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When I retired from professional chess in 2005 to help lead the Russian pro-democracy movement against the rising dictatorship of Vladimir Putin, I knew there would be very strong resistance from the Kremlin. What I did not expect was the apathy, even annoyance, toward our movement from the free world. Nations that had been beacons of hope to all of us behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War now spoke about finding common ground with our KGB dictator. What had happened, we wondered, to the United Kingdom of Margaret Thatcher, to the United States of Ronald Reagan, who boldly condemned our oppressors while making it clear they were on the side of the oppressed?

Even when Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by Russian spies in the heart of London with a nuclear isotope in 2006, the response was to bury the story, to hush the investigation and avoid any confrontation with Putin’s Russia. The result of this complacency, as we now know all too well, was an emboldened Putin who in turn emboldened authoritarians everywhere. The international response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been relatively robust, but it would surely not be necessary at all had the assassinations of Litvinenko and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya a month earlier in Moscow been received with similar outrage.

As has been demonstrated once again, standing up to dictatorships at every step is not only the moral thing, it is also the best thing for national security and the stability of the free world. Putin could have been isolated and condemned at the first sign of his crackdowns on Russian democracy. Instead, he was strengthened immeasurably by economic and political engagement policies that allowed his cash and his corrupt cronies to flood the West. Eventually he felt confident enough to strike in the streets of the UK. Democracies do not make war on one another, therefore there is a vested self-interest of every democracy to promote its spread. Every dictator eventually runs out of domestic scapegoats and turns his attention abroad.

This impressive report by the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission is an important step toward the national security of the United Kingdom and the safety of its people from Putin’s hostile dictatorship as well as reestablishing the free world’s commitment to the rule of law and the value of human life. I very much hope that its irrefutable conclusions are followed by the actions it recommends. Playing defense is a losing game. Cyberattacks, propaganda campaigns and Putin’s other modern tools of aggression and destabilization cannot simply be blocked. Deterrence, the promise of an overwhelming response that will shake Putin’s hold on power in Russia, is the only real defense. The CPHRC report outlines some of the steps to make that possible, especially Magnitsky Act legislation that takes aim at Putin’s Achilles heel: that he and his closest allies keep their looted assets and their families abroad, much of it in the UK.

Complacency and engagement with Putin have failed. There is no middle ground. As Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, “The counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.”

Failure to act decisively today will cost more lives, and they will not be only Russian lives. They never are.

Garry Kasparov
Chairman, The Human Rights Foundation

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