Garry Kasparov: ‘I cannot show weakness, it’s not a good sign for a leader’

The record-holding world chess champion, who lives in New York and is included on the Putin government’s list of ‘terrorists and extremists,’ maintains that the war must follow a ‘strategy that consists of Ukraine winning and Russia losing’

Gari Kasparov
Garry Kasparov, in New York.Brenda Maytorena Lara
Leontxo García

Garry Kasparov, 61, knows that he could be assassinated at any moment. This is because he occupies a prominent place on Vladimir Putin’s blacklist and considers himself to be “the most radical of his opponents.” Back in 2005 — after being the number one chess player in the world for two decades — he retired from the competition to fight the Russian leader. He now chairs the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI), while continuing to publish books and give conferences. Kasparov, who has visited 104 countries, has lived in New York City since 2013. This is where he received EL PAÍS.

Once known as the Ogre of Baku — due to the terror that the Azerbaijan-born Kasparov caused among his rivals on the board — his voice sounds firm and powerful, even when he speaks about the threats to his life. He only breaks a little when he has to talk about his strong-willed mother, who died on Christmas Day in 2020. He wasn’t able to attend her funeral in Moscow.

Question. By 2012, the three most popular leaders of the opposition to Putin were Boris Nemtsov (killed in 2015), Alexei Navalny (who was poisoned, imprisoned and died four months ago under unexplained circumstances) and you. Putin has placed you on his list of “terrorists and extremists.” Could you be the next victim?

Answer. Maybe yes, maybe not. Who knows? They consider me an enemy of the state… and I am. Now, being included on that list is another sign. But I don’t want to think about it, because it doesn’t change my beliefs. Many of my friends or fellow fighters are dead or imprisoned. Most of us are in exile. Nemtsov and Navalny are the best known, but the list is very long. The irony is that we haven’t done anything related to terrorism, but those who are pursuing us are well-known terrorists or thieves. But this is the situation in 2024: war is called peace. And there will be no solution so long as Putin remains in power. It’s very difficult for me to answer these types of questions, especially when my wife is in front of me. But I think about how many Ukrainians have died from Russian bombs and I realize that my position is much better.

Q. But how do you live with that fear of being murdered?

A. I don’t think about it, I don’t panic. I can’t do anything except minimize the risks, because I don’t want to betray my principles and my friends, especially the dead ones. I take safety measures; I travel much less than before. I don’t go to countries where I know I would be in serious danger and I protect myself a lot in others. For example, I would never go to Vienna, London, Dubai, Hungary [or] Turkey without very strict safety measures, because there are many Russian agents in those places. There are barely a dozen [countries that] I can trust with any degree of confidence. But there’s no way I’m going to stop doing what I’ve been doing for so many years. Also, I can’t show weakness, because that’s not a good sign for a leader.

Q. In 2008, you were already living your life while surrounded by bodyguards.

A. Yes. In reality, that protection is useless when the state wants to kill you. But during that period — which I call “vegetarian” — the danger wasn’t that [the government] would kill me, but rather [that they would deploy] other kinds of violence, which I prevented [by having bodyguards]. In 2007, I was arrested. In February of 2013, I decided to leave. When I was already traveling abroad and was called as a witness in a trial, Nemtsov warned me not to return, because my life was in danger. I listened to him. Unfortunately, he was too proud to follow his own advice and he was murdered.

Q. You once said: “I can’t stand the prospect of my children living in a dictatorship disguised as democracy.” The situation is much worse today than back then. Do you still hope to return to a democratic Russia one day?

A. To begin with, the two children from my last marriage live in a free country: the USA. And I do maintain the hope of returning to a democratic Russia. That process may take a year or two, or more… but I believe that it will happen. For this, it’s essential that everyone understands that the war will continue as long as Putin is in power, because Putin means war, with a damaged and deceptive economy, because it’s based on printing money and spending it on war. And it’s especially important that people understand this in Europe.

By the way, I’m very struck by the fact that Portugal is the country with the most people opposed to Putin. But what they understand in Germany is that they must prepare for another war, instead of trying to win this one. Certainly, if Ukraine doesn’t defeat Russia in this war, there will be another, because Putin cannot stop and has already hinted as much. It may be against Moldova or the Baltic countries, but war is what keeps him alive. And he’s willing to cross all red lines.

Q. Is Russia still an empire?

A. Yes, it’s the last real empire, because China doesn’t really act like one. And that’s an added reason to want Russia to lose the war, because it’s likely that it will then cease to be an empire and have a place among democratic countries.

Q. It’s difficult for non-Russians to accept how big Russia is, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. How much reliable information about Putin or the invasion of Ukraine do citizens living deep in Russia receive?

A. I don’t believe in that argument of associating the persistence of war with ignorance. Now, we cannot know for certain, because the polls aren’t reliable [regarding] what percentage of the Russian population is now in favor of war. At first, it was very high… but now, I don’t think it exceeds 30%, especially in big cities. And Putin has been careful to recruit many people from depressed areas, as well as prisoners. Few [recruits have come] from Moscow until now. But when he has no choice but to do so, public opinion can easily turn against him.

