TIME foreign affairs

Garry Kasparov: It’s a War, Stupid!

AP10ThingsToSee- Ukraine
A pro-Russian rebel walks in a passage at a local market damaged by shelling in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Aug. 26, 2014 Mstislav Chernov—AP

This vocabulary of cowardice emanating from Berlin and Washington is as disgraceful as the black-is-white propaganda produced by Putin’s regime, and even more dangerous

As Russian troops and armored columns advance in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government begs for aid from the free world it hoped would receive it and protect it as one of its own. The leaders of the free world, meanwhile, are struggling to find the right terminology to free themselves from the moral responsibility to provide that protection. Putin’s bloody invasion of a sovereign European nation is an incursion, much like Crimea — remember Crimea? — was an “uncontested arrival” instead of anschluss. A civilian airliner was blown out of the sky just six weeks ago — remember MH17? — and with more than 100 victims still unidentified, the outrage has already dissipated into polite discussions about whether it should be investigated as a crime, a war crime or neither.

This vocabulary of cowardice emanating from Berlin and Washington today is as disgraceful as the black-is-white propaganda produced by Putin’s regime, and even more dangerous. Moscow’s smoke screens are hardly necessary in the face of so much willful blindness. Putin’s lies are obvious and expected. European leaders and the White House are even more eager than the Kremlin to pretend this conflict is local and so requires nothing more than vague promises from a very safe distance. As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay on language right before starting work on his novel 1984 (surely not a coincidence): “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The Western rhetoric of appeasement creates a self-reinforcing loop of mental and moral corruption. Speaking the truth now would mean confessing to many months of lies, just as it took years for Western leaders to finally admit Putin didn’t belong in the G-7 club of industrialized democracies.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko just met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, but Obama’s subsequent statement showed no sign he’s willing to acknowledge reality. Generic wishes about “mobilizing the international community” were bad enough six months ago. Hearing them repeated as Ukrainian towns fall to Russian troops is a parody. (If legitimacy is what Obama is after, Russia is clearly in violation of nearly every point of the 1974 U.N. Resolution 3314, “definition of aggression.”) Perhaps Poroshenko should have matched Obama’s casual wardrobe by wearing a T-shirt that read, “It’s a War, Stupid.” As Russian tanks and artillery push back the overmatched Ukrainian forces, Obama’s repeated insistence that there is no military solution in Ukraine sounds increasingly delusional. There is no time to teach a drowning man to swim.

The U.S., Canada and even Europe have responded to Putin’s aggression, it is true, but always a few moves behind, always after the deterrent potential of each action had passed. Strong sanctions and a clear demonstration of support for Ukrainian territorial integrity (as I recommended at the time) would have had real impact when Putin moved on Crimea in February and March. A sign that there would be real consequences would have split his elites as they pondered the loss of their coveted assets in New York City and London.

Then in April and May, the supply of defensive military weaponry would have forestalled the invasion currently under way, or at least raised its price considerably — making the Russian public a factor in the Kremlin’s decisionmaking process much earlier. Those like me who called for such aid at the time were called warmongers, and policymakers again sought dialogue with Putin. And yet war has arrived regardless, as it always does in the face of weakness.

As one of the pioneers of the analogy I feel the irony in how it has quickly gone from scandal to cliché to compare Putin to Hitler, for better and for worse. Certainly Putin’s arrogance and language remind us more and more of Hitler’s, as does how well he has been rewarded for them. For this he can thank the overabundance of Chamberlains in the halls of power today — and there is no Churchill in sight.

As long as it is easy, as long as Putin moves from victory to victory without resistance, he gains more support. He took Crimea with barely a shot fired. He flooded eastern Ukraine with agents and weaponry while Europe dithered. The oligarchs who might have pressured Putin at the start of his Ukrainian adventure are now war criminals with no way back. The pressure points now are harder to reach.

The Russian military commanders, the ones in the field, are not fools. They are aware that NATO is watching and could blow them to bits in a moment. They rely on Putin’s aura of invincibility, which grows every day the West refuses to provide Ukraine with military support. Those commanders must be made to understand that they are facing an overwhelming force, that their lives are in grave danger, that they can and will be captured and prosecuted. To make this a credible threat requires immediate military aid, if not yet the “boots on the ground” everyone but Putin is so keen to avoid. If NATO nations refuse to send lethal aid to Ukraine now it will be yet another green light to Putin.

