How the West Propped Up Putin

I fought for democracy in Russia. I didn’t expect the leaders of the so-called free world to undermine me.

Russian matryoshka dolls featuring Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters)

Five years after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia for the first time and began to rebuild the Soviet police state, I experienced a rebirth of my own. In 2005, I retired from 20 years on top of the professional chess world to join the fledgling Russian pro-democracy movement. I had become world champion in 1985, at the age of 22, and had achieved everything I could want to achieve at the chessboard. I wanted my children to be able to grow up in a free Russia. And I remembered the sign my mother once put up on my wall, a saying of the Soviet dissidents: “If not you, who else?”

Like many Russians, I was troubled by the little-known Putin’s KGB background and his sudden rise to power, which involved overseeing the brutal 1999 war to pacify Chechnya as Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister. But at the start I was grudgingly willing to give Putin a chance. Russia’s 1998 default had left the economy in a very shaky state; crime, inflation, and a general sense of national weakness and uncertainty made the technocratic and plainspoken Putin an appealingly safe option. Physical and social insecurity are easy targets in fragile democracies, and throughout history, autocrats and military juntas have been empowered by the people’s call for order and a strong hand to steady a wobbly democratic regime.

Somehow, people always forget that it’s much easier to install a dictator than to remove one.

With Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the United States now faces an old adversary on a new battlefield. Putin wants to support the murderous regime of his ally Bashar al-Assad while at the same time boosting his tough-guy image at home and undermining U.S. influence. As usual, Putin leads with force—artillery in Ukraine, jets in Syria—and then welcomes negotiations while doing as he likes on the ground. So far this strategy of bluffing and bullying has paid off; the White House has meekly gone along with the charade of diplomacy, with any political chill between the United States and Russia quickly criticized as a potential “return to the Cold War.”

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The use of the cliché is ironic, given that the way the Cold War was fought and won seems to have been forgotten today. Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, right and wrong, and the universal values of human rights and human life, the West has offered engagement, resets, and moral equivalence, repeatedly meeting Russian aggression with little more than press releases expressing concern. The United States and the European Union at last imposed sanctions on Russia following the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. But the move arrived timidly, and sanctions have been insufficient to deter Putin or to reverse the years of damage done by the so-called leaders of the free world, who talk about promoting democracy while treating the leaders of the most repressive regimes as equals. Their embrace is what helped keep Putin in power for so long, immunizing him against charges of being anti-democratic. I know. I watched it happen.

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I did not expect my new career in what can only generously be called Russian “politics” to be an easy one. The opposition was not trying to win elections; we were fighting just to have meaningful ones. In 2000, Putin was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor; when he came up for reelection in 2004, there was never any real doubt about the outcome. Even in 2007, when I won an opposition primary for the next year’s presidential election, I maintained I was an activist, not a politician. I knew I would never be allowed to appear on an official ballot, whose spots were reserved for the loyal opposition; the point was to expose that fact and to try to strengthen the atrophied muscles of the Russian democratic process.

My initial goal was to unite all the anti-Putin forces in the country, especially those that had nothing else in common—like the liberal reformer camp I belonged to and the National Bolsheviks, who wanted to uproot the entire system. Our fragile coalition marched in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg in the months ahead of the 2007 parliamentary elections, in the first serious political protests since Putin had taken office. We wanted to show the people of Russia that resistance was possible, and to spread the message that giving up liberty in exchange for stability was a false choice.

Unfortunately, Putin had an advantage the Soviet leadership could never have dreamed of: deep economic and political engagement with the United States and Europe. “But wait,” I hear the so-called pragmatists say, “isn’t economic engagement the best way to improve the Russian standard of living and, eventually, the state of its politics?” In fact, the opposite happened. As the price of oil skyrocketed over Putin’s first two terms, and industries were consolidated into the hands of his loyalists, the profits of engagement were invested in the security forces and propaganda machine, not liberalization. Russian oligarchs spread their wealth and political influence around the globe; Western companies, notably energy giants like Shell and British Petroleum, returned the favor by investing in Russia. The real impact of economic engagement was the reverse of the effect its apologists defend: namely the export of corruption from Russia to its “partners” in the free world.

So while our movement made some progress in drawing attention to the undemocratic reality of Putin’s Russia, we were in a losing position from the start. The Kremlin’s domination of the mass media and ruthless persecution of the opposition made it impossible to build any lasting momentum. In November 2007, I was arrested at a Moscow rally and sentenced to five days in jail under new anti-demonstration laws. Meanwhile, a new diplomatic position was slowly being adopted in the West—one that feebly acknowledged the differences between Russia and its democratic counterparts. However, according to this position, those differences were minor and “within an acceptable range,” according to one European Union official. For me and for a dozen of my colleagues marching for democracy, that “acceptable range” was 120 square feet—the size of the jail cell several of us occupied as punishment for “disobeying a police officer” at the opposition rally in Moscow.

By 2008, when Putin, having reached the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms in office, loaned the presidency to his reliable subordinate Dmitry Medvedev, it should have been clear to all that Russian democracy was dead. And yet one democratic leader after another lined up to play along with the charade. U.S. President George W. Bush phoned his new counterpart to offer congratulations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy warmly invited Medvedev to Paris. The leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, and many other countries offered similar encomiums. This despite the fact that the election that brought Medvedev to the presidency had been boycotted by the main European election-monitoring body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in protest against restrictions imposed on observers.