Putin successfully sold the concept that the war was Russia against the West. And the West has made the big mistake of treating all Russians equally, whether or not they’re in favor of the war and Putin. There are people who have fought against Putin all their lives and who are now treated by Western countries as if they’re criminals. That’s why I’m proposing to create a kind of Russian Taiwan: that is, those Russian citizens who have demonstrated against the war and Putin — those in favor of Crimea being Ukraine — will be protected and supported. If that idea works, it will help isolate Putin and cause many talented people to abandon him. Surely we would have done it during World War II with the German scientists. So, why don’t we do it now, with the Russians? The problem is that many politicians — not those in the Baltic countries or Poland, who see the threat as being very close — don’t look beyond the next four years. And they want to play it safe, without assuming that winning the war means defeating Russia and Putin, with decisive and short-term actions.

Q. Is there any truth in that cliché that many Russians need a tsar, a strongman in charge of the country?

A. This idea that entire nations can be dumbed down to be governed by their beloved leader doesn’t stand up to historical analysis. Look at Korea, divided for 70 years: the North is as you say, but the South is a very advanced democracy. Or in the old Germany, East and West. Or in China and Taiwan.

What history tells us is that countries with a greater democratic tradition, such as the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian ones, function better. But no country is prevented from having authentic democratic institutions. Support for Putin is largely passive: war is war, what can we do? And furthermore, the war machine benefits the elite. It’s true that sanctions may prevent them from enjoying their mansions in Paris or Marbella, but they’ve already found some ways to live very well. And it’s true that Putin is still the strongman for them. Therefore, since we’re talking about a fascist dictatorship, we cannot expect the elites to rebel. Today, in Russia, you can be jailed for a tweet. If we look at other wars in history, the only way to weaken Putin’s position is for the population to think that they can lose the war.

Q. In 2016, you said: “Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink.” Do you want to update that sentence with everything that has happened since then?

A. He updates it himself with his actions. The facts make it clear that leaders like Putin are poison to the world. He needs blood and more blood, like a drug, and he will never stop seeking it.

Q. In an interview you gave on Spanish TV at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, you said that we shouldn’t fear the potential use of nuclear weapons by Putin, because to press that button, Putin’s finger isn’t enough: at least two other people’s fingers are necessary. But, knowing Putin, how confident can we be that he won’t force those two people to push the button?

A. I still think that the nuclear risk is very low, although it will never be zero. I think the main fear of the U.S. — of the Biden administration — isn’t that. [Their fear] is that Putin loses the war and Russia falls into even worse hands… which would also mean the rise of China as a great power. That’s why their help to Ukraine is so timid.

Regarding nuclear weapons, there are two types. The strategic ones (large missiles) and the tactical ones. As for the former, I believe that the risk of Putin using them is almost zero, because a large part of the ones he has are very old and because of the terrible consequences for Russia that this would have. As for tactical ones, in fact, it’s not easy to convince several people in the Russian high command to make a decision that involves such tremendous risk, because the U.S. response would be immediate and very harsh. And [nukes] can also be used to destroy many tanks, but perhaps not to win the war. The functioning of the Russian mafia isn’t based on loyalty until death, but on loyalty in exchange for benefits. That general who must press the button will think of his family and his assets before doing so. It’s one thing to kill for one’s country, but quite another to die for it.

Q. But you maintain that this game cannot end in a draw.

A. Exactly. I believe that the plan for Ukraine must be liberation, reparation and justice. They’re the elements of a strategy that consists of Ukraine winning and Russia losing. To achieve that, Western countries have more than enough weapons and resources. The combined GDP of NATO countries is 25:1 compared to that of Russia, Iran and North Korea combined, excluding China. But the current situation of investment in the war is very far from that proportion. In fact, it favors Russia. Correcting that by sending Ukraine, for example, some of the 12,000 tanks that the U.S. has in its warehouses would achieve liberation.

As for justice, it’s very important that there be a list of all Russian war criminals to scare and divide the Russian bureaucracy. It’s one thing to be labeled a thief or gangster, quite another to be identified as a war criminal. For example, the mayor of Moscow is a thief, but not a war criminal. Perhaps he can be negotiated with. But we need a strategy. And today, we don’t have one.

Q. In any case, what Europe does could be decisive, given the prospect of Trump being re-elected.

A. I totally agree. Europe has enough resources. And NATO still exists. Therefore, it must be active. All military experts agree that a joint action by the northeastern countries (Finland, Sweden, the Baltic countries, Poland, etc) would be enough to win the war.

Q. In your book Winter is Coming (2015), you predicted the misfortunes that have occurred over the last decade and warned about how dangerous Putin is. If you were to write an updated version now, what would be your new warnings or predictions?