Sanctions are still an important tool, and those directly responsible for commanding this war, such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu must be held accountable. Sanctions must also broaden. The chance to limit them only to influential individuals and companies is over. The Russian people can change Putin’s course but have little incentive to take the great risks to do so under current conditions. Only sanctions that bring the costs of Putin’s war home can have an impact now. This was always a last resort, and it wouldn’t be necessary had the West not reacted with such timidity at every step. (The other factor that is already dimming the Russian people’s fervor is the Russian military casualties the Kremlin propaganda machine is trying so hard to cover up.)

As always when it comes to stopping dictators, with every delay the price goes up. Western leaders have protested over the potential costs of action Ukraine at every turn only to be faced with the well-established historical fact that the real costs of inaction are always higher. Now the only options left are risky and difficult, and yet they must be tried. The best reason for acting to stop Putin today is brutally simple: it will only get harder tomorrow.

Kasparov is the chairman of the New York City–based Human Rights Foundation.

TIME foreign affairs

Garry Kasparov: The Price of Inaction in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region
Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 18, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Obama and Europe chose not to stand up to Vladimir Putin — now we're seeing the terrible toll.

There are many questions still to be answered about what happened to Malaysia Air Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. I will limit myself to what is known to a reasonable doubt based on the evidence and statements that have been provided by numerous officials in the 36 hours since the tragedy. Nearly 300 innocent lives were lost when Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. The missile was launched from an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-supplied and Russia-supported paramilitary separatists that include at least some Russian officers and special forces. Three other planes have been shot down in the region in the last month.

Nearly 300 dead. Horribly, needlessly. We all mourn them and seek to understand how this could happen. Based on the day’s official statements and most news coverage the word blame is somehow forbidden, and I do not understand why. Establishing responsibility and exacting accountability for these murders is more important than fretting about reaching the right tone of restraint in a press release.

So who is to blame? This is not a simple question even if you know the answer. That is, of course, the person who pushed the button that launched the missile is to blame; that is the easy part. Shall we just arrest him and try him for murder? Responsibility is a greater concept than that. You have the leader who gave the order to push the button. Then the person who provided the missiles to the separatists. Then there are the officials who opened the border to allow military weaponry to cross into Ukraine and the ministers and generals in Moscow who gave those orders. Then we come to the desk where all power resides in Russia today, the desk of the man those ministers and generals obey very carefully: the desk of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Blaming Putin for these deaths is as correct and as pointless as blaming the man who pressed the button that launched the missile. Everyone has known for months that Russia arms and supports the separatists in Ukraine. Everyone has known for years that a mouse does not squeak in the Kremlin without first getting Putin’s permission. We also know very well what Putin is, a revanchist KGB thug trying to build a poor man’s USSR to replace the loss of the original he mourns so much.

But blaming Putin for invading Ukraine — for annexing Crimea, for giving advanced surface-to-air missiles to separatists — is like blaming the proverbial scorpion for stinging the frog. It is expected. It is his nature. Instead of worrying about how to change the scorpion’s nature or, even worse, how best to appease it, we must focus on how the civilized world can contain the dangerous creature before more innocents die.

Therefore let us cast our net of responsibility where it may do some good. We turn to the leaders of the free world who did nothing to bolster the Ukrainian border even after Russia annexed Crimea and made its ambitions to destabilize eastern Ukraine very clear. It will be interesting to see if the Western leaders and business groups who have been working so hard to block stronger sanctions against Russia will now see any reason to change their policy. I expect they will at least be quieter about it until the wreckage is cleared away.

Is the West to blame? Did they push the button? No. They pretended that Ukraine was far away and would not affect them. They hoped that they could safely ignore Ukraine instead of defending the territorial integrity of a European nation under attack. They were paralyzed by fear and internal squabbles. They resisted strong sanctions on Russia because they were worried about the impact on their own economies. They protected jobs but lost lives.

Would this tragedy have happened had tough sanctions against Russia been put into effect the moment Putin moved on Crimea? Would it have happened had NATO made it clear from the start they would defend the sovereignty of Ukraine with weapons and advisers on the ground? We will never know. Taking action requires courage, and there can be high costs in achieving the goal. But as we now see, in horror, there are also high costs for inaction, and the goal has not been achieved.

The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded. There were, and are, a range of responses. A horrible price has been paid, but it will not be the last if even this fails to provoke a strong reaction. Financial and travel restrictions against Putin’s cronies and their families and harsh sanctions against key Russian economic sectors may also do some damage to European economies. Until yesterday, Europe could argue about how much money their principles were worth. Today they have to argue about how much money those lives are worth.

Kasparov is the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation.

