On August 19, 1991, CNN was providing nonstop live coverage of an attempted coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Allied with the KGB, hardliners from inside the disintegrating Communist regime had sequestered Gorbachev at his dacha in Crimea and declared a state of emergency. The global press was full of experts and politicians worried that the coup would mark the sudden end of perestroika, or even the start of a civil war, as tanks rolled into the middle of Moscow.
I appeared as a guest on Larry King that evening, along with former US ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, a professor from California, and a former KGB operative. I was alone in declaring that the coup had no chance of success, and that it would be over in forty-eight hours, not the months Kirkpatrick and many others were predicting. The coup’s leaders had no popular support, I insisted, and their attempt to put a halt to reforms they feared might lead to the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was doomed. The ruling bureaucracy was also split, with many feeling they had better opportunities for advancement after a Soviet breakup. I was vindicated with great efficiency, as Russian president Boris Yeltsin famously climbed aboard a tank, the people of Moscow rallied for freedom and democracy, and the cabal of coup leaders realized the people were against them. They surrendered two days later.
The coup attempt not only failed, but it accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union by presenting the people of the USSR a clear choice. Dissolution and an independent future was a little frightening, yes, but it could not be worse than the totalitarian present.
Like dominoes, republic after Soviet republic declared independence in the following months. Back in Moscow, two days after the failure of the coup, a jubilant crowd tore down the statue of “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, the fearsome founder of the Soviet secret police, in front of the KGB headquarters.
It is difficult for me now to read the comments members of that crowd made to the press without becoming emotional. “This begins our process of purification,” said a coal miners’ union leader. An Orthodox priest said, “We will destroy the enormous, dangerous, totalitarian machine of the KGB.” The crowd chanted “Down with the KGB!” and “Svo-bo-da!” the Russian word for freedom. Police took off their berets to join the march as messages like “KGB butchers must go to trial!” were scrawled on the base of the hated statue. A doctor said this protest was different from those of the previous months: “We feel as though we have been born again.”
And so it shocks the imagination that eight years later, on December 31, 1999, a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB became the president of Russia. The country’s nascent democratic reforms were halted and steadily rolled back. The government launched crackdowns on the media and across civil society. Russian foreign policy became bullying and belligerent. There had been no process of purification, no trials for the butchers, and no destruction of the KGB machine. The statue of Dzerzhinsky had been torn down, but the totalitarian repression it represented had not. It had been born again—in the person of Vladimir Putin.
Jump forward to the beginning of 2015 and Putin is still in the Kremlin. Russian forces have attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea, six years after invading another neighbor, the Republic of Georgia. Just days after hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014, Putin fomented a war in Eastern Ukraine and became the first person to annex sovereign foreign territory by force since Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. The same world leaders who were taking smiling photos with Putin a year ago are now bringing sanctions against Russia and members of its ruling elite.
Russia threatens to turn off the pipelines that supply Europe with a third of its oil and gas. A metaphorical mafia state with Putin as the capo di tutti capi
(boss of all bosses) has moved from being an ideologically agnostic kleptocracy to using blatantly fascist propaganda and tactics. The long-banished specter of nuclear annihilation has returned.
There are two stories behind the current crisis. The first is how Russia moved so quickly from celebrating the end of Communism to electing a KGB officer and then to invading its neighbors. The second is how the free world helped this to happen, through a combination of apathy, ignorance, and misplaced goodwill. It is critical to figure out what went awry, because even though Putin is now a clear and present danger, Europe and America are still getting it wrong. The democracies of the world must unite and relearn the lessons of how the Cold War was won before we slide completely into another one.
Putin’s Russia is clearly the biggest and most dangerous threat facing the world today, but it is not the only one. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are (despite the latter’s name) stateless and without the vast resources and weapons of mass destruction Putin has at his fingertips. The attacks of 9/11 and others like it, however, taught us that you don’t have to have a national flag or even an army to inflict terrible damage on the most powerful country in the world. What’s more, state sponsors of terror are benefiting as democratic terrorist targets fail to organize an aggressive defense. The murderous regimes of Iran, North Korea, and Syria have enjoyed considerable time at the bargaining table with the world’s great powers while making no significant concessions.
