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FT Review: Winter is Coming, by Garry Kasparov

FT Review: Winter is Coming, by Garry KasparovAt times the reader of Garry Kasparovs book on Russia gains an unnerving insight into what it must be like to sit on the other side of the board from the intimidating chess champion. His prose, like his chess, is fast, ferocious and unforgiving.

Without messing around in the opening, Kasparov quickly launches a full-frontal assault on his target, President Vladimir Putin, whom he likens to Hitler. Bursting with pent-up fury, he argues the west is making a tragic mistake in appeasing Mr Putin over Ukraine. Instead, it should isolate him, slap stiff sanctions on all the Kremlins cronies and sell lethal arms to Kiev. Dictators only stop when they are stopped, he thunders.

The book Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped taking its title from the Game of Thrones television series, in which the phrase urges constant vigilance is in part a history of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While saluting the courage of Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president, Kasparov laments his failure to entrench democratic institutions. He then vividly describes the growing authoritarianism of Mr Putins regime, culminating in the February murder of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader. As Mr Putin has consolidated his power at home, he has also become more aggressive abroad, in Georgia, in Ukraine and now in Syria.

But the real power of Kasparovs book lies in his argument that the west must pursue a more assertive and moral foreign policy, something that has faded out of fashion. In his view, the most moral foreign policy is also the most effective. It enhances international security by insisting on observance of law.

Here, Kasparov echoes the great Soviet dissidents, Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky, who urged the west to press the Soviet Union to uphold its own laws and the human rights commitments it agreed in the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbours, Kasparov approvingly quotes Sakharov as saying. Mr Putins Russia is a perfect example of this truth, he adds, in its treatment of Ukraine.

Kasparov, who emerged as a leader of Russias opposition movement in 2011 and now lives in exile in New York, says the west used to be a beacon of moral authority during the cold war, inspiring oppressed peoples and jailed dissidents around the world. In particular, he praises the late US President Ronald Reagan for the clarity of his moral message in denouncing the evil empire that was the Soviet Union.

But in Kasparovs view, US President Bill Clinton squandered the chance to advance the international human rights agenda in the 1990s, as the west took a holiday from history. And today the west is too uninformed, callous, or apathetic to assert its influence and values.

He, rightly, argues that one of the most important aspects of any moral foreign policy is its consistency. Western leaders should keep talking about human rights issues in good times as well as bad. Otherwise, these issues become just another chip on the geopolitical gaming table. Those leaders should also insist on raising these subjects with strong autocracies, such as China, as well as the weak.

Kasparov accepts that he deals only in principles not practicalities. He acknowledges that elected politicians have to contend with many conflicting priorities and often indifferent voters. He also skims over the wests interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have so undermined its moral authority and fuelled isolationism.

But he fears that western voters and their leaders are like bad chess players, in danger of losing sight of the big picture.

From Chamberlain in 1938 to Obama in 2015, the people get what they demand for a while, he writes. Main Street and Wall Street reward politicians who produce attractive short-term results no matter how bad the long-term consequences are.

Despite his excessive pyrotechnics, this is a book that should be read by every policymaker dealing with Russia (or any other autocracy) especially British ministers who have been so assiduously courting China.

Kasparovs final injunction is always to listen to the dissidents: they know of what they speak.

Source: Financial Times
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