Garry Kasparov, the Russian human rights activist and former chess champion, recently published a book titled Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. With the confirmation of Rex Tillerson in the news, Kasparov’s book is as timely as ever. The central message of Kasparov’s book is a stark warning to America: Vladimir Putin is not your friend. He is a dictator who intends to rule Russia for the rest of his life, and to murder anyone who gets in his way. “Engagement” with him is not the answer. Opposing him is — while still befriending the Russian people, and standing up for dissidents, freedom, and democracy.
Marco Rubio made very similar points stirringly in yesterday’s confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson: friend of Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump’s candidate for Secretary of State. In this book review I want to use some excerpts from Senator Rubio’s questioning of Tillerson (as well as a couple of other video clips) to illustrate some of Kasparov’s themes. (This is a long post, but I promise you that it’s worth your time. If you’re short on time, I ask you to bookmark it, and come back to it over the next day or two, while these hearings are still in the news.)
Let’s start with a 45-second clip from Rubio on “moral clarity” in foreign policy:
Kasparov makes his points, at all times, with perfect moral clarity. No matter what you think you know about Vladimir Putin, you’re bound to learn new things from Kasparov’s book — and if you have a heart, it cannot fail to be touched. Some of the stories I had never heard about. Others I had heard about — but I knew only part of the story.
“How come I am still alive? When I really think about it, it’s a miracle.”
These are the words of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, as quoted by Kasparov. He describes her as a fearless journalist who exposed Putin’s atrocities in Chechnya, and who had relentlessly criticized Putin and the FSB (the successor to the KGB). In 2004, on the way to help negotiate with the Chechen terrorists holding children and others hostage in Beslan, she was poisoned but did not die. (Yet.)
Here is a video of Politkovskaya talking about how Russia under Putin has become a Neo-Soviet state in which there is no freedom of speech.
How could someone like Politkovskaya say something like that and be allowed to live? you might ask. The answer is: she couldn’t. She was murdered in a contract killing at her apartment building on October 7, 2006.
Here is former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko (more about him in a moment) saying that Vladimir Putin was responsible for Politkovskaya’s death:
Litvinenko says he had been a friend of Politkovskaya’s, and that she had told him that she had been threatened by Putin and had wondered whether Putin and his confederates could actually kill her. Litvinenko told her they could, and advised Politkovskaya to leave the country. He says he had evidence that the Kremlin had her killed, but that it was seized by police. He says Politkovskaya could not have been killed without Putin having ordered it.
Most Americans who read the news have heard something about Alexander Litvinenko — even if they don’t recognize the name — because of the colorful way he himself was murdered, like something out of a spy novel. In 2006, Litvinenko was poisoned by what the New York Times called “a highly toxic and rare isotope, polonium 210.” Kasparov calls it the first known case of nuclear terrorism. After a lengthy inquiry, a final report issued by a retired High Court judge in Britain in January 2016 concluded that it was probable Putin had ordered the murder. As the New York Times reported:
The polonium that was used to poison Mr. Litvinenko, the judge said, had probably come from a Russian reactor, and he said there were “powerful motives for organizations and individuals within the Russian state to take action” against the former K.G.B. officer.
There are many possible reasons that Vladimir Putin wanted Litvinenko killed — and Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, elaborated on many of them in a long article in the Daily Mail written after he had been poisoned, and published shortly after his death. But Kasparov focuses on one possible motivation that I find particularly interesting: Litvinenko’s role in helping to expose the possible involvement of Putin in terrorist bombings of his own countrymen.
In 1999, when Putin was Yeltsin’s prime minister, a series of bombings in Russia had been attributed to Chechen separatists. In the town of Ryazan, a resident of an apartment building saw men carrying large sugar bags filled with white powder into the apartment basement. The resident called the police, who found the bags connected to a detonator. Chemical tests at the scene revealed the presence of the same type of explosive used in the previous bombings thought to be carried about by the Chechens. Putin praised the police and the alert citizen.
But then something weird happened. The director of the FSB announced that the planting of the bags was simply a training exercise by the FSB to test the public’s vigilance. There had been no explosives in the bags, he claimed, just sugar. Why announce this, after Putin himself had treated the discovery as a foiled terror plot? Because local police had already developed evidence tying the planting of the bags to FSB agents. Left unexplained: why the initial tests of mere sugar had revealed explosives. Suspicions increased with reports of soldiers having previously discovered sugar bags at a nearby military base with a “strange substance” that turned to be the explosive in question.
The bottom line is that there is evidence that Putin and the FSB were actually behind some of the bombings that were attributed to the Chechens — and Litvinenko helped make the case. Kasparov writes (with a droll conclusion — wait for it):
A deep investigation and analysis of the case were turned into a devastating book by former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, Blowing Up Russia. The same Litvinenko, who had become a fierce Putin critic, was assassinated in London in 2006 with the rare radioactive substance polonium-210. An independent FSB invetsigator of the case, Mikhail Trepashkin, was arrested a week before hearings began and jailed for four years. In 2000, the Duma twice rejected calls for a parliamentary investigation of what happened in Ryazan. All evidence and internal documents related to Ryazan were then sealed on the grounds of secrecy for seventy-five years. While I admit to developing the healthy paranoia developed by most people born in totalitarian states, this all seems like an overreaction over three bags of sugar.
In an interesting twist, the possible false-flag operation was referred to by Senator Rubio in his questioning of Rex Tillerson yesterday. After discussing the bombings across Russia attributed to Chechen terrorists, Rubio said:
By the way, there’s a credible body of reporting, open source and other, that this was all, all those bombings were part of a black flag operation on the part of the FSB.
In Litvinenko’s final statement he clearly pointed the finger at Putin, in dramatic and unforgettable fashion, as the man responsible for his death:
[A]s I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death.
I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like.
I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition.
You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.
You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.
You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.
You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.
By the way, Litvinenko, in his piece about why Putin wanted him dead, says:
Shortly afterwards, I myself became the centre of a scandal when my unit was ordered to plan the assassination of Boris Berezovsky, the entrepreneur-turned-politician who was close to President Yeltsin.
Berezovsky is cited by Kasparov in several places in the book as an example of an oligarch who, because he did not pay total allegiance to Putin, had his company stolen by Putin. The Putin tactic is this: if you oppose him and you run a company, Putin will charge you with made-up crimes. Then he will seize your company and distribute it to his cronies. This is what Putin ultimately did to Berezovsky. The same sort of tactics allowed Putin to seize control of media outlets, and terrorize others into reporting only favorable information about him.
Phony charges are used against all dissenters. Even Kasparov was brought up on his own false charges of resisting arrest, until social media-derived photos and videos proved that the injuries he was accused of having inflicted upon an officer were already visible on the officer’s body before the officer came into contact with Kasparov.
One more thing I had been unaware of before reading Kasparov’s book: remember that awful hostage situation in Beslan? I alluded to it above while discussing how Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned on the way to trying to defuse it. Chechen terrorists took hundreds of schoolchildren and others hostage at a school in Beslan. Several hostages were killed right away. Then, on the third day, two explosions rocked the gymnasium where the hostages were being held. The usual story is that the terrorists caused the explosions because they were trying to kill everyone. This forced Russian troops to storm the gymnasium to save the rest, the story goes. Unfortunately, they couldn’t save everyone, and 186 children died along with an even greater number of adults.
But Kasparov notes that an expert on combustion physics produced a report showing that, in fact, the explosions had been caused by Russian troops. The first was a shot from a flame thrower, and the second “was caused by a high explosive fragmentation grenade.” These explosions together caused a huge fire and resulted in the collapse of the roof, killing the majority of the hostages. The government quickly cleaned up the crime scene and told several provable lies regarding what had happened. Putin used the incident to justify further weakening democratic reforms.
So Vladimir Putin’s thuggish tactics likely cost the lives of 186 schoolchildren.
And let’s not forget that Vladimir Putin armed the separatists in Eastern Ukraine who, on July 17, 2014, blew Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 out of the sky, killing all 298 civilians on board. Kasparov writes:
Blaming Putin for these 298 deaths is as correct and pointless as blaming the man who pressed the button that launched the missile. Everyone had known for months that Russia arms and supports the separatists in Ukraine. Everyone had known for years that a mouse does not squeak in the Russian government without first getting Putin’s permission. So yes, Putin is responsible for those 298 deaths, more than anyone else.
Why is the blame pointless, then? Because, Kasparov explains, Putin is like the scorpion in the famous fable of the scorpion and the frog. Rather than trying to change the scorpion’s nature, we should focus on “how the civilized world can contain the dangerous creature before more innocents die.”
There are many, many more stories than I have told here, all discussed by Kasparov, of opponents of Putin who have been killed, brought up on spurious charges, or otherwise terrorized. And yet, despite as Marco Rubio so effectively revealed, Rex Tillerson is unwilling to state that Vladimir Putin “and his cronies” are responsible for the murder of “countless dissidents, journalists, and political opponents.” Watch this short minute-long clip:
Kasparov’s solution is not to boycott Russia, but simply to be honest about what they are doing, and not provide Putin with legitimacy. Do not treat Vladimir Putin as just another well-intentioned leader, Kasparov advises. Keep human rights at the forefront of American policy.
If they [Western leaders] truly wish to honor my fearless friend [Boris Nemtsov, yet another Putin critic who was murdered in the middle of Moscow in 2015], they should declare in the strongest terms that Russia will be treated like the criminal rogue regime it is for as long as Putin is in power. Call off the sham negotiations. Sell weapons to Ukraine that will put an unbearable political price on Putin’s aggression. Tell every Russian oligarch that there is no place their money will be safe in the West as long as they serve Putin.
I may not agree with every one of Kasparov’s aggressive prescriptions, but his entreaty to focus on human rights and to support the dissidents is passionate and well stated — and it is echoed in the peroration of Senator Rubio’s comments yesterday. I leave you with this impassioned clip of Rubio arguing that we cannot abandon dissidents in repressive regimes across the world. This 90-second clip is one of the most inspiring and compelling statements I have ever heard from Marco Rubio — and I know Kasparov agrees with Senator Rubio’s message here.