TIME foreign affairs

On Ukraine, Obama’s Munich Moment

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 28, 2014. Alexei Nikolsky—RIA-Novosti/AP

Negotiating with another country’s territory as collateral has a long history—the most obvious example is from 1938.

Last Friday, Vladimir Putin called Barack Obama to discuss Ukraine, although what was said is different from what was heard. Analyzing the discrepancies between the White House and Kremlin press releases of these calls has become a booming industry and usually you would never guess that the reports are about the same conversation. The White House report mentions “constitutional reform and democratic elections” and Russia pulling back its troops from eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin summary refers to the “rampant extremists” in Kiev and adds the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria to the conversation in a blatant threat to up the ante once again.

Do not fall for any Western attempts to save face, even if Obama waves a piece of paper and declares, ‘Peace for our time!’I’m more interested in a word that wasn’t mentioned in either summary: “Crimea.” It’s as if this chunk of sovereign Ukrainian territory — invaded, dominated, and annexed by Putin just weeks ago — has already ceased to be part of the conversation. Just a day earlier, the United Nations General Assembly did what the Security Council could not do due to Russia’s veto there. The GA resolution in defense of the territorial integrity of Ukraine received 100 votes and even intense Russian pressure produced only 10 allies, a predictable rogue’s gallery that included Cuba, Syria, and North Korea. And yet Obama now appears ready to let Putin shift the frame of the negotiations to whether or not Russia will invade more of Ukraine.

A question for Obama is whether or not Crimea was even mentioned in his call with Putin, and if so, in what context. A month ago the Western pundits were full of “surely Putin would never” predictions and many warned not to “corner” Putin, to instead offer him a “face-saving retreat” from Crimea. Putin was not interested in any retreat at all and he now seems to be using this tactic against Obama and the West, offering a face-saving retreat with eastern Ukraine as the new line in the sand. The US and Europe can then claim success if Putin doesn’t invade further and Moscow keeps its trophy, and 2 million Crimeans, without a fight.

Negotiating with another country’s territory as collateral has a long history. The most obvious example is from 1938, when Hitler graciously offered not to take all of Czechoslovakia in exchange for getting the Sudetenland without any complaints from Britain and France. That infamous compromise has another echo this week, as the foreign ministers of Russia and the United States meet to discuss the fate of Ukraine, a move that seems to endorse Putin’s claims that the government in Kiev is illegitimate. By negotiating one on one behind closed doors, Obama has already accepted Putin’s framework. North Korea and Iran also wanted one on one talks with the US, a way of saying nobody else matters. This is not USA vs Russia, it’s the civilized world versus a dictator, and the United Nations vote supported that assessment ten to one.

The mandate for continued pressure on Putin is clear, if only the West has the courage to implement it. Otherwise, just as Czechoslovakia was absent from the “great power” negotiations in 1938, Ukraine’s fledgling government will be relegated to the role of a spectator, a patient under local anesthetic watching helplessly as the surgeons slice away. For the United States to participate in talks is well and good, especially as a signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s territory. (Also signed by the UK and, of course, by Russia.) But Ukrainian representatives should be present at every step and the people of Ukraine must be kept informed throughout before other nations get too far along in deciding what is in Ukraine’s best interests.

The same protagonists, Putin and Obama, recently starred in a similar face-saving charade. The United States was poised to strike at Bashar al Assad’s murderous regime last year after the Syrian dictator crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against rebel (and civilian) positions. But Putin, Assad’s patron, jumped at a John Kerry remark and proposed teaming up to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama agreed, suddenly leaving Assad more assured of his position than ever and free to continue murdering his people by conventional means, which he has done with great enthusiasm.

There is possibly an even more direct connection between Ukraine and Syria. Putin’s call reached Obama in Saudi Arabia, where it is likely Obama was reaching agreements to arm Syrian rebels. With the tide turning against Assad, Putin may have decided it was time to cash in his Syrian chips in exchange for his new conquest of Crimea. Putin would get what he wants in exchange for something he’s likely to lose anyway and Obama could claim a success by going along. It’s a cynical theory, but it fits the profile of both men. Putin, taking what he can get without opposition, then bluffing with greater threats against eastern Ukraine and Transnistria. Obama, eager to avoid any confrontation and happy to find a way to put a positive spin on his inaction.