It’s not new to talk about the challenges of the multipolar world that arose with the end of the Cold War. What is lacking is a coherent strategy to deal with these challenges. When the Cold War ended, the winners were left without a sense of purpose and without a common foe to unite against. The enemies of the free world have no such doubts. They still define themselves by their
opposition to the principles and policies of liberal democracy and human rights, of which they see the United States as the primary symbolic and material representative. And yet we continue to engage them, to negotiate, and even to provide these enemies with the weapons and wealth they use to attack us. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s definition of appeasement, we are feeding the crocodiles, hoping they will eat us last.
Any political chill between Washington, DC, and Moscow or Beijing is quickly criticized by both sides as a potential “return to the Cold War.” The use of this cliché today is ironic, given that the way the Cold War was fought and won has been forgotten instead of emulated. Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, of right and wrong, and on the universal values of human rights and human life, we have engagement, resets, and moral equivalence. That is, appeasement by many other names. The world needs a new alliance based on a global Magna Carta, a declaration of fundamental rights that all members must recognize. Nations that value individual liberty now control the greater part of the world’s resources as well as its military power. If they band together and refuse to coddle the rogue regimes and sponsors of terror, their integrity and their influence will be irresistible.
The goal should not be to build new walls to isolate the millions of people living under authoritarian rule, but to provide them with hope and the prospect of a brighter future. Most of us who lived behind the Iron Curtain were very aware that there were people in the free world who cared and who were fighting for us, not against us. And knowing this mattered. Today, the so-called leaders of the free world talk about promoting democracy while treating the leaders of the world’s most repressive regimes as equals. The policies of engagement with dictators have failed on every level, and it is past time to recognize this failure.
As Ronald Reagan said in his famous 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” this is not a choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. We must choose. We must not surrender. We must fight with the vast resources of the free world,
beginning with moral values and economic incentives and with military action only as a last resort. America must lead, with its vast resources and its ability to mobilize its fractious and fractured allies. But it is obsolete today to speak of American values, or even of Western values. Japan and South Korea must act, Australia and Brazil, India and South Africa, and every country that values democracy and liberty and benefits from global stability. We know it can be done because it has been done before. We must find the courage to do it again.
Five years after Putin took office and began to rebuild the Russian police state he so admired, I experienced a rebirth of my own. In 2005, I retired from twenty years on top of the professional chess world to join the fledgling Russian pro-democracy movement. I had become world champion in 1985 at the age of twenty-two and had achieved everything I could want to achieve at the chessboard. I have always wanted to make a difference in the world and felt that my time in professional chess was over. I wanted my children to be able to grow up in a free Russia. And I remembered the sign my mother once put up on my wall, a saying of the Soviet dissidents: “If not you, who else?” I hoped to use my energy and my fame to push back against the rising tide of repression coming from the Kremlin.
Like many Russians, I was troubled by the little-known Putin’s KGB background and his sudden rise to power by overseeing the brutal 1999 war to pacify the Russian region of Chechnya. But along with my countrymen, at the start I was grudgingly willing to give Putin a chance. Yeltsin had badly tarnished his democratic credentials during his 1996 reelection by using the powers of the presidency to influence the outcome, and I confess that I was one of those who thought at the time that sacrificing some of the integrity of the democratic process was the lesser evil if it was required to keep the hated Communists from regaining power.
Such trade-offs are nearly always a mistake, and it was in this case, as it paved the way for a more ruthless individual to exploit the weakened system.
The 1998 default had left the Russian economy in a very shaky state, although it is worth pointing out in hindsight that gross domestic product (GDP) growth had already rebounded well by 2000. But at the time, crime, inflation, and a general sense of national weakness and uncertainty made the technocratic and plainspoken Putin an appealingly safe option. There was a feeling the country could slip into chaos without a stronger hand on the he...