration, when he charmed Bush ’43 at the first meeting—we all remember his famous comments about looking into Putin’s soul. Putin knew how to win the compliance of President Bush and he knew in 2014, 2015—that Obama would do absolutely everything to avoid serious conflict, open conflict with Russia before the end of his presidency.
And Putin, again, had a very weak hand—American retaliation could be devastating for Russia—but Putin was betting on Obama doing nothing, sitting on his data, hoping that Hillary would win anyway. And then Putin believed that he could not just win this battle, not just get the outcome he wanted, but also send a message. Because Putin’s role in America’s election is not just a fact of American domestic politics. It demonstrated to everybody—to American allies in NATO, to Arab monarchies in the Gulf, to Chinese, to Japanese, to African nations, to Latin America—that Putin is so powerful, so arrogant, and so confident, that he could intervene in the American political process, and the U.S. basically swallowed it.
So you’ve explained Putin’s aggression, you’ve explained Obama’s under-reaction. Now I want you to explain Trump’s behavior. I read an interview you did in Playboy. You said, talking about Trump “for somebody who is inconsistent in almost everything, being so consistent in defending Putin raises my suspicions.” I thought that was a really interesting observation. I mean, Trump’s all over the map. He’s a figure of chaos. But he’s been amazingly consistent in being pro-Putin.
It’s highly unusual for any candidate of a major party, especially for a Republican, to go after the CIA or FBI and take the word of the KGB. But there are two reasons. One is that since we have no knowledge or almost no knowledge of the structure and finances of Trump’s empire, I think it was a phenomenal success of Trump that he could get elected without revealing the true nature of his financial affairs. Whether, you know, he’s a billionaire, maybe he’s not, he owes money to people in America or elsewhere. We don’t know whether the man—who, as we all know, survived four bankruptcies and borrowed tons of money and now is about to become commander-in-chief—owes favors to maybe America’s foes around the world. We don’t know.
So maybe Putin has something that is so vital for Trump that he didn’t want even to consider any conflict with Putin. Maybe. I don’t know. I think it’s very important for Democrats and, I guess, for Republicans to press Donald Trump to eventually show his tax returns—to understand whether there’s something in it that prevented him from doing it during the campaign. Of course, it could be something else. It could be some kind of blackmail materials, maybe recorded while Trump was in Moscow—I don’t know, I can only speculate, and I don’t feel very comfortable speculating.
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Is it Kompromat? Is that the term?
Maybe. Again, he was in Moscow—the Miss Universe competition is there. All speculation. But we’re trying to find some kind of explanation for Trump’s constant denial of Putin’s involvement in American politics—and by the way, we heard from this same CIA report that Russians hacked RNC servers as well, and I have no doubt that they hacked Donald Trump’s accounts. They haven’t revealed it—we could suspect they will use it more effectively later. But also, I think that Trump feels like he could do business with Putin. That’s what worries me even more than any Kompromat that Putin might have in his drawer on Trump. Because psychologically, Trump might also feel very comfortable with Putin—since, for him, everything is up for grabs, and everything is up for a deal. So I wonder if he views Crimea as just a piece of real estate, the hostile takeover of real estate or property which he could trade for something else.
Well, let me run another theory by you. I think it’s consistent with yours. After Trump’s bankruptcy, American banks wouldn’t lend him money. One of the places he had to look for funding was Russian oligarchs. Whether he took money from them or not, he spent a lot of time with them. And on issues where Trump would have no other point of view—I mean, Crimea would be meaningless to him—he got to know people who had strong pro-Putin views on these questions, and he kind of absorbed those views, and they matched with his economic interests, so that’s what he thinks.
Absolutely. Now, what also troubles me is that in the midst of this scandal, with American organizations revealing the data about Putin’s interference in U.S. elections, Donald Trump appoints Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. It’s basically just saying: “So what? I don’t give a damn about all of these relations. I’m picking a man who is known to be the closest American entrepreneur to Vladimir Putin, being very friendly to Putin, and also having very strong views on U.S.–Russian relations”—meaning that sanctions must be lifted and the the U.S. and Russia should be ready to do business as usual.
So for me, when you start combining all these facts—from the Putin side, we have a pattern, because Putin hacked not only American political institutions, but he has been doing it regularly in Europe, and if one dismisses CIA reports, they also have to dismiss reports of many intelligence offices in Europe where the same kinds of attacks have been reported. And also, there was opportunity: We all understand that WikiLeaks was under direct control, and information has been leaked exactly on the schedule that was dictated by the election. When we have all these facts together, I would say that, in this case, the benefit of the doubt goes to the CIA. I understand there are a lot of complaints and anxiety about Trump’s behavior and his appointment of Rex Tillerson. But I think that’s not enough. We are entering very, very dangerous territory where American foreign policy could become a hostage of business interests.
So the enemies of the free world you refer to in the subtitle of your book: Do you think those enemies now include Donald Trump?
I don’t know. I don’t want to call the president-elect an enemy of the free world, but he’s definitely not suitable for the role of leader of the free world—he just doesn’t care. The leader of the free world requires a certain belief in moral values—the core values—that made the free world victorious in the Cold War against communism. It’s kind of a post-Cold War era where America will be using its military might and its economic power to cut deals, to avoid what Trump and Tillerson might call “unnecessary confrontation.” But eventually, it will lead to disastrous consequences because the leader of this world—without America playing this role—could be up for grabs for other players.
As a Russian pro-democracy leader: You live in exile now in the United States, you were thrown in jail more than once. What’s your advice to us, as pro-democracy Americans faced with real threats to civil liberties and democratic rights in this country?
First of all, people here should understand that nothing is for granted. There were many warnings in the past, you know, but every time, Americans and Europeans—they believe that it’s like bad weather. It comes and goes. But the danger is real. I always want to quote Ronald Reagan, who said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Now, probably, it’s not even one generation. Things can happen very quickly, because there’s so much power that comes in the hands of people who have very little affection for the values that make up the core of liberal democracy and the free world. But I still think that America has a huge potential to recover from this crisis, and let’s not forget that a majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump.
Sometimes I feel that Trump’s victory is a push for us thinking about the future, because Trump—and I would bring him together with Putin and other global players that are not sharing the same values as we do—is always looking at the past as a model. This is something that should tell us that in order to win, we have to look in the future. Our problem is that we have been trying to stick with the status quo—that’s why everybody was offering something different. Look at ISIS, talking about the caliphate, or Putin, or the politics of Trump with “Make America Great Again” and saying, “You have nothing to lose.” We have to come up with a vision that could energize people, especially young people—to convince them that unless they take their future in their own hands and they start thinking about five, 10, 20 years ahead, nothing’s going to happen. Nobody’s going to fix it. Democracy, it’s not the end of the process—it’s just an instrument to help us achieve our goals.