But even if what Obama really cares about is unclear, Putin is not as hard to read. He will always push and prod and take as much as he can grab with little or no resistance. He will continue to use every old KGB trick to destabilize Ukraine politically and economically. The Kremlin will continue to support extremist groups and provocateurs of every stripe in Ukraine in order to stir up doubt and strife among the people and the new government. If Putin cannot have Ukraine, he will ruin it. The Russian proposal of greater federalism in Ukraine has a similar agenda, to split the country into smaller, easier to digest pieces. It is a crude plan, but it is also a historically effective one. Against a fragile state with a weakened economy it may well succeed if the West does not come to Ukraine’s aid without hesitation and force Putin to back off.

The United States and Europe are home to hundreds of billions of dollars of Russian assets, public and private. Tell Putin that the moment he crosses the Ukrainian border again, all of these assets will be frozen immediately. A rogue nation should not be allowed to savage a neighbor while still benefiting from the privileges of globalization. Meanwhile, sanctions targeting Putin’s oligarchs and their families abroad where they hide their assets should be escalated at a steady pace. Putin would soon have to choose between letting go of Crimea and alienating his power base at home. He will choose the former, and the sooner the West realizes Putin cannot be appeased, only pushed, the sooner it will happen.

The alternative is grim. Should Putin be allowed to keep Crimea and redraw the map of Europe so easily, he will be rooted even more deeply in power in Russia and continue to be a threat and destabilizing force in the region. Putin must be contained and Crimea must not be abandoned. Obama must state publicly that Ukrainian sovereign territory is non-negotiable, starting with Crimea. Do not fall for any Western attempts to save face, even if Obama waves a piece of paper and declares, “Peace for our time!”

Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation based in New York.

TIME russia

Putin Is Basking in an ‘Astonishing Leadership Vacuum’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting Finland on June 25, 2013 Kimmo Mantyla / AFP / Getty Images

Ahead of Sochi, Putin has thrown his weight around — but Russia is still crumbling under the strain of his tyranny

Since Vladimir Putin’s official return to power in 2012, the Russian President seems to have set his mind on teaching the rest of the world a few simple lessons. First, that he shall not be underestimated on the international stage; second, that Moscow will keep reasserting control over what it considers to be its legitimate sphere of influence for Russia; and finally, that he shall do whatever he pleases at home. To convey his message, Putin has supported a murderous dictator, lectured the U.S. about multilateralism, blackmailed his neighbors into accepting Moscow’s ironfisted embrace, inflamed anti-American and anti-gay sentiments, and brutally cracked down on dissidents.

(MORE: Putin Eases Protest Ban Ahead of Sochi Olympics)

From Syria and the Snowden saga to blatant human-rights violations and, most recently, pressuring Ukraine’s leadership into a sudden change of heart on its association with the E.U., Putin has managed to bedevil the West all year long. His latest clemency decision for some prominent critics of the regime, only two months before the Olympics in Sochi, lacks credibility; it is an arbitrary reflection of being at an autocrat’s mercy, not an act of mercy under the rule of law.

When it comes to the honorable title of Bully of the Year, the Russian President surely triumphed in 2013. But all too often bullies fail with their homework. Russia’s economy is crumbling. Moscow revised downward its economic outlook in December, the fourth time it did so last year. Growth, investment and industrial output are all below previously set targets, while inflation has risen to above 6%. This is not a short-term disturbance only, but the sign of the chronic shortfalls of a centralized and corrupt state. Russia seems to have completely misread the scale and pace of the energy revolution, and its overdependence on natural resources has now become an imminent threat to its economy.

(MORE: Putin Takes to the Ski Slopes in Sochi)

Crony capitalism and the heavy hand of the state has led to steady brain drain among the educated Russians needed for any real economy to thrive. Sclerosis persists in the public sphere as well, with everything from the health care system to the vaunted Russian army falling to pieces under the weight of graft and neglect. The cash reserves, now dwindling after being built by years of record energy prices, go to internal security and propaganda, hardly the budget priorities of a confident leadership.

And what is really happening to Russia’s standing in the world? It might be impossible to ignore Putin, but his behavior has hardly earned him any new friends — quite the contrary. A somewhat overlooked aspect of the contest over Ukraine is the role Berlin has played in it. Germany is the country that has often emphasized the importance of building bridges to Russia, and has come up with policies like “change through rapprochement.” But by now, Putin’s zero-sum game mentality and hard power push have provoked even the otherwise not-so-confrontational German Chancellor to take action. Germany has embraced the cause of Ukraine’s association with the E.U., it has offered to provide medical treatment for the imprisoned politician Yulia Tymoshenko, and its Foreign Minister traveled to Kiev to meet with demonstrators. While scoring a probably Pyrrhic victory, Putin has alienated an important partner. Ironically, he also achieved what no pleas from the U.S. President or fellow European leaders could do: Germany finally assumed leadership on a difficult foreign policy issue.

