Russian chess legend says war in Ukraine is a 'battle between freedom and tyranny'

NEW YORK — Chess is a cerebral game, but legendary Soviet grand master Garry Kasparov could make it seem like a contact sport. When he was at the height of his powers in the mid-1980s, he approached the chessboard with the buzzing physical intensity of a wrestler consigned to the wrong contest.

Today, his relentless energies are directed entirely against Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Kasparov approaches with the same singular focus he once reserved for his Soviet nemesis, Anatoly Karpov — who, as it happens, now serves as a pro-Putin parliamentarian. But if the Kremlin autocrat disgusts him, nothing enrages Kasparov like Western hand-wringing over how much to help Ukraine, and for how long.

“Putin is attacking not just Ukraine. He is attacking the entire system of international cooperation,” Kasparov told Yahoo News in a recent interview. “Ukraine is on the frontline of this battle between freedom and tyranny.”

Garry Kasparov, seated, holds a microphone with his right hand and gestures with his left.
Garry Kasparov at the Congress of Free Russia in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 1. (Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Last week’s congressional elections in the U.S. could complicate Ukrainian aid, especially if Republican skepticism hardens into outright resistance. Speaking at a press conference last week, President Biden expressed hope that aid to Ukraine would continue — but also bristled at charges that he’d given Ukraine too much.

“We’ve not given Ukraine a blank check,” the president told reporters, alluding to a complaint about the extent of Ukraine-focused spending made by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who will assume the role of House speaker in January. “There’s a lot of things that Ukraine wants that we didn’t do.”

That is precisely the kind of talk that frustrates Kasparov. He praises Biden’s support of the Ukrainian effort, which has been consistently supplemented by European allies, but can’t imagine its scope being scaled back. “It was much less than Ukraine needed and wanted, but much more than Putin expected.”

The war in Ukraine is closer to poker than chess, a contest of stare-downs and bluffs. On the chessboard, an opponent has nowhere to hide his pieces, but poker is by its nature a game of incomplete information, of trying to guess and then being forced to act on those guesses.

Is one of the cards Putin is holding a nuclear strike? How long can an energy-starved Europe last before folding? How long will American aid last?

Kasparov does not ignore those very real considerations, but he also refuses to become paralyzed by the infinite varieties of geopolitical speculation. For him, the war retains an unignorable moral clarity. “I believe Ukraine can and will win,” he says. “I think it’s inevitable. It’s a matter of the cost. And every day of delay, of giving Ukraine what it needs to win, simply is pushing this cost up.”

Vladimir Putin sits at a large desk with many phones and a flat screen.
Russia President Vladimir Putin at a videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Monday. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (AP)

Utterly unpalatable to Kasparov is the argument that Ukraine should sue for peace, not because the war is going badly for Kyiv but because it is expensive for Washington, London and Berlin.

That was the widely understood subtext of a letter sent on Oct. 24 by House progressives to Biden, urging him to “pursue every diplomatic avenue” while pointing out — not incorrectly — that the war is “fueling inflation and high oil prices for Americans in recent months.” A furor followed, and a day later the letter was recalled, but not without the Russians having noticed growing American reluctance to fund the Ukrainian resistance.

Kasparov finds such talk exceptionally dangerous. He thinks of the conflict in the Manichaean world of chess, where there is only black and white, defeat or victory. Either the West defeats Putin, or Putin defeats the West. “If we capitulate today in light of Putin’s nuclear blackmail, who’s to say that he won’t use the same exact blackmail five years later, six years later?” Kasparov wonders, his tone and expression suggesting this is far from an idle musing.

“And who’s to say,” he continues, “that other dictators around the world won’t look at this and say, 'Oh, look at that. The West is willing to capitulate to nuclear blackmail? Why don’t we do the same thing?' And for countries that don’t have nuclear weapons today? Why shouldn’t they have nuclear weapons if nuclear weapons are effective, and helping them get what they want?”

