Garry Kasparov does not believe the opposition can upend the Putin regime in Russia today. He believes that between one and two million Russians who are currently propping up the Russian economy should be brought to the West. But they must be willing to admit that a Ukrainian victory is the only possible future for Russia.
How would you describe Russia's war against Ukraine?
What is happening in Ukraine is not just territorial aggression. It is a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. And I believe that is also how Putin sees it. Yes, there is longing for the Soviet empire, while in his subconscious, Putin wants to take revenge on the West for losing the Cold War. Bring us back to a world where might makes right and where consensus, agreements, documents and signatures no longer matter.
Looking at the situation in Russia, it has gotten to the most naked form of "government worship." If we take Medinski's (Councilor to the Russian President Vladimir Medinski – ed.) newest history textbook, his concept is simple – "the authorities are always right." Putin wants to prove to the West that he can control the so-called near abroad, while his ambitions really go beyond the borders of Ukraine.
I still do not feel the West is prepared to accept the challenge. "The great West, by which I mostly mean the U.S., did not develop a strategy in this war. Because a strategy primarily means having an end goal. Myself and those who think as I do find there can only be one goal – Ukraine must win!
However, we have not heard those words yet. Things along the lines of "we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes" are far removed from those three words – "Ukraine must win!" A Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat is still seen as an unpredictable if not undesirable scenario in the West.
For us in the West, Russia is an aggressor state and Ukraine is defending itself against aggression. And we have done our best to help Ukraine. But where do the "good" or anti-war Russians come in?
There is no such community as "anti-war Russians." I also do not like the phrase "good Russians," to put it mildly. Opinions run the gamut among those who have emigrated from Russia, while we can conditionally divide them in two. Saying that a person is against the war and Putin sounds quite vague. I proposed a simple formula for identifying people who think like us: they need to declare in five seconds and without hesitation that, "the war is criminal, the regime illegitimate and Crimea is Ukraine."
It seems to me that only 25 percent of the Russian opposition is willing to make that declaration without hesitation. And it's not just Crimea that's giving them pause. The point about the regime being illegitimate raises a lot of questions as most people who are no longer in Russian today used to be part of that political theater for years.
The West also didn't want to do anything about Putin. This despite the obvious dangers, my warnings and those of Boris Nemtsov. The West was guided by that layer of the [Russian] "opposition," which said that while Putin is not a democratic leader, everything is not that bad. Tens of millions of dollars were spent to prop up this artificial construct mistakenly referred to as the "opposition." And those people, many of them at least, are still on Western support.
The Russian opposition ended in 2012. I'm referring to the protests in Bolotnaya Square (a series of protests against the results of parliamentary elections held in Moscow and other cities in 2011-2012 – ed.). The attempt failed because there was no will to go all the way. And we are today largely repeating the decade-old split in the diaspora.
But all of them are still against the war and Putin...
What we see today is that many who are against the war are not willing to demonstrate willingness to offer the Ukrainian armed forces every kind of help. There is no such question for me and those who think like me. It is quite clear to us that Russia's freedom needs to start with a Ukrainian victory. Nothing will change until the Ukrainian flag is hoisted in Sevastopol.
Does this mean there is no serious protest activity in Russia nor will there be?
Nothing in Russia will change without a military defeat in Ukraine. It is like Germany 1943-1944. Of course, everything was so much worse there, they were being bombed and the war had been lost, which every sensible person realized. While I would not like to compare Prigozhin to German generals who attempted a coup, those attempts failed then and now. Therefore, there is no other possibility.
I understand when it is said that Russia is a nuclear power and cannot be occupied. But we are talking about a military defeat. And mythology. Putin's whole mythology is built on Crimea. It has been a pillar on which the regime rests since 2014. A dictator lacks legitimacy from elections, but they still need to have legitimacy in the eyes of the people as someone who has achieved something. Crimea is that symbol.
Therefore, the liberation of Crimea and a Ukrainian flag in Sevastopol would be something the regime would not survive. And this goes beyond Putin and his court. We are talking about the algorithm of imperial consciousness. It is alive and well in Russia, whereas it is not from 20 or 50 years ago, it has been genetically passed down from one generation to the next. And the only way to get rid of it is through a military defeat.
What should the West do with "very good Russians"?
It is a question of a strategy that does not yet exist. We need to find real allies in this protracted war. I told my American friends to imagine if they got the chance to invite all German scientists to come to America in 1942. What would you do? They said that they would welcome all of them. To which I said, and what's stopping you from doing it now?
It is clear that there's no tourism in time of war, visas are impossible. But every Russian citizen who has said that, "war is criminal, the regime illegitimate and Crimea is Ukraine " should be able to start the process of integrating into the free world. It means that if there is a North Korea, there should also be an alternative in the form of South Korea. If something like that is created and if the free world recognizes it to some extent, it will offer opportunities not just for consolidation here, but also for people to leave Russia.
We can see sanctions working, but not as effectively as we hoped – if only because business can always be done in the free world. For example, while we can abruptly limit German exports to Russia, German exports to Kazakhstan will immediately grow by as much. We can see that Putin is able to bypass sanctions, while intellectual resources are non-renewable. Every engineer that leaves Russia constitutes one fewer missile!
And what can the West do, including with your help?
