The Biden-Putin summit, the core nature of Russia’s current regime, corruption among western elites, the fate of Ukraine and Navalny… In his own incisive way, world chess champion Gary Kasparov passes a not very reassuring judgment on the western world and its ability to stand up to Putin.
Interview by Galia Ackerman.
How do you assess the Biden-Putin summit?
The holding of the summit was a very serious mistake made by Biden. The only positive thing is that there were no tangible results. One question remains: what was Biden’s interest? I guess he’s feeling nostalgic. Old Joe ran for the White House in 1988, a significant part of his political career happened during the Cold War. There were all those meetings, Nixon-Brezhnev, Carter-Brezhnev, Reagan-Gorbachev. My impression is that he wanted to match up to those and come across as a leader of the free world again, by meeting with a Russian dictator. But at the time of Reagan-Gorbachev, the situation was different because the Soviet regime was in decline. There were no illusions, the USSR was fighting a war in Afghanistan and imprisoning dissidents, but nevertheless the regime was losing its traction, undergoing erosion, while today’s Russian regime has become more and more aggressive. Today, the Putin regime ideology is based on confrontation with the West. There is no hope that by looking Biden in the eye, Putin will behave otherwise.
However, this summit did allow for some de-escalation. A decision was at least made to allow US and Russian ambassadors to return…
Hold on! What de-escalation are you talking about when, since this summit was announced, two cyber attacks took place on American infrastructures? Such attacks could hardly have happened without Putin’s approval, could they? We’re also witnessing an unprecedented frontal attack on the opposition in Russia. NGOs and citizens are being labelled terrorists and extremists and are facing prison sentences. Where is the slightest sign of a decrease in tension? On the contrary, I think Putin will act in accordance with his new image. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, he turned into a kind of political pariah, and now he’s acquired the status of a great leader, equal to Biden, even though Biden had called him a “killer”. Biden first attended the G7 and the NATO summits, but the last meeting on this tour was reserved for Putin. Symbolically, this made the summit look like the most important one. In terms of image, Putin has won, and this is what he demonstrated to his oligarchic entourage, his secret services, his army, his clientele across the world, such as Maduro and Assad, and even the Chinese. The fact that Biden felt compelled to meet with Putin despite all the criticism targeted at him, is Putin’s greatest achievement and America’s defeat.
We do not know the content of their conversations. Biden nevertheless indicated that “red lines” should not be crossed.
Indeed, Biden indicated to Putin some areas of cyber security that should not come under attack. But what is this conversation between an American president and the head of a mafia that attacks America? Biden told him: you can’t touch this. And the rest is permitted? And then, how long are we going to hand out warning signals? This is no longer in the era of George W. Bush and his agreement with Putin. In the meantime, Litvinenko and Politkovskaya have been killed, Georgia has been attacked, Nemtsov has been assassinated, Crimea has been annexed, Syria has been devastated, Assad has used chemical weapons, Navalny has been poisoned and could well die in prison, and America has been attacked several times. It is useless to talk about “red lines” if you’re not ready to fire back when those lines are crossed. Of course, it would be interesting to know the details of the meeting, but the reason Biden decided to go to Geneva remains an open question. Basically, other than nostalgia and ego satisfaction, I can’t think of any reason. After the Trump disaster, people expected Biden to take concrete action. So far, those expectations have not been met.
In particular, Biden had been expected to resolutely oppose Nord Stream 2.
I guess it was too late to stop that project, but Biden has ostensibly lifted sanctions. This alternative route for delivering Russian gas to Europe will soon be operational. Putin is pragmatic. Despite sanctions and objections, Russian gas deliveries to Europe have doubled since the 2014 occupation of Crimea. And that’s the only thing Putin cares about: he’s become richer. There is no threat to the well-being of his clique. The existing sanctions are sensible in several areas, but that doesn’t change the name of the game. The Russian ruling elite enjoys an astronomical amount of money: it is estimated that the total resources this small circle of people possess and control amount to one trillion dollars. This is the amount of money Putin has at his disposal, so for him, giving a few billion dollars for this or that project is no big deal.
Or to bribe Western politicians and businessmen?
I think that’s more difficult in the United States, but in Europe it is very common. Name me a single European country where no politicians have been corrupted by the Putin regime. It’s no big secret, everything is done openly. 20 or 30 years ago, if the press discovered such behavior, these politicians’ careers would have been over. Big scandals would have broken out, resignations, court cases. But today, morals have evolved. For Fillon [a former French prime minister now in the process of joining the board of Zarubezhneft], Russian money is not a problem, neither for Schroeder [former German chancellor]. For Marine Le Pen, getting Russian funding for her party is no problem. Nobody gets outraged by it. And this is a victory for Putin.
What sanctions could be effective against the Kremlin?