Missile rising from smoke and flames moments after takeoff near a green building and towers in a clearing of trees against a clouded sky.
In a photo released on Oct. 26, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP) (AP)

That dark scenario is most likely to be realized in Taiwan, with an emboldened Xi Jinping looking to fully and finally assert China’s control over the island.

Kasparov was especially dismayed — and, characteristically, infuriated — by Elon Musk’s “peace plan,” which would effectively cede vast swaths of Ukraine to Russia. Kremlin propagandists instantly embraced the idea, pointing to condemnation from the American political and media establishment as evidence that Musk (who did not respond to a Yahoo News request for comment sent over Twitter) had spoken some forbidden, consensus-shattering truth.

“He’s buying Russian propaganda points,” Kasparov says of Musk. “It’s very, very damaging.”

Kasparov left Russia in 2013, disgusted by the ever-deepening repressions of the Putin regime. In 2015 he published “Winter Is Coming,” an urgent warning to Western policymakers about Putin, whom he called “clearly the biggest and most dangerous threat facing the world today.”

Never especially shy or circumspect, Kasparov blames President Barack Obama for trying to “reset” relations with Putin shortly after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, in what was the first incursion by the Kremlin into a sovereign nation since the fall of the Soviet Union. Later, Obama warned that if Russia crossed a “red line” in Syria and used chemical weapons in support of Bashar Assad’s regime, “there would be enormous consequences.”

Putin and Obama moments before they shake hands in front of Russian and American flags.
Putin and President Barack Obama at a bilateral meeting during a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, in 2012. (Carolyn Kaster/AP) (AP)

Then Russia did use chemical weapons. “And Obama blinked,” Kasparov laments, charging the president with “weakness.” It’s not clear, however, what Obama — already managing two costly conflicts, in Afghanistan and Iraq — could have done to stop Putin, short of a military intervention that likely would have been unpalatable to the American public. A representative for the former president did not respond to a request for comment.

No development emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine, Kasparov argues, like the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. “I wouldn’t call it withdrawal. It was a stampede,” he told Yahoo News. “And it was a disaster. And undoubtedly, it added to Putin’s confidence.”

Today, the 59-year-old New York resident — who is retired from professional chess but still teaches a class on MasterClass — runs the Renew Democracy Initiative, a nonprofit that closely coordinates aid efforts with not-for-profit relief organizations working in Ukraine, which RDI executive director Uriel Epshtein says ensures that supplies and funds get to the right people, in the right places, instead of being squandered or lost.

“It’s our responsibility to give them what they need not merely to survive, not just enough to survive, but enough to actually win the war,” Epshtein, the son of Soviet immigrants who settled in New Jersey, told Yahoo News. He also described efforts in what has come to be known as the “information space,” which the Kremlin has tried to flood with its own propaganda.

Black-and-white image of Garry Kasparov in a dark turtleneck sweater appearing to pose with his left hand slightly pointing up.
Kasparov on MasterClass. (PR Newswire via AP)

RDI works with retired U.S. Gen. Ben Hodges to produce short, polished videos that explain the state of war in digestible terms. It has also solicited and published essays by dissidents from around the world in partnership with CNN, part of a series called Voices of Freedom. Contributors have included, among others, the Egyptian-American dissident Mohamed Soltan and the Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, who was recently the target of an assassination attempt in New York.

“They have the credibility to break through our partisan shields,” Epshtein says, “to remind us that America is a force for good, and it can remain a force for good.”

That argument has been challenged by Putin’s dark tirades against what he has described as a West whose colonial bloodlust, in his telling, has been married to an anti-Christian progressive agenda. As the war has gone ever more poorly for Russia, these anti-Western screeds have grown ever more sharp.

“Putin’s Russia is on a steep decline,” Kasparov says. “I don’t believe that by next spring Russia will be able to conduct this war.” Recent military advances by Ukraine, including most recently the liberation of Kherson, do give hope of an eventual Ukrainian battlefield victory.

Here Epshtein intercedes: “It’s up to us,” he says.