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Barack Obama was elected president of the United States later in 2008—a few months after giving a speech in Berlin about freedom and shared values, one that evoked the famous speeches there by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who stood up to the Soviet Union and the tyranny it represented in Eastern Europe. Of course, there were complex issues around how Obama should deal with Russia’s official president, Dmitry Medvedev, and Russia’s real leader, Vladimir Putin. But the central choice he faced on coming to office was straightforward. Obama could treat them like fellow democratic leaders or he could be honest. He could take strength from the fact that he had received nearly 70 million votes while Medvedev had needed only one, that of Putin. Had Obama labeled the Putin dictatorship clearly and openly from the start he might have helped bring hope and change to an entirely different constituency: 140 million Russians.

On July 7, 2009, Obama gave a speech at the New Economics School in Moscow. It was, of course, a very good speech. I said in a press conference after Obama met with me and other opposition leaders that the speech was “less than what we wanted but more than what we expected.” He repeatedly emphasized that the important relationship between America and Russia was about the people, not their regimes, which was exactly what I had hoped for. Obama opened direct lines of communication instead of dealing only with official Kremlin channels.

Ideally he would have named names. Obama made some strong statements about the failure of totalitarianism and pointed to the solution of democracy; in fact, he made far stronger statements regarding Putin’s Russia than anything we had heard from the two American administrations before him. But he avoided criticizing the track records of Putin and Medvedev. As a guest in Russia, Obama could hardly insult his hosts, but remarking on the anti-democratic trend of the previous nine years would have made the point. Nor did Obama mention Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose 2003 jailing by Putin and continued imprisonment by Medvedev exemplified everything Obama was criticizing about authoritarian states.

Experiencing a sentiment soon to be shared by many Americans, Russians quickly felt let down after a great Obama speech. The American president had raised expectations that his administration would look at the Kremlin’s record of brutality at home and transgressions abroad, and attempt to ally with the beleaguered Russian people instead of our repressive government. But instead of lines in the sand we got words in the air. Following the fraudulent elections of March 4, 2012 that returned Putin to the presidency—complete with fake polling stations; an incredible swelling in the size of the supplementary voter rolls, intended for those who need to vote in a different location than where they are registered; and threats to CEOs and school administrators to get out the vote for Putin, or face funding cuts or worse—Obama did wait a few days to contact Russia’s new leader. But eventually he called Putin to congratulate him. The modern dictatorship was taking shape behind the scenes, but the performance of a democracy was continuing onstage, and Obama played his part.

In my first years as an activist, I often said that Putin was a Russian problem for Russians to solve, but that he would soon be a regional problem and then a global problem if his ambitions were ignored. This regrettable transformation has come to pass, and lives are being lost from Ukraine to Syria because of it. When Assad and Putin danced a waltz across Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, with Putin brokering a deal that allowed the Syrian president to escape the punishment of American airstrikes, I warned that dictators and would-be dictators from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang were watching closely. Did the Obama administration have the courage to keep promises when they were challenged? While there were other factors, I’m convinced that Syria gave Putin added confidence to find out. At the end of February 2014, for the second time in six years, Putin ordered Russian troops across an internationally recognized border to occupy territory.

The United States, Canada, and even Europe responded to Putin’s aggression, it is true, but always a few moves behind, always after the deterrent potential of each action they took had passed. Strong sanctions and a clear demonstration of support for Ukrainian territorial integrity would have had a real impact when Putin moved on Crimea in February and March, and I recommended them at the time. A sign that there would be real consequences for the intervention in Crimea would have split Russia’s elites as they pondered the loss of their coveted assets on both sides of the Atlantic, and thereby threatened Putin’s hold on power. In April and May, supplying defensive weaponry to Ukraine would have slowed the invasion then underway, or at least raised the price of Russia’s actions considerably. Those like me who called for such aid at the time were called warmongers, and policymakers again sought dialogue with Putin. And yet war arrived regardless, as it always does in the face of weakness.

The humiliating failure of the two peace agreements signed in Minsk, Belarus, intended to halt the fighting in eastern Ukraine, proved what leaders of the free world simply refuse to admit: that there is no dealing with Putin the way they deal with one another. The model is repeating itself in Syria, as diplomats head to Vienna for peace talks. But confronting Putin doesn’t mean defeating the entire Russian army or starting World War III. Putin’s entire leadership cult in Russia is built on his image as an invincible strongman. He cannot afford to look like a loser, which is why he has maintained the feeble myth that Russian forces aren’t fighting in Ukraine, and why he picks targets NATO won’t defend. Any opposing force that threatened to inflict enough damage to pierce Putin’s illusion of invincibility would be enough to cause a real change in his behavior.

But the politicians of the free world know that it is easier and more popular to do nothing and claim to be peacemakers than to endure the criticism that inevitably comes with any action, which is why it will be so hard to break the cycle in Ukraine, Syria, and wherever Putin prods next—whether it’s Libya, the Baltics, or Venezuela. The United States and Europe have overwhelming military and economic advantages over Russia, but their leaders seem to lack the realization that diplomacy has its limits when facing dictators, and that diplomacy is only possible from a position of strength. As long as Putin sends jets and tanks while the West sends blankets and diplomats, the dictator will be calling the shots.

This article has been adapted from Garry Kasparov’s new book, Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.