A. I’m a born optimist, as you well know. I believe democracy will survive, but the question is the price we will pay. If you asked me a year ago, I would have had more confidence in the victory of Ukraine and the transformation of Russia. Now, I still think [democracy will survive]... but the price will be higher.

Putin’s regime is a cancer. And you can’t negotiate with cancer: you have to cut it. Right now, there’s a struggle in the world — not only in Ukraine and Russia — between freedom and tyranny. And I fear that things are going to get worse before they get better. For example, Europeans don’t realize that the consequences of this war are everywhere. For example, [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro wouldn’t have dared to claim Essequibo if he weren’t inspired by Putin and saw signs of weakness in Europe and the U.S. And in Africa, the influence of Russia and China is greatly increasing. Let’s not forget that a good part of the raw material for our cell phones is there.

More people can die in one hour in Sudan than in Gaza. And no one talks about this problematic global situation. I am, of course, in favor of fighting climate change, which can end everything in 100 years. But what are we doing to fix today’s problems? In short, I still trust that democracy will prevail, but at a very high price.

Gari Kasparov
Garry Kasparov poses after his interview with EL PAÍS.Brenda Maytorena Lara

Q. Putin, Netanyahu, Trump, Biden, Xi Jinping… who is the best chess player?

A. In general, the comparison of today’s politicians with chess players makes me uncomfortable, because in most cases it’s insulting. Putin has always been a poker player, with his ability to bluff. He has nothing to do with chess, where 100% of the information is available [for each player] to make a decision. And Trump is the same: he doesn’t believe in the same values as you and me. While the U.S. is a solid democracy, Trump’s lack of attachment to the law is obvious. Biden doesn’t count for me, because he can barely talk or walk. Netanyahu is a morality dealer who doesn’t care about the price. He was democratically elected, but now he needs war to survive. The most complicated case to analyze is Xi Jinping. He’s a dictator, without a doubt… but at least he has a strategy. While I don’t like him at all, that brings him closer to a chess player.

Q. Teachers today have a big problem: what to teach with the guarantee that it will be useful 10 years from now, in a world that’s changing at rapid speed. But knowing how to think will still be useful. And chess teaches us how to think.

A. Indeed, traditional teaching methods — such as reading books or accumulating information — no longer work, because that information can become obsolete in a matter of days, or you can become saturated by excessive information. Chess can be a critical thinking tool, an algorithm to select the really important information, analyze it and create your own opinion. Ultimately, it’s about moving from what to how. Chess isn’t a magic solution, but it serves, for example, for children to understand that each action is connected to others and has its consequences, as well as the relative value of each piece in a position. Very few games can offer that algorithm in the way that chess can.

Q. Artificial intelligence is also one of your favorite fields of research. Do you think that it can put an end to chess as a sport, due to the ease of cheating with the help of very powerful computers?

A. First of all, this danger isn’t only for chess. It’s a global threat, even in much more important fields. If we stick to chess — in addition to the actual cheating — there’s a growing paranoia of thinking that everyone cheats. Regarding elite tournaments, I think there are technological and other types of measures that can be taken to prevent that, such as delaying the online broadcast of games, so that they are not strictly live. It’s true that solutions for massive tournaments will be more difficult. Now, if we’re being pragmatic, every time there’s a cheating scandal, the number of fans increases…

In any case, the contribution of computing and artificial intelligence to chess is much more positive than negative. For example, it’s fantastic that my defeat to the Deep Blue computer in 1997 was exploited by IBM for important advances in science. Or that today, [Google] DeepMind has made enormous advances in biology, thanks to what it learned with its chess and Go programs.

Q. How do you feel when someone says that Magnus Carlsen of Norway is the best player in history?

A. I don’t argue about that because it’s very subjective. [I don’t know] how much my 20 consecutive years as number one in the world are valued. Also, Magnus himself doesn’t say that.

Q. In December of 1985, a month-and-a-half after you became the youngest world champion in history, at the age of 22, EL PAÍS did a profile about you. Your mother said: “Always being number one is very hard. Therefore, living for the pleasure of living is something that neither my son nor I understand.”

A. She maintained that formula until her final days. And the truth is that it worked very well for me. Her life revolved around me… that’s why it was so tragic that, when she died [on December 25, 2020], I couldn’t be there [due to the risk of being detained]. All she wanted at that moment was to die next to me.

With age, living with two children — and being in constant contact with my daughter — I’ve become less harsh. I seek to have some free time for my family. Most of my time is spent fighting Putin and improving democracy in the U.S. through my organization, RDI. I also train young chess talents. And I give lectures on various topics, including artificial intelligence. My life is full of struggle, but in a world as turbulent as the current one, my refuge is my family.

Q. Are you a reasonably happy person?

A. In general, yes, because, in addition to my family stability, I see that some of the actions that I undertake or support to help Ukraine are successful, such as the recent decision made by the U.S. Congress (Biden has authorized Ukraine to use U.S. weapons on parts of Russian territory). I clearly see the path I must follow, although I know it’s dangerous, and what I must do. And I also know what things I do well.

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