Sanctions aren’t a goal in themselves, they are a means towards a well-defined end. For them to be well targeted, one has to understand the essence of the Putin regime and its weak points. This is a mafia regime: as long as it gets comfortable income pumping natural resources, it doesn’t care about what’s happening in the country. Putin will be sensitive to this only when his income comes under threat. That means sanctions must be put in place against the Russian oil and gas sector. And the Russian ruling elite’s money has to be targeted here in the West. Theoretically, this is entirely possible. But the West has waited too long, and most of these sanctions have become unrealistic. That’s because Putin’s oligarchs don’t keep their money in a bank. They invest it in soccer or basketball clubs, in charities, in real estate. This money is spread all over the place, and it cannot be frozen nor confiscated. This has been a consistent policy for the last 20 years: investing in people and political parties, etc. Who is the biggest benefactor in the UK today? Alisher Usmanov! He has given more than four billion pounds! And where is this money? It has been given to different NGOs and other structures including politicians, journalists, public figures. The whole western bloodstream is irrigated with Russian money! It is not too late to stop this, but it will be very painful for western economies. At the same time, if we don’t do it, the consequences will sooner or later be dramatic.
We live in consumerist societies. How can we explain to people that some sacrifices have to be made? Let’s say a big hotel belongs to a Russian oligarch: how do you convince a region, a city hall, the staff of this hotel that those assets have to be seized?
To do this, you have to understand that Putin’s regime represents the West’s greatest existential threat. I use the word “existential” deliberately. Putin’s objective is the destruction of the western world model that emerged from World War II. Like the HIV virus, Putin is destroying the West’s immune system. The key idea behind the idea of progress is a decrease in the level of violence in society. Putin, knowingly or unknowingly, is making the world regress. He asserts loudly and clearly that strong power has an absolute value. That is why the two key figures in Putin’s mythology are Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. Even for the Russian tsars, the figure of Ivan the Terrible was embarrassing: he was too bloodthirsty. Nowadays, Stalin and Ivan the Terrible are models of absolute power without any checks and balances, at home and abroad. The example of Syria is instructive. Putin unconditionally supports Assad because he recognizes his right to commit the worst possible crimes. This is his idea of power. And it is Putin who sets an example for the Islamists and China, to the great displeasure of the West, which does not know how to react. The recipes of the Cold War era no longer work, we live in a different world. America is no longer the guarantor of the free world, which is certainly Putin’s “accomplishment”, in part.. At the same time, the West has probably never been as strong as today, and has never had such an advantage over Russia.
What about Ukraine in all of this?
Putin cannot tame Ukraine. By some accounts Russia refrained from attacking Ukraine this Spring because of a warning sent out by Biden. I don’t believe this version of events. The reason the Russian army did not go on the offensive is that the price would have been too high. Even an army of more than 100,000 men concentrated on Ukraine’s borders would not have been enough to conquer that country. Using the air force and bombing Ukrainian cities is simply unthinkable. As a good mafia boss, Putin assesses risks and avoids undertaking anything that could undermine his power. Of course, the Russian regime would have loved to dismember Ukraine, and it tried to do so in 2014. It did not work.
Rumors have been circulating for months that Putin has health problems. Is that a hoax?
Such rumors are typical around dictators. They are always sick and always ready to leave. I am not interested in such rumors because I know that in any dictatorship the state of health of the dictator is an absolute secret. Usually, when such rumors circulate, they don’t correspond to reality.
How do you analyse Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia?
The space for public freedoms has been shrinking inexorably since Putin came to power. Navalnymade an utterly heroic but unwise move. He may not have understood that the regime’s “red lines” had moved again. For several years, Russian authorities tolerated him, and he probably even had allies among the ruling elite who thought Putin had gone too far. That time is over. The Russian regime is moving downhill, ever faster. It’s like a law of physics. This regime has now turned into a pure and simple dictatorship. There is a widespread myth among opposition figures: a real politician should live in Russia. This is not true. If the aim of politics is to take power, which means the prior collapse of the Putin regime, you have to think about where you can be most effective. Navalny’s ideas, such as “smart voting” [voting for any candidate who could win against the United Russia candidate], are only a distraction. It creates the illusion something’s going on there. I regret that Navalny did not remain in the West. With his status, he could have met with western leaders, such as Biden or Macron, his word would have carried weight, he could have influenced decision-making about Russia.
Is there a chance Navalny could be exchanged, as Vladimir Bukovsky once was?
Biden missed a unique opportunity. If he’d said to Putin: put Navalny and Protassevich on a plane, then we’ll meet in Geneva and take a picture together — it could have worked. Putin needed this summit, he could have accepted. Biden could also have made a symbolic gesture before meeting with Putin : by visiting Zelensky [the Ukrainian president] in Kiev, and by signing a contract for the delivery of combat aircraft, or perhaps by meeting with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius. This would have been behavior worthy of the leader of the free world!