Considering that we already have a critical mass of Russian citizens who think like I do – we need to create a new alternative, like de Gaulle's Free France (a patriotic movement aimed at liberating France from Nazi Germany started by Charles de Gaulle in London in 1940 – ed.). And I believe that the combined political weight of myself, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and our fellows outweighs de Gaulle's political clout in 1940. He was a little-known colonel at the time and not many knew of him. But the problem is not lack of a Russian de Gaulle, the problem is lack of Churchills in the West. No one is prepared to say out loud that the aim of the war is a Ukrainian victory and a regime change in Russia.
Let us presume the West agrees to what you are proposing. How would it benefit Ukraine?
There is a lot of people – engineers, economists etc. – who are supporting the Russian economy, while Putin's prisoners do not. I'm not saying they're all willing to defect this minute, but the problem is that they don't even have the option today. An alternative could open a road from North Korea to South Korea for these people. It would also help organize those who are already here but are torn between conditional "anti-war" groups, which are not prepared to accept Crimea as part of Ukraine and the regime as illegitimate. We are objectively a minority, but there are a lot of people who could move in the same direction, meaning that we might find more associates. People who are helping Ukraine. I'm also not ruling out that many of them might be willing to join the Ukrainian armed forces.
But a person might consider Crimea to be a part of Russia but not want to fight for it. Do you also plan to help them?
I'm not talking about everyone who has escaped mobilization, but people who are willing to sign a declaration creating a clear divide with Putin's Russia. You sign a declaration that automatically makes you a criminal in Russia. All three parts [of the declaration] can be found in the Russian Federation's criminal code.
You need to break with Putin's Russia, because you cannot live in North Korea and South Korea at the same time. You left Russia, and now you need to start building a community that actively helps Ukraine and, I hope at least, is preparing to return to Russia. Because if everything goes the way we expect, meaning that Ukraine will win and the Putin regime will collapse, we can start putting together the elite of the future with these people. A leading elite for the Russia that remains. I do not think Russia's borders will be the same after its defeat in the war.
And how many such people might there be?
There are not many willing to sign the declaration and make a break with Putin's Russia – perhaps one or two million. But it is the intellectual cream of the crop of society, people who have achieved a certain measure of success. And they are also people who understand that Ukraine's military victory and a Russian defeat is the only future for Russia.
Do I have it right that the West is less than enthusiastic about your initiative?
One problem is with those who still suggest things might change inside Russia. Feeding this kind of "opposition" for years has led to the emergence of a lot of people who affect not only public opinion, but also politicians in the West. The myth that people should not be allowed to leave Russia – let them get something done inside Russia – is still very much alive. It is a grave mistake, because nothing can happen in Russia. Putin has enough resources to keep the situation under control. Unfortunately, not everyone in the West realizes that you need every ally you can get in a war such as this. Churchill allied with Stalin because he saw that it was necessary. But we are not talking about Stalin, we're talking about intellectual potential we could import to the West. It works to expedite the end of the war. People who want to break with Putin's Russia and join our side should be given the chance today.
People who have left Russia will see their passports expire at some point, while they cannot just go to the Russian embassy. Should the West – the EU in our case – give them a new legal status of some sort?
It is a question of how the West recognizes a political organ modelled on the example of the aforementioned Free France. Churchill recognized de Gaulle – and that is where it all starts. It requires political will. It comes down to the same question I asked my American friends – if you could obtain intellectual resources from Hitler's Germany, would you do it? Of course! What's the problem? Moreover, this would, in addition to engineers, apply to financiers, economists etc.
Are you willing to offer the opportunity to unskilled workers?
Of course. Every person willing to break with Putin deserves it. Their staying away means Putin will have one fewer soldier. Human resources are non-renewable.
Putin will say that women will give birth to new...
That is something you could say in Zhukov's day, but the resource has run out. And I believe that those looking to dodge the mobilization this way would be a minority. Mainly, it concerns people who have found a measure of success, see it as a chance to integrate. The Russian economy rests on those people. You need intelligence reports to avoid sanctions, and everything in Russia depends on the intellect of two or three million people.
What do the Ukrainians think of your plans? I talk to them and I'm often told that they want nothing to do with Russians.
I understand the emotional side of it perfectly. And I cannot criticize them. But a protracted war calls for strategic vision. Sometimes you need to step over your emotions. It's easy to say, "they are all bad!" But in the end, many are helping Ukraine, fighting for it.
Let us presume that the EU gives so-called good Russians who sign your proposed declaration special legal status. But the declaration refers to the regime in Russia as illegitimate. How could the West maintain diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation in that case?
Who is stopping them from maintaining diplomatic relations with North Korea and South Korea at the same time? Go ahead! We are not seeking the status of a government in exile. What we are saying is that we want to represent people who have split with Putin. We are the alternative Russia. There are no legal problems for the West here. You do not need to end relations with Putin to support a million people who want to live their lives.
European sanctions often hit Russians in exile who are not cooperating with the Putin regime. The recent example was banning cars with Russian plates from entering the EU. How are these and other measures affecting your life and those of your fellows?
I have a Croatian passport and I'm a EU citizen. But I understand the problem. There is an emotional component. Also, European bureaucracy largely relies on inertia. Lacking a strategic plan, new sanctions and restrictions are proposed, which I find often harm the general line.
Do you think that you will live to see the other Russia, created after today's Russia is defeated in the war?
I'm an incorrigible optimist by nature, meaning I very much hope so. I believe this war will inevitably lead to global reorganization. I hope we can make Russia a part of the civilized world. I am 60 years old, while I still have enough energy and time not only to see the change, but also to take part in it.
Editor: Urmet Kook, Marcus Turovski