(MORE: Second Deadly Blast Hits Southern Russian City)

Moreover, Putin also made the E.U. look much better than it otherwise does these days. On first sight, the E.U. Association Agreement is a remarkably boring document, whose benefits only become evident in the long term. Yet its adoption has become synonymous with signing up for democracy, the rule of law and economic progress. We have gotten all too used to popular protest against the E.U.’s undemocratic power grabs, to politicians likening Brussels to the Moscow of the Soviet era and to discussions about different countries’ potential exits from the grand European project. Ukrainians have now reminded us of the transformative influence that the always too slow and never too effective E.U. can still have on young democracies.

Whether they are real successes or not for Putin, recent events should serve as a wake-up call for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. should return to long-term and extensive foreign policy planning. The primary reason for Putin’s self-aggrandizing behavior is the astonishing leadership vacuum in the world. Washington’s recent preference to let other nations, including Russia, lead on international affairs has eroded the U.S.’s authority. However, the U.S. seems to slowly realize now that to influence Putin it must speak his language, that of power. Still, it has to use the right tools. The Magnitsky Act, designed to punish Russian officials for human-rights abuses, is one of the available tools, but so far Washington seems to lack the will to use it.

As for Europe, it finally seems to recognize that it needs to be capable of taking care of its own neighborhood. The frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space have been ignored for far too long. Why did it take a war in Georgia to realize that Tbilisi required more assistance from Europe? Why did it come as a surprise that Armenia, a country on the brink of an open confrontation with Azerbaijan, could be ruthlessly pressured into anything by Russia as long as Moscow is the one providing for its security? Will it now be spurred by another country retreating from the Eastern Partnership program, or will the E.U. face the problem of how vulnerable the Transnistria conflict makes Moldova?

Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine might hand Europe an opportunity to become more united and effective in its foreign policy. This would not be the first time Putin’s aggressive policies backfired. One of the most remarkable achievements of the E.U. recently is how it has learned to stand up against Gazprom’s monopolistic practices. A few years ago, the E.U.-Russia energy relations were all about the former’s defenselessness. Today, the news is about raids in Gazprom’s European offices, the European Commission’s plans to try the energy giant in an antitrust case and most recently, Brussels’ calls for the renegotiation of Gazprom’s bilateral agreements. As a result, it is now Gazprom that has started working toward a settlement with the E.U.

(MORE: Putin’s Latest Moves Tip the Balance of Power Toward Russia)

In 2006, observers and leaders inside and out of Russia expressed doubts as to the true nature of Putin and what he was creating. Now those doubts seem to be gone: for many, Russia has moved from the domination of one party to the despotism of one man. And yet on Jan. 1, 2014, Russia became the chair of the G-8, the group of the world’s major industrial democracies, despite being neither a functioning democracy nor an industrial economy. The remaining seven governments must ask themselves why they embrace an unacceptable status quo.

The past few weeks of headlines out of Russia should also serve notice to those who claim that Putin’s repression has at least come with the benefits of predictability and stability. The sudden and unexplained release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the institution of martial law around the Sochi Olympics region, the twin terrorist bombings in Volgograd — these are not the signs of a stable and reliable environment. Disconnected from the people, every authoritarian government inevitably faces challenges beyond its ability to respond and to produce a positive agenda. This unmooring often leads to the creation of scapegoats and enemies and to increasingly erratic behavior.

Another recent move by Putin illustrates quite well his priorities and outlook for the future. On Dec. 9, he suddenly announced the dissolution of the state news agency RIA Novosti and the formation of a new, apparently strictly propaganda outlet. This is an additional step down the spiral of despotism: when reality does not conform to the needs of the people, produce more propaganda to convince the people that reality is not real. However, in this era of Internet and globalization, the truth cannot be hidden for long.

The recent events in Kiev should caution us against assessments that put policy over principles and attempts to stand in the path of history for the sake of a more comfortable present. The massive pro-E.U. crowds in Ukraine serve as a perfect example to the Kremlin and its beleaguered subjects that there is no genetic condition called immunity to democracy. How will the E.U. and the U.S. react to the — probably inevitable — rise of the Russian people? Let us hope they are not too meek to stand up for the universal values on which they were founded.

Zu Guttenberg is a former German Minister of Defense and Minister of Economics, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kasparov is the leader of the Russian pro-democracy group United Civil Front and chairman of the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation.

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