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Outspoken Putin critic Garry Kasparov says Ukraine is just Putin's first stop


Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, has a new strategic goal. He wants the world to defeat dictators, beginning with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

GARRY KASPAROV: The price of stopping a dictator always goes up every day with every delay, with every hesitation.

SIMON: Garry Kasparov is 59 now and learned to play in the Young Pioneers Palace in Baku, Azerbaijan, when it was part of the former Soviet Union. He retired as the highest-rated player in the world in 2005. He was beaten and arrested by Russian police for protesting in front of the courthouse where the women of the punk band Pussy Riot were on trial in 2012. He's now a writer and chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and lives in New York, spends a lot of time traveling the world, warning about what he sees as the threat of Putin's Russia to democracy everywhere. We caught up with Garry Kasparov as he spoke to a group at Goucher College in Maryland on Wednesday night.

KASPAROV: When the Cold War was won back in 1991, we forgot a simple thing, that the evil doesn't die. It grows back through the cracks of our apathy.

SIMON: After his appearance, we told him how people in the seats around us saw the water bottle put on stage for him and thought about Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who was poisoned through his water bottle. Other dissidents have been shot, pushed from windows or poisoned with radioactive substances.

KASPAROV: I'm happy my wife was not here because she gets really nervous when she hears journalists, you know, repeating this question. We all know the risks. She's responsible not only for me but for our kids. Our daughter - she's 15 1/2. And our son will be 7 this summer. And she also knows that I am who I am. So I have to do it, and I can make a difference.

SIMON: Garry Kasparov believes that severe Western sanctions should have been applied after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the next year, when Russian planes supported the Assad regime in Syria during that country's civil war.

KASPAROV: It's the, again, going backward. It's Syria, and it's Crimea. Crimea was the turning point, I think in Putin's mind. If he could annex the territory with no consequences because sanctions in 2014 just - and he - Putin was laughing at them. Then he could do whatever. I think the free world proved to be not just complacent but also too willing to compromise on our values.

SIMON: You don't believe that Ukraine is actually his strategic goal?

KASPAROV: No. Ukraine is one of the very important stations on his road to change the world, the global security infrastructure as it has been functioning since World War II. And for Putin, Ukraine is one of the demonstrations that he could reshape the map, redraw the map. And he could replay the Cold War and restore the Russian imperial glory. And nobody could stand against him.

SIMON: I noticed tonight you made a point of telling the audience, no, no, I don't want peace now. I want something different.

KASPAROV: I want peace, but I don't want us to say the peace can be achieved by stopping the war. The peace can be achieved by destroying the source of war. And unless we eradicate the source of war, there will be no peace. So peace can be achieved only by Ukraine restoring its territorial sovereignty, including Crimea and Sevastopol, and reparations being paid. As we speak, a Ukrainian city is being bombarded by Russian planes, Russian missiles. Each of them can destroy half of the city. And only then we can talk about lasting peace.

SIMON: Mr. Kasparov believes the way the world has rallied to support Ukraine might deter the designs of other authoritarian regimes.

KASPAROV: And I also think that this is not just about Putin and Ukraine. That's a signal to everybody else. By defending Ukraine, I hope we are defending Taiwan. We're defending many other places in the world where dictators are just scratching their just - you know, their heads, thinking, maybe we can take it.

SIMON: Garry Kasparov told us that because of his fame he feels a special responsibility to speak out against Putin's government.

KASPAROV: Because I think my country could do much better. And I know that it will take years, if not decades, to exonerate Russia from these crimes. And also, I believe that the war between freedom and tyranny will not end with Ukraine in battle. It will not end with the collapse of Putin's regime, which I believe is inevitable. It's a battle for our lifetime, and I hope Russia will be on the right side. Russia will stop being a permanent problem but could become part of the solution because we will be facing China. We will be facing other countries and looking at China, so-called Chinese model. And they will be challenging our way of life.

SIMON: The goal is not perfection, he says, but progress.

KASPAROV: We have a lot of work to do at home. That's the message that I think people like myself can bring to Americans and the Europeans that, yes, with all imperfection of our life, you know, it's still the only way to move forward because we know how to address the issues that are important for us, whether it's social justice, racial justice.

SIMON: He says tyrants can no longer operate behind the shadow of an iron curtain.

KASPAROV: Now we know everything. We know about gulag in Xinjiang. We know about genocide of Uyghurs. We know about all the crimes committed around the world, and we have to make sure that we'll be able to do more than mere talk.

SIMON: But we wanted to ask one more question of Garry Kasparov. Do you have a favorite Pussy Riot song?

KASPAROV: Look. It's - Pussy Riot made their name not because of the chord of their songs.


PUSSY RIOT: (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and chair of the Human Rights Foundation, who hopes for a future when he and all Russians can be heard without fear. We caught up with him this week at Goucher College in Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.