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How the West paved the way for Putin

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Baku, February 26th 2022

by Garry Kasparov

Early Thursday morning, Germany invaded Ukraine. So did the Netherlands, Italy, France, Great Britain and every other country that has supported Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war machine for the past decade. The missiles that slammed into Kharkiv, the helicopters attacking an airport near the capital Kyiv, every bullet in every Russian paratrooper’s gun — all were built or bought largely with money from the free world. That same free world now stands in shock that these weapons are being used to do what they were designed to do.

 

Europe bought Russian gas and oil and welcomed Putin’s oligarch cronies’ looted billions in IPOs, real estate purchases, and political donations legal and illegal. Even after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, Europe tried to keep business as usual separate from Russia’s assault on European security and the global world order.

 

On Thursday, Putin repaid them in full for their years of appeasement. After weeks of posturing and dramatic calls for summits and negotiations made headlines around the world, he sent his massed forces into Ukraine on the schedule he set months ago. The preening shuttle diplomacy by France’s Emanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz was revealed to have been a waste of time for everyone but Putin, who used it to ready his forces for the attack.

 

That time could have been used to arm Ukraine with the weapons it badly needs to fend off Russia’s overwhelming military superiority. It could have been used to level sanctions to demonstrate that this time, for once, the West was serious about deterrence. Instead, Ukraine was treated like a beggar and sanctions were kept in reserve, as a threat Putin had little reason to expect was serious. After all, goes his thinking, if you have the power to stop me and choose not to use it, aren’t you giving me the green light?

 

It’s not as if Putin tried to hide what he was doing. Spies and satellites weren’t necessary to tease out that Russia was investing record sums in its military capacity and security forces; it was right there in the national budget for years. Russia may be falling apart and falling behind, but there was always plenty of cash for security forces and propaganda, the budget of a dictator.

 

Putin was so confident of his potential rivals’ obliviousness and cowardice that he brought nearly every mobile element of the Russian military to Ukraine’s border over the course of two months. There were barely any of the usual pretexts about “exercises,” even when Russia took the unusual step of moving a large force into Belarus, where they were poised just a couple hours from Kyiv as the tank drives.

 

It’s not as if Putin tried to hide what he was doing. Spies and satellites weren’t necessary to tease out that Russia was investing record sums in its military capacity and security forces; it was right there in the national budget for years. Russia may be falling apart and falling behind, but there was always plenty of cash for security forces and propaganda, the budget of a dictator.

 

Putin was so confident of his potential rivals’ obliviousness and cowardice that he brought nearly every mobile element of the Russian military to Ukraine’s border over the course of two months. There were barely any of the usual pretexts about “exercises,” even when Russia took the unusual step of moving a large force into Belarus, where they were poised just a couple hours from Kyiv as the tank drives.

 

Of course, this is far from the first time that the world has ignored Putin’s warnings, let alone mine. Five years into his rule in Russia, Putin infamously stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Few took it seriously or understood it to mean that Putin would try to reverse that catastrophe should he have the chance. Much the way Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was considered little more than hateful ranting when it was published in 1925, a clear warning was ignored.

Now a war of conquest has erupted in Europe, the greatest ever threat to the post-World War II order of borders and laws. Tanks are rolling, ballistic missiles are flying and jets are dogfighting above major cities. Putin has followed through on his promise to try to crush Ukraine, which he first invaded in 2014. My Daily News op-ed on Putin at the time was bluntly titled “Stop This Man.” Needless to say, Putin has not been stopped.

 

Eight years later, Putin and his war machine are much stronger. Instead of being politically isolated and economically cut off, his regime has profited from record gas and oil exports. Most profits are siphoned off into the private accounts that make Putin and his cronies the richest people in the world. Much of the rest has gone into a literal war chest, expanding and improving Russia’s military and internal security forces and filling a reserve fund to help them weather sanctions.

 

Time has made Putin’s grip on power in Russia stronger as well, with every significant critic dead, jailed or exiled. The last major protests, in 2020 on behalf of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were met by an army of well-equipped riot police. Their shiny new helmets and batons were also paid for by the same European nations whose leaders meekly protested the brutality.

 

Putin is not invulnerable, nor is his army. Ukraine is fighting hard, and if the initial onslaught is repulsed, and aid arrives in time, Putin could find himself in a difficult position. He will have to either retreat or choose total war against an urban population, which could shock even sleepy NATO into action.

 

Russians came out to protest this war in the largest numbers since 2020, with more than 1,700 arrests across the country on the first day. Most Russians get their news from state-controlled television, unfortunately, where they are told this is a war of self-defense against the “Nazis” in Ukraine and their masters in America. (Really.) But the longer the war goes on, the more obvious it will be that Putin’s needless war on Ukraine is also part of Putin’s war on Russians.

Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and Putin invokes it regularly, but there is much that can be done to constrain him and save lives now. After years of my warnings and proposals being ignored, and now hearing “You were right, Garry!” all day, I’ll repeat what I said in 2014: Stop telling me I was right and start listening now. My recommendations:

  • Support Ukraine militarily, immediately. Everything but boots on the ground, meaning every advanced weapon, intelligence and cyber-capabilities. It has to be now. If Ukraine falls, Putin will bleed it dry to compensate for sanctions and dig in, as he has in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Victory in Ukraine is also the only way to avoid doing this all again and again when Putin needs new targets to distract from the disastrous state of Russia.
  • Bankrupt Putin’s war machine by freezing and seizing Russian assets and access to markets. Kick Russia out of SWIFT and other financial networks, and every international institution.
  • Expose and seize the assets of Putin’s cronies and their companies and families in the free world. Take away their visas and send them back to live in the dictatorship they helped build.
  • Recall all ambassadors from Russia. There is no point in diplomacy or communications with a rogue dictatorship making war. Send the message that isolation will be total until all aggression ceases and Ukraine is made whole.
  • Turn off, shut down and send home every element of Putin’s global propaganda machine. Russia Today and other platforms beam lies and hate into millions of homes in the free world, while Putin maintains total control of the media in Russia.
  • Call out Putin’s lackeys in the free world. The lobbyists, the law firms, the former politicians like German ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who chairs two of Putin’s strategically important energy companies. This includes the fifth columnists of all political stripes who side with a dictator for ideology or Russian cash. Why do executives and advertisers tolerate the likes of Tucker Carlson braying Putin propaganda in prime time? Trump and his acolytes in Congress still can’t find a discouraging word for Putin and repeat Russian propaganda blaming NATO and Biden even as Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. I’ve bashed every U.S. president since Reagan over Russia policy, but praising a bloodthirsty dictator to score partisan points is disgusting and un-American.
  • Replace Russian energy exports by increasing production and opening new sources, from fracking to nuclear to renewables. Giving authoritarians so much leverage for extortion is unacceptable. There’s no point in saving the planet if you don’t save the people on it.

Joe Biden’s Cold War background has prepared him better than most of his European peers. His grave tone and announcement of serious sanctions were a welcome start. Most EU leaders, even the ones in the East who grasp the danger Putin represents, are a generation removed from confrontation and conflict. But now they must help Ukraine fight against the monster they helped create.

This piece first appeared in the New York Daily News where the former world chess champion and political commentator now writes